About two and a half years ago, my lovely wife Christine and I were having dinner with our dear friends, Andy Zax (the Music Geek from the Comedy Central game show, Beat the Geeks, and one of the finest music producers in town) and his stunning fiance, the multi-talented artist/actress Lisa Jane Persky (check out her nifty blog by clicking on the link to your right) when Andy offhandedly mentioned that he would be busy the following Wednesday because he'd be appearing on the panel of the game show, What's My Line? No animated cartoon character ever gave a bigger or better double-take than the one I gave in response. As I may have mentioned here a time or two in the past, second only to my obsession with Musical Theater is my obsession with TV game shows.
"How can this be?" I stammered. "What's My Line? has been off the air for decades."
Andy proceeded to explain to me that former Beat the Geeks host J. Keith Van Straaten and his friend Jim Newman had revived the show and it was being performed live every Wednesday night at the Acme Comedy Theater at the corners of La Brea and Beverly Boulevards.
"Oh. So it's a parody of the original show," I say, sadly. "No," replies Andy, "They're treating it just as if the original program had never gone off the air. The panelists dress in appropriate evening wear. The contestants are completely legitimate. Heck, they even have a celebrity Mystery Guest every week, just like the original show." "How could I possibly have missed this?" I wondered aloud, sadly shaking my head, and at that moment determined I'd be in the audience of that Wednesday's show, not just to cheer on my friend Andy, but to see what the heck was going on.
Well, dear readers, that evening was right at the top of the most fun I've ever had. The panel that night included, as well as my buddy Andy, Marcia Wallace (Carol of the classic Bob Newhart Show and many of the voices these days on The Simpsons), Star Trek: TNG's own Wil Wheaton, and award-winning journalist and novelist Patt Morrison. The Mystery Guest was music legend Stephen Bishop, who sang several of his classic songs after his true identity was guessed by the panel. J. Keith stepped more than ably into the shoes of the show's original host, the late, lamented John Charles Daly. The show's regular music was performed by the absurdly talented keyboardist/songwriter (and now my buddy) Adam Chester, and our hostess was the lovely and talented Claudia Dolph. At the end of the show, J. Keith invited anyone with an odd or interesting line of work to leave a note with Claudia, and I happily obliged.
A few days later, Jim Newman called to ask if I'd be interested in appearing on the show as a contestant to try to stump the panel. I agreed before he could finish asking the question.
Thus, a few Wednesdays later, I found myself being asked to enter and sign in, please. Before I went out on stage, I had one of those self-conscious moments and asked the show's director Jim Newman if perhaps I should sign in as Mister X, since I am, in some circles, more well-known than I ever imagined I'd be. Jim said it was okay, that any member of the panel who recognized me was obligated to recuse themselves from the game. So I signed in, sat next to J. Keith and faced the panel, which that night consisted of longtime The Young and the Restless actress, Kate Linder; Whose Line Is It Anyway?'s own Greg Proops; former Win Ben Stein's Money co-host and screenwriter of the comedy feature The Sweetest Thing, Nancy Pimental, and retro-kitsch video historian Charles Phoenix. While no one on the panel recused themselves, a murmur ran through the audience, I was later told, when I signed in.
After the panel was told that I was self-employed and dealt in a service, Charles Phoenix immediately sent the panel down the wrong path by asking if there was an object involved in the service I provided and, when I answered yes, he then asked if said product could be folded in half and stuck in one's back pocket. I thought about it for a moment, then admitted that it could. After all, I'd done it myself many times as a kid. Phoenix thought the object was a wallet, and the other members of the panel never got anywhere near back to the truth of my occupation. After my line was revealed to the panel, I went down the line, shaking each panelist's hand as I exited. Greg Proops took my hand, and apologized to me, saying he read my stuff, but the name hadn't registered. I thanked him, took my leave, and joined my wife in the audience to watch the rest of the show. The Mystery Guest that evening was Kathy Kinney, who played Mimi Bobeck on The Drew Carey Show. The panel failed to guess her true identity, which made poor Greg Proops doubly embarrassed, since he'd just finished touring with Kathy the week before.
