Watching The 1950s ‘What’s My Line?’ Will Challenge Your Assumptions About Humanity

Watching The 1950s ‘What’s My Line?’ Will Challenge Your Assumptions About Humanity

Just by watching an old game show, we meet a way of thinking about the world that is noticeably different from our own.
David Breitenbeck
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The popular guessing game “What’s My Line?” ran from 1950 to 1967, and most episodes are now available for free on YouTube. The format is simple: four show-business panelists meet three or four guests and are challenged to guess what each does for a living (their “line,” you see).

They can only ask yes-no questions, and the guest earns $5 for every “no” answer. If he gives ten “no” answers, or if enough time goes by without the panel guessing it, he wins. Each episode also has a special mystery guest, where the panel dons blindfolds and tries to guess the identity of a celebrity contestant, who often disguise their voices in humorous ways (have you ever wanted to see Ronald Reagan talking in a goofy “doofus” voice? You do now).

The game part of the show was very loosely enforced: half the time moderator John Daly would give the contestant the whole $50 on some pretext just for coming onto the program. The panelists often engaged in humorous debates with Daly, or disputations about how their questions ought to be taken. It was less about winning or losing than entertaining the audience.

It’s All in Good Fun

The whole thing was a lot of fun. Since the audience is told upfront what the contestant’s line is, the panelist’s searching questions often create unintentionally hilarious images. For instance, when a woman who repairs zippers was a contestant, the panel asked such unfortunate questions such as “Would one or more of this product be found in a well-equipped office?” and “Would an efficient secretary know how to operate one?”

This shows just how misleading their questions can be, since, of course, the answer to both those questions would be “yes.” This prompted the follow-up, “When you reach the end, does a bell ring?” which nearly brought down the house.

The show opens with the panel introducing each other, usually ornamented with numerous compliments about their accomplishments, talents, and (in the case of the women) beauty. They frequently banter amid the segments, playfully teasing one another and cracking jokes while they try to figure out their guest’s line, all with the air of genuine affection and mutual respect. The effect is more like watching a group of friends playing games at a party than a real serious competition.

Adding to the charm is that the whole point of the show is looking at different types of people doing different types of jobs, many of which you would never guess from simply looking at them. An ordinary-looking little man turns out to be the voice of Donald Duck. A beautiful blonde young woman turns out to be a rocket scientist. A handsome, well-dressed man cleans sewers. Many of the jobs are things you would never even think of, such as a man who fits men’s corsets, or a girl who does stunts on the wing of a plane.

All different occupations are represented, and each is treated with a level of respect. It’s assumed that every line of work is interesting in its own way, if you only take the time to learn about it. Although a completely different format, it reminds me of Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs,” with a similar sense of celebrating the unusual, unappreciated work of ordinary men and women.

A Time of a Surprising Kind of Openness

The instance of the gorgeous rocket scientist indicates another point of interest to those of us in the future looking back at the show: it displays how simplistic and inaccurate our image of the time period really is. Yes, there were women scientists working at Cape Canaveral. Not many, but they were there. There are also women doctors, ferryboat pilots, bouncers, bookies, dynamiters, and all the rest. The show also featured blacks, Asians, American Indians, and various Europeans, all of whom are treated with the same basic respect.

Of course, this isn’t to claim that there was no racism or so on at the time. Obviously there was, and it was a terrible thing. But it does point to something I’ve noticed a lot in watching and reading material from this time period: these things weren’t as prominent in people’s minds in those days.

That is, from what I can gather, people as a rule didn’t think about these things as much. If an American Indian appeared on the show, the panelists thought nothing of asking him about what his name meant, what tribe he was from, and whether his race had anything to do with his job, and the man didn’t seem to take any offense. Likewise, if a beautiful woman appeared, the panel would frankly compliment her on being beautiful: maybe make a few jokes about it.

This surprises us, but only, I think, because we’ve been trained to think it should. We like to think of ourselves as being more frank and open than they were back then (the fifties are derided as a time of “repression” and conformity), but again that’s not the impression I get when watching shows from that time period. Rather, it seems the subjects that were permissible then and now are simply different.

No one on the “What’s My Line” panel would have dreamt of asking a guest about his sex life, nor would the guests have dreamt of talking about it. But if they can see for themselves that a young lady is beautiful or a man is black, they didn’t think anything about acknowledging the fact. Noting physical appearance is considered perfectly normal, even polite, because it isn’t as if it were a private matter.

We, on the other hand, are so terrified of “judging” someone by physical appearance that it’s become considered rude to even acknowledge it, even though we find we can hardly think or talk about anything else.

A Window into the Possibility of Another Perspective

I have my own ideas of which approach is preferable, and I’m sure you do too, but that’s not really my point. The point is that, just by watching an old game show, we meet a way of thinking about the world that is noticeably different from our own: different in a way that we probably wouldn’t even have considered. Whatever we think of that difference, the mere fact that it exists shows that another perspective is possible. Our point of view is not the only way that these things can be considered.

This is one of the advantages of reading or viewing works from other time periods: it shows us how people thought or lived at different times, giving us a perspective to question and critique the basic assumptions and manners of our own time. As C.S. Lewis explained, every age has its own characteristic errors, but different ages rarely have the same errors. Thus, the best way to avoid the errors of the present is to spend time in the past, such as by watching a 60-year-old game show.

Watching the antics of the articulate, well-dressed panel of “What’s My Line” allows us to see not only how people acted, dressed, and thought half-a-century ago, but how entertaining this sort of thing could be. The panelists and guests are all polite, but not the least bit stiff. On the contrary, they all seem like they’re having a great time, and we the viewers have a great time along with them. In a word, it lets us see the fun there was to be had in that lost way of life. It shows the oft-forgotten truth that the men and women of the past were, when all is said and done, just people.

Ironically enough, of course, the whole point of “What’s My Line” is how interesting different types of people can be. Looking back, it does exactly that for the whole age in which it was made.

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer living and working in southeast Michigan. He’s the author of "The Wisdom of Walt Disney," and "The Ten Commandments of Murder," both available on Amazon. His blog may be found at Serpent’s Den (serpentsden.wordpress.com).

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