Jim Lange died this week, and a familiar voice is gone from the ether. He was primarily a radio guy, but my memories of Lange will always be of his most famous on-air presence: hosting the popular network TV show The Dating Game. Although it sounds oxymoronic, for years I was a regular contestant on that program.
The Dating Game aired five days a week from 1965 through the 1970s in its original incarnation. It was dead simple in concept -- a young woman was asked to select one of three bachelors for a date that was arranged and paid for by the show. The date usually consisted of a several-day trip to some exotic destination (frequently Las Vegas, if you consider that exotic) which, at the time, was a big deal for most young people.
Dating Game wasn't social commentary, political analysis, Shakespearean-level drama or even blunt-force comedy. It was just the televised equivalent of meeting someone at a bar. But it appealed to our most basic Darwinian instinct: selecting a good mate. You can't go wrong when a show's premise is hard-wired into human DNA.
As noted, I was one of the many bachelors the program offered up like cuts of meat to the ladies. The women who publicly shopped us were chosen in auditions run by the show's producer, Chuck Barris -- a man who also devised The Newlywed Game. That was another ABC workhorse, and one that also traded on a mildly salacious premise. (In addition to his game show gigs, Barris also claimed to be a hit man for the CIA. However, that doubtful part of his job description was unknown to those of us who were doing verbal soft shoe in front of the Klieg lights.)
From my point of view, it seemed obvious that Barris' selection of Dating Game females was based solely on their appearance or, in some cases, mild notoriety. There wasn't a need for these women to have other talents, since the questions they posed to the bachelors were written for them on three-by-five cards. Jim Lange would prompt, the ladies would read, and the guys would do their thing.
Clearly, the demands on the bachelors were tougher than on the women who were grilling them. Ever since the infamous quiz show scandals of the 1950s, the feds had insisted that TV game shows be honest -- or that at least they didn't cheat. So as a Dating Game bachelor, I didn't know what I was going to be asked. The other bachelors and I were required to concoct our answers in real time.
Many people assume that we shaped our responses to win over the young lady, either by mumbling something vaguely romantic, or by faking a French accent. But in fact our real goal was to impress the producer, because then we might be invited back on the show. That meant being entertaining, which is to say funny, racy or both. It was all about performance, and it was obvious that Barris had a Rolodex of guys he could rely on to titillate his audience. We were dependable recycles.
I suspect that the use of repeat talent wasn't completely obvious to most viewers, although it wasn't a dark secret. The show's modus operandi was manifest when Lange -- wielding his trademark voice-with-a-smile -- would let the grilling begin by announcing "it's time to meet our three, alumni bachelors..." That small bit of Latin -- "alumni" -- dropped quickly into the middle of his sentence, was the fine print that kept the show kosher with the FCC.
From the contestants' point of view, the women actually had a better deal than the guys, simply because they were guaranteed a date, while we would get a trip only roughly one time in three (and in my case, not even that). The expectation that you could somehow improve the odds by offering stunning replies was naïve. To begin with, the competition was fierce -- these guys were good. But more than that, the women couldn't actually see us (we were behind a partition), and they were frequently unable to remember who had said what. They couldn't link answers to faces.
In fact, the one time that I actually won the date, the young lady who picked me told Lange that she made her decision because "she always liked the number two." I was bachelor number two.
Our date was to spend five days in Acapulco, and it was a good time. But in case you wonder just how good a time, let me note an incident that occurred the evening we were checking into the El Presidente Hotel -- my date, the young chaperone, and I. The chaperone, who was really there to pay the bills and handle the logistics, had just assigned our rooms. I jokingly asked if she was planning to spend the night in the hallway to make sure we stayed in our rooms.
She looked at me as if I had just descended from space. She then announced that we were the first Dating Game couple she knew that hadn't begun their trip with a fight. The women all had boyfriends, the men all had girlfriends and there was seldom any romance on the dates.
Somehow, I found that disappointing. Apparently the dating game seldom became a mating game. You'd think that the FCC would insist.