After the show, several members of the audience came up to me, asking for autographs, including one young man who said he was a professional photographer, and who raised his pants leg to show me his large tattoo of the cover of Batman: The Killing Joke, a book I had edited, which was a shot of the Joker taking a photo of the reader. I thanked him, and silently added that image to the many Wolverine tattoos people have shown me over the years that, I'm certain, will assure my place in Hell one warm day. After the others had left, a stocky fella in his mid-30s, wearing glasses and shortish blond hair came up to me and said, "Hi. Just wanted to tell you I'm a big fan of your work. Some of my friends and I are going next door for drinks after the show and we'd love to have you and your wife join us. Oh, sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Drew Carey." I told him I knew who he was, having watched every episode of all of his shows, and we happily joined his group for drinks. As I've said before, living in Hollywood can be a surreal experience.
Anyway, a few days later, I get another phone call from Jim Newman. He said the audience had loved me, and he and J. Keith were both amazed at how knowledgeable I was about the show (I've watched every available episode of the original and syndicated series for years now on the Game Show Network) and would I be interested in becoming one of their recurring panelists? My answer was short and sweet. "Sure. Who do I have to kill?" I mean, seriously, how often does one get to become a member of the cast of one of one's all-time favorite TV shows, especially one that had been off the air for two decades. It would be like the late Rod Serling calling me up and asking me to write an episode of the original Twilight Zone, the show that is one of the single biggest influences on my becoming a writer.
Over the next year-and-a-half, I appeared on the panel nine times, alongside such stalwarts as game show hosts Graham Elwood and Frank Nicotero, comedians like Cathy Ladman, Debra Wilson, and Mo Collins, actors like John Waters' own Mink Stole, Ann Magnuson, Jane Brucker, ER's J.P. Manoux, Notes From the Underbelly's Rachel Harris, radio personalities April Winchell (Paul's daughter) and Kitty Felde, and actress and former Playmate Julie McCullough. I also shared the panel at various times with the aforementioned Greg Proops, Nancy Pimental, and Kate Linder. Our Mystery Guests included legendary game host host Wink Martindale (in the coolest white suit I've ever seen), Married...With Children's David Faustino, Hawaii 50's James MacArthur, the Love Boat's Ted Lange (who asked me for my autograph for his kids), LA Law and Dharma and Greg's Alan Rachins, Cheers' Shelly Long, The Hollywood Squares and the Academy Awards own Bruce Vilanch, soap star Lorenzo Lamas, and Laugh-In's own Gary Owens (with whom I'd had dinner just a few weeks before and who is so damn good at manipulating that incredible voice of his that I failed to guess him, thus forever forcing me to wear a paper bag over my head whenever I see him from now on). A sampling of other Mystery Guests on nights when I wasn't on the panel included Larry King, Ed Asner, Elliot Gould, former California Governor Grey Davis, Monty Hall, singer Lisa Loeb, Rose Marie, Nanette Fabray, and former Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his wife Kitty.
We wrapped our season early last July, intending to take the summer off, then resume with new shows from September through November. But life got in the way. For various reasons, J. Keith moved to New York for most of the year and, without our host, I assumed What's My Line? was finally dead.
Well, the reason I'm going on like this is that I'm thrilled to tell you we've risen from the grave. On Sunday June 10th and for the next four Sundays thereafter, What's My Line? - Live On Stage is back, once again darkening the halls of the Acme Comedy Theater. At the moment, I'm scheduled to be the panel on Sunday July 1st, and possibly one other Sunday, but things are still flexible and those dates may change. If you live in the Southern California area, I suggest you run, jump, hop or fly to get tickets while they're still available. You can click on the link on the Theater's name above for more details. But I'd do it and do it soon.
Trust me, people. This is one show you do not want to miss.