What's My Line?

From Academic Kids

What's My Line? was a weekly panel game show produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman for CBS television. The premiere episode debuted on Thursday February 2, 1950 at 8:00 PM EST and aired on alternating weeks. On Wednesday April 12, 1950, the broadcasting was changed to alternate Wednesday evenings at 9:00 PM EST. On Sunday October 1, 1950, CBS permanently moved the quiz show to Sunday at 10:30 PM EST, finally airing weekly. The series ran for eighteen seasons, ending on September 3, 1967. It is the longest-running game show in the history of prime time network television.


Hosts and panelists

The show was hosted by veteran radio and television newsman John Daly, whose full birth name was John Charles Patrick Croghan Daly. Panelist Bennett Cerf referred to him as John Charles Daly, his professional name at the start of his CBS News career in Washington. (As writer Joe Persico noted in his 1988 biography of Edward R. Murrow, Daly shortened it at the request of CBS Vice President Ed Klauber, but the JCD name has lingered among some listeners and viewers.)

Four panelists appeared on each program. The panelists on the initial episode were former New Jersey governor Harold G. Hoffman, psychiatrist Dr. Richard Hoffmann, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and poet Louis Untermeyer. In later weeks, actress Arlene Francis replaced Governor Hoffman, comedy writer Hal Block replaced Dr. Hoffmann and Random House publisher Bennett Cerf replaced Untermeyer. Cerf, Kilgallen and Francis would remain regular panelists through most of the show's run. Humorist Steve Allen joined the panel when Block left the show in 1953.

In 1954 Steve Allen left and Fred Allen filled the fourth seat on the panel, until his 1956 death. The series lost another panelist when Dorothy Kilgallen died in 1965. After both Fred Allen's and Dorothy Kilgallen's deaths, their spots were not permanently filled. The chairs were left open for rotating guest panelists until the end of the show's run.

Eamonn Andrews, host of the British version of What's My Line? , Clifton Fadiman and Bennett Cerf all filled in as host on the four occasions when Daly could not appear during the show's seventeen and one-half years on the air. Several celebrities were rotated in as guest panelists on nights when regulars were absent, and after the aforementioned deaths of Fred Allen in 1956 and Dorothy Kilgallen in 1965. Notable guest panelists include Woody Allen, Johnny Carson, Ernie Kovacs, Robert Q. Lewis, Groucho Marx, Joey Bishop and Tony Randall. The single most-frequent guest panelist was the husband of Arlene Francis, Martin Gabel, who appeared 112 times.

Game play

Standard rounds

Each episode of What's My Line? featured two standard contestant rounds, sometimes more if time permitted, and one mystery guest round. A round was essentially a guessing game in which the panel tried to identify the occupation of a contestant. The contestant would enter and his/her occupation flashed on monitors for the studio audience and television viewers to see. One panelist would begin by asking the contestant a yes-or-no question about his/her occupation. If the panelist received a "yes" answer, s/he could pose another question. If the panelist received a "no," the privilege of questioning passed to the next panelist. Questioning continued in rotation until the occupation was deduced or until the panel received its tenth "no" answer. At the end of the game the contestant won $5 for every "no" answer, thus $50 for stumping the panel.

Panelists had the option of passing instead of asking a question. The panel could also request a group conference in which the four members had from ten to thirty seconds to openly discuss ideas about the occupation or possible lines of questioning. John Daly set the conference time limit each time one was requested. Panels quickly adopted some basic binary search strategies and used initial questions to determine whether the contestant was salaried or self-employed, whether s/he dealt in a product or service, and whether the contestant's organization was profit-making or non-profit. In later seasons, the answers to one or more of these points of inquiry were provided before questioning began. Because only "no" answers were counted, panelists would often phrase their questions so that a "yes" answer would be more probable: "Is it something other than hair?"

The host acted as a moderator, cueing the panelists on their turns and flipping over cards that represented the contestant's score. The host also assisted contestants with questions and prevented them from giving misleading answers.

Mystery guest rounds

Celebrity "mystery guests" appeared as challengers on What's My Line? in addition to the standard contestants. In a mystery guest round the panelists were blindfolded and asked questions in order to identify the famous person. Questioning was conducted in the same way as standard rounds except that panelists could only ask one question at a time before passing control to the next panelist. Mystery guests would try to conceal their identities by disguising their voices, much to the amusement of the studio audience.

