When the television set became readily available to the public, game shows first made their way into the hearts and homes of people everywhere. An enduringly popular format, they provide excitement and entertainment – and they’re sometimes even educational. Game shows differ from the most dominant forms of popular reality entertainment today, as they’ve always been largely and reliably unscripted, allowing for some genuine moments of shock, surprise and novelty.
Game shows reward contestants for their knowledge and skills with cash and prizes. Alex Trebek and “Jeopardy”; Bob Barker and “The Price is Right”; Pat Sajak and “The Wheel of Fortune”. These hosts and their respective shows have provided different generations of people with the best news imaginable: You’ve won the prize!
With such a rich history, there have been some stand-out moments that provided much more excitement and buzz than what game shows typically offer: controversy, hilarious answers and improbable guesses have stuck in viewers’ minds and took their place in memorable television history.
Grab a snack, sit on the couch and turn the volume up: the following is a list of the ten most shocking TV game show moments.
10. 8 Second Millionaire – The Price is Right
On one of the show’s Million Dollar Spectaculars, contestant Cynthia Azevedo came down the aisle on the “Price is Right” and won more money than she could have ever imagined.
In the Clock Game, contestants must guess the exact price of two items in under 30 seconds in order to win $5000 as well as said items. In this special episode, however, the ante was upped: guess both prices in 10 seconds or less to win a whopping 1 million dollars. Azevedo guessed the prices of a sofa and an exercise machine at $899 and $999 respectively.
Her time? 8 seconds. Just like that, Cynthia Azevedo became a millionaire and among the winningest contestants in the game show’s history. Host Drew Carey’s genuine excitement is chill-inducing, adding to the overall shock of the moment.
9. Banana – Merv Griffin’s Crosswords
This game show moment from the lesser known “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords” won’t be featured in the hall of fame of game show moments any time soon, but no one can deny the absolute hilarity of the incredible answer given and the host’s reaction that followed.
With an ambiguous clue and the letter “N” available in the middle of a three-letter word, contestant Carolyn buzzes in and gives her guess of what the word may be.
Her answer? Banana.
Poor Carolyn heavily misinterpreted the situation and provided a hilarious answer. What makes the moment that much funnier and awkward is her realisation and lack of emotion following the guess, as well as host Ty Treadway’s reaction, who’s unable to keep a straight face.
No disrespect is meant towards poor Carolyn – put anyone in a game show spot in front of a live TV crowd and the pressure is bound to make a blunder or two come out – but the absolute ridiculousness of the answer provided and the surrounding circumstances makes this an incredible game show moment.
8. Outsmarted – Press Your Luck
This isn’t a single moment but rather a string of moments that made contestant Michael Larson’s win on “Press Your Luck” all the more remarkable. On a 1984 episode of the show, the former ice cream truck driver earned over $100, 000 in cash prizes.
This was an unprecedented amount for the show, causing CBS producers to believe foul play was at hand. They refused to pay Larson, whose behaviour on the show was a little suspect. Turns out that the unemployed contestant had memorized the five recurring patterns of the show’s Big Board, allowing him to take full advantage of game. Having outwitted the system, Larson hadn’t done anything that broke the rules and therefore couldn’t be disqualified.
His success on the show did not translate to his real life, however. Larson lost a ton of his earnings in a Ponzi scheme, and was even the victim of a house break-in. He eventually passed away from throat cancer in 1999.
7. Locations for Whoopee – The Newlywed Game
In one of the funniest moments in game show history, a newly married woman revealed a little more than anyone expected when talking about her and her husband’s sexual activities.
“The Newlywed Game” was all about revealing embarrassing secrets, asking naïve, newlywed couples hilarious yet personal questions in order to see just how well husband and wife knew each other.
On an episode in 1976, host Bob Eubanks asked the wives “where, specifically, is the weirdest place that you personally, girls, have ever gotten the urge to make whoopee?” The first answer shocked everybody, as the poor contestant didn’t give an actual location. Instead, she mentioned a part of her anatomy.
Highly taboo, especially in the ‘70s, the audience roared with laughter as the contestant’s husband held up his answer: “In the car.”
6. To Date a Serial Killer – The Dating Game
“The Dating Game” typically featured a bachelorette who would question three bachelors hidden from her view, with the goal of choosing one of the three to go on a date paid for by the show. There were numerous appearances by celebrities before they were famous, such as Farah Fawcett, Steve Martin and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In September 1978, a bachelor by the name of Rodney Alcala charmed his way to a date with Cheryl Bradshaw. The date never transpired, however, because Cheryl found Rodney creepy. Good thing she didn’t, because she may have found herself dead: Rodney Alcala was a serial killer and rapist.