Style of the show

What's My Line? is remembered as a celebration of urbanity and good manners in television. The host and male panelists always wore black tie while female panelists donned formal gowns and gloves. At the beginning of a round, John Daly would invite the next contestant to "enter and sign in, please." The contestant would write his/her name on a small slate attached to the wall, and Daly would introduce the contestant to the panel the male panelists standing to shake hands and the female panelists remaining seated, naturally. If the contestant was female, Daly asked if she should be addressed as "Miss" or "Mrs." Young, attractive female contestants usually elicited whistles from the studio audience.

During the game the polite, well-spoken Daly would generally address the panelists as "Mr. Cerf" or "Miss Francis." Despite his responsibility to keep things moving, Daly was not above trading bon mots with the panelists during the game. Occasionally a panelist would pose a problematic question leading to an equivocal answer. Daly would step in to clarify matters, but his delightful penchant for long-winded overanalysis tended to leave the panelist more confused than before.

While ostensibly a game show, What's My Line? was really more an opportunity to interview celebrities and people with interesting occupations. The guessing game had an air of formality and adherence to rules, but Daly was clearly on the contestants' side and wanted them to win as much money as possible. If the occupation was guessed early, Daly would often "flip the cards" and give the contestant the full $50 anyway. Mystery guests were paid $500 as an appearance fee, whether they won or lost the game. This was in addition to the maximum $50 game winnings, which they sometimes donated to charity. Guest panelists were paid $750 as an appearance fee. The regular panelists were under contract and were paid "much more" stated executive producer Gil Fates in his 1978 What's My Line? book.

Alternate versions

A weekly American CBS radio version of What's My Line? was produced from May 1952 until July 1953. The regular panelists Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis and Hal Block, along with host John Daly, premiered the radio version of their show on Tuesday May 20, 1952, while still performing the Sunday telecast. The debut mystery guest, in her only What's My Line? appearance, was Marlene Dietrich. Marlon Brando made his only What's My Line? appearance on the radio program that aired on December 3, 1952. The radio show continued through the "Hal Block era" into the "Steve Allen era" while once moving its broadcast to Wednesday. The finale was broadcast on July 1, 1953.

A British version of What's My Line? ran from 1951 to 1962 on BBC and was briefly revived in 1973. It was revived again by ITV during the 1980s. Eamonn Andrews was the host for the original British series. In the U.K., his position was called the "chairman." Panelists included Elizabeth Allan, Lady Isobel Barnett, Jerry Desmonde, Gilbert Harding, Barbara Kelly, Marghanita Laski and David Nixon. Hosts of the revived series included Penelope Keith and Angela Rippon.

An American syndicated five-day-a-week version of What's My Line? ran from 1968 to 1975, with gameplay largely identical to the classic CBS version. Wally Bruner was the original host, and was succeeded by Larry Blyden in 1972. Arlene Francis and comedian Soupy Sales were the regular panelists; Bennett Cerf continued to make frequent appearances until his death in 1971. Other panelists included Alan Alda, Bert Convy, Elaine Joyce, Ruta Lee, Meredith MacRae, Gene Rayburn, Gene Shalit and Dana Valery. Contestants now frequently demonstrated their skill or product during their segment (often with the help of the panelists, often with hilarious results). Also, a new "Who's Who" feature was played on occassion; four audience members stood on stage, and it was the panelists' job to match their careers with the contestants. The audience member team split $25 for each celebrity that failed to correctly match their careers, with $100 possible.

Beginning in November 2004 and continuing into 2005, Jim Newman & J. Keith van Straaten have produced one-hour live stage versions of the show at the Acme Theater in Los Angeles, California, titled "What's My Line? - Live On Stage." Their website shows previous and upcoming panelists and guests. (

"Live on Stage" panelists have included Wil Wheaton, Ann Magnuson, Troy McClain, Danny Goldman, Andy Zax, Alison Arngrim, Annabelle Gurwitch, Barry Saltzman, Gary Anthony Williams, Marcia Wallace, Patt Morrison, Jimmy Pardo, Paul Goebel, Greg Proops, Kate Linder, Lee Meriwether, Carlos Alazraqui, Rick Overton, Nancy Pimental, Charles Phoenix, David L. Lander, April Winchell, Cathy Ladman, Marty Ingels, Debra Wilson, EG Daily, Lisa Jane Persky, Elaine Hendrix, Nicole Sullivan and Matt Walsh.

"Live on Stage" mystery guests have included Rose Marie, Jose Canseco, Stephen Bishop, Nanette Fabray, Mr. Blackwell, Ed Begley, Jr., Lindsay Wagner, Kathy Kinney, Rip Taylor, Drew Carey, Bruno Kirby, Lisa Loeb, Alan Thicke and Jill Kollmar, daughter of Dorothy Kilgallen and Dick Kollmar.

Show trivia

  • The show popularized the phrase "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" A slight variation of this question was first posed by Steve Allen on January 18, 1953, during his 1953 to 1954 tenure as a regular panelist. Over several subsequent episodes, he refined his famous breadbox question. Soon, other panelists were asking this question as well, and continued to do so until the end of the series. It became such a running gag that over the years, the producers booked contestants who made breadboxes and designed breadboxes. One humorous moment came in 1963 when a contestant from England was asked the famous question. He seriously replied, "Oh, I'm English. What's a breadbox?"
  • The final mystery guest in the original version was John Daly himself. Daly alternated between a falsetto "guest" voice and his standard moderator voice, fooling the panel for a significant number of questions. The gimmick had been devised years earlier as a backup plan in case the scheduled mystery guest didn't show up. That event never occurred, despite a few close calls, so Daly decided to use the trick for the final episode.
  • Over the years, What's My Line? sponsors included: Jules Montenier, Inc. products (Stopette Deodorant, Poof!, Finesse Flowing Creme Shampoo), Helene Curtis, Remington Rand, Florida Citrus, Kellogg's Cereals, Allstate Insurance, Mutual of Omaha Insurance, Sunbeam, Contac, Dentu-Creme, Py-Co-Pay, Polaroid Land Cameras, Aprege Perfume, Standard Brands, Geritol, Universal Electrical Appliances, Crest Toothpaste, Bayer Aspirin, Glade by Johnson Wax, Cue Toothpaste with Fluoraction, Supp-hose Stockings, Bufferin by Bristol-Myers, Rose Lotion Vel Liquid Dish Soap, Norelco Speedshaver, Ford Motor Vehicles (Falcon, Mustang, Thunderbird), Champion Spark Plugs, Fleischmann's Margarine, Corning - maker of Centura and Pyrex, Ben-Gay Penetrating Heat Lotion, Phillips Milk of Magnesia Tablets, Diet Delight Low Calorie Canned Fruit, Texaco Gasoline, Bravo Floor Wax by Johnson Wax, Kem-Glo Enamel by Sherwin Williams Paint, Westinghouse, Kleenex Designer Paper Towels by Kimberly-Clark, Polident Denture Tablets, Pet'm daily liquid vitamin food supplement for pets, Nytol Sleep Aid Tablets, Pledge Furniture Polish by Johnson Wax, Prell Shampoo Concentrate, Tegrin skin cream for psoriasis, Cope pain reliever for women's headaches, Institute of Life Insurance, Crisco Oil, The (Telephone Book) Yellow Pages, Jif Peanut Butter, Maxwell House Coffee, Pronto Push-Button Foam Floor Cleaner from Johnson Wax, Shell No-Pest Strips, Coca-Cola, An electric knife from the Hamilton Beach division of Scovill, Duncan Hines Cake Mix and Post Honeycomb Cereal.
  • The name of the closing theme song used on the show from 1950 to 1967 is called "Rollercoaster" and was composed by Louis F. Busch & Milton DeLugg in 1949.
  • In Dodie Smith's 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the dognappers' favorite television program is called "What's My Crime?", a parody version of "What's My Line?" in which the guests are convicted criminals and the panelists are supposed to guess the crime they committed (they correctly deduce, for instance, that one guest had stolen twenty bathplugs from hotel rooms). In the 1961 Disney movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was based on Smith's novel, the puppies can be seen watching "What's My Crime?" on television when Pongo and Perdita arrive to rescue them.

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