Labeled as the “Dating Game Killer”, Alcala appeared on the show in the midst of his killing spree in the ‘70s. With an estimated 50 women murdered, Alcala is one of the most notorious serial killers is US history. It’s terribly unsettling and shocking to see a convicted murderer on something as innocent as a game show.
5. Violent Contestant – Russian Game Show
Game shows aren’t all fun and games, apparently. On a Russian game show that aired in late 2014, one male contestant threw down a female contestant and punched her in the face after she supposedly chastised and provoked him as well as the other contestants.
The scantily dressed victim and her attacker were among eight contestants trying to win a car by holding on to it: the victor would be the last person touching the prize. Trying to provoke a response from the other contestants, the woman waved her heels around, cussing and insulting.
After the female contestant grazed the head of her would-be attacker with her heel, the man turned to aggression by violently attacking her. It was a shocking and surreal moment that aired on a harmless game show. There is no place for such a violent act in today’s society, let alone on national television.
4. Ken Jennings Dethroned – Jeopardy
“Jeopardy” is by no means an easy game show to win. The queries being asked are supposed to be “general knowledge” questions, but the quiz could definitely prove to be a lot harder than expected. Winning once is a difficult task; doing it 74 times? Unfathomable.
Ken Jennings, a computer programmer, did just that. An unstoppable force to be reckoned with, his 74 wins are a Jeopardy record – second is Dave Madden with “only” 19 wins. Viewers wondered if anyone would ever dethrone him.
Enter mild-mannered Nancy Zerg. On a “Final Jeopardy” question that, quite frankly, Ken should’ve gotten right given his track record, Nancy bested the trivia master. Interestingly enough, Nancy would place last on the next episode, making Jennings’ loss all the more memorable.
Regardless of his loss, Jennings is still one of the highest-winning contestants in game show history. It’s safe to assume he’ll always remember that H&R Block employees work 4 months a year.
3. John Carpenter Phones a Friend – Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” took the game show world by storm in the late ‘90s. With three lifelines to help contestants answer multiple-choice questions, few have actually won the million dollar prize.
On November 19, 1999, IRS agent John Carpenter made it all the way to the final question without the use of any lifelines. When host Regis Philbin read out the final question, John asked to use his “Phone-A-Friend” lifeline, which allows the contestant to ask for help from a friend or family member on the phone. He called his dad, and instead of asking for help on a question, John proudly proclaimed: “Hi dad, I don’t really need your help, I just wanted to let you know that I’m gonna win the million dollars.”
John through a curveball to the audience, who roared with excitement as they witnessed game show history.
2. I’ve Got A Good Feeling About This New Baby Buggy– Wheel of Fortune
This might be considered cheating as two moments were included here, but they’re so similar in nature it was difficult to choose one over the other. In “Wheel of Fortune”, contestants spin a giant carnival-like wheel in order to solve word puzzles.
In 2010, Caitlin Burke did the unthinkable and solved a 7-word phrase with only a single “L” showing on the board. The “Wheel of Fortune” fanatic got the one letter to show, then, to everyone’s surprise, asked to solve the puzzle. She correctly guessed “I’VE GOT A GOOD FEELING ABOUT THIS”, leaving the audience in shock.
Not to be outdone, Emil De Leon rocked the game show world in 2014 when he correctly guessed the Bonus Round puzzle. Why was it so incredible and shocking? With only the letters “N” and “E” at his disposal as clues, De Leon correctly guessed “NEW BABY BUGGY”, a guess that’s been heralded as one of the best of all time.
Even host Pat Sajak commented about De Leon’s win on Twitter, stating that his improbable win was “the most amazing solve in his 30+ years on the show.”
1. The Perfect Bid – The Price is Right
Controversy, big money prize, improbable guess: all these are ingredients necessary to make it to the number one spot on a list of shocking game show moments, and this one easily takes the cake.
“The Price is Right” is all about guessing the price of prizes to win in various games. In 2008, Terry Kniess did the near-impossible and guessed the exact price of the Showcase showdown at $23,743. With a perfect bid, the winner received both showcases, valued at $56,437.
Such a historic moment would surely send host Drew Carey into an excitement-filled frenzy. Instead, he was quiet and monotone, lacking any sort of emotion and simply mailing in his lines. What was happening?
What wasn’t shown on TV was the 45-minute argument between the producers that was caused by this unforeseeable event. Terry Kniess didn’t only guess the Showcase correctly; he netted all his prizes on exact guesses. The producers rightfully assumed foul play was at hand.
But there wasn’t any.
No, this was another case of a mega fan watching way too many episodes and memorizing the prices of the items. Drew Carey’s behaviour reflected the producers’ suspicions. In a later interview he admitted thinking there was some sort of fraud happening and that he would be going to jail.
No one spent time in the slammer because there was no cheating involved, only memorization. This was one of the more surreal and incredible moments viewers had ever witnessed on any game show. At the end of the day, the price was exactly right.