Last Update: August 6, 2001 — Reruns section updated.
Airing: Network: 1:30-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, January 1-December 26; 12:00-12:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, December 29 through the rest of the year, ABC. Syndicated: weekly in first-run syndication throughout the year.
Personnel: Monty Hall, host; Jay Stewart, announcer; Carol Merrill, hostess/model. A Stefan Hatos-Monty Hall Production. Taped in Los Angeles.
Description: What would you rather have: this cash, what’s in this box, or what’s behind the curtain?
Game Play: Hall would enter the trading floor, filled with 33 people in costumes chosen before the program taped. Hall would pick one, two, three, or more people to work with on a particular deal, swapping items for small dollar amounts or prizes and then offering them possible larger prizes, depending on their hunches. Other games involved pricing groceries (similar to The Price is Right’s Grocery Game), or competitions between couples. The danger was always that the contestant(s) would trade their prizes for worthless prizes, called zonks – examples of this include a giant jar of peanut butter, a cow, and so on. There were very few standard mini-games on the show, and much of the show’s strength was Hall’s ability to handle the multitude of options offered contestants.
End Game: With about eight minutes left in the show, Hall would offer two contestants who had won real prizes to trade for a chance at the Big Deal of the Day, which was generally worth several thousand dollars (about $5,000-$10,000 by 1975, more in the syndicated edition). The risk was if they didn’t catch the Big Deal, they might trade for prizes of a lesser value. If one contestant refused, Hall would go on to another winner (sometimes needing to pick four or five contestants before finding two who were willing to go on). The contestants were then offered a choice of three doors, with the first contestant picked for the Big Deal choosing first.
After the End Game: Hall would continue to offer small cash amounts to audience members not chosen during the game with odd items on hand that Hall asked for (“I’ll give you $50 for every clothespin you show me!”). This would continue until time ran out. (And this could backfire: in his book, Monty tells the story of a woman who gave Hall a baby bottle for a small cash prize. Hall took it, and then said, “For $200, show me another nipple!”)
Background: Let’s Make a Deal debuted December 30, 1963 at 2 p.m. on NBC. Hosted by Hall (who had previously run several local New York shows and Heatter-Quigley’s Video Village) and produced by Hall and Stefan Hatos (who had previously worked together on NBC’s Your First Impression), Deal had been extensively tested beforehand. Hall and Hatos had put on homemade versions of the game with charitable organisations, Weight Watchers groups, and so forth – without any prizes, zonks, or costumes. Hatos and Hall discovered the game would work in any case, because people had to know what was under the box or behind the curtain. They knew the show worked, but convincing network executives was something else. ABC turned the show down at first, and so did NBC, despite successful run-throughs. Jerry Chester told Hatos and Hall, “Sure it looks great today, but what do you do tomorrow?” Eventually, however, NBC gave in with the evidence of a successful pilot.
At the beginning of the series, contestants were dressed simply in street clothes. But that would change quickly, according to Hall. “About a month into the show, a woman came to the show and brought a sign that said ‘Roses are red/Violets are blue/I came here/To deal with you,’” Hall told author Jefferson Graham. “And I picked her. Well, for the next couple of weeks we had signs flourishing like crazy [the show was probably live early in the run], and then somebody started wearing a crazy hat to attract my attention. Then it went crazy. They all started wearing all sorts of things.” Has called a meeting and said they had to stop the costumes but had no answer for a writer who asked why they had to do that. The writer said, “Don’t you realise there’s never been a show like this before? People are dressing up, and the medium is called TV, and you put these people on, and it makes the screen come alive.” So the costumes stayed.
Let’s Make a Deal was a very successful show for NBC. In his book, however, Hall noted NBC didn’t seem appreciative of the show’s success, having successfully competed against two very tough shows on CBS, Password and As the World Turns. The show cut deeply into the prime time ratings of The Ed Sullivan Show and The F.B.I. in 1967, but when Hatos and Hall asked for more money when the network requested a second evening run the following year, they went with The Hollywood Squares instead. That set the stage for the negotiations to follow, in which NBC only offered a token increase in payments to Hatos and Hall. After dickering briefly with CBS (which at the time had a top prize on their games of less than $1,000), the show moved to ABC on December 30, 1968, occupying the same 1:30-time slot it had on NBC. This proved to be a huge mistake for the Peacock Network – Deal’s exit resulted in the loss of millions in revenues, and a drop in daytime ratings from neck-and-neck for first (with CBS) to deep second and occasionally third (behind ABC, which had far fewer affiliates). ABC also quickly added a regular evening edition, which ran for over two years, after which the show was seen once a week in first-run syndication, usually at 7:30 at night.
Zonks a Lot: So you’ve traded away your washer/dryer for 25 pounds of cottage cheese. What do you do? Mercifully, you don’t have to buy a much larger refrigerator. Let’s Make a Deal gave away an estimated 10,000 zonks during its first run, but per network rules, those prizes had to be honoured. Most contestants signed a certificate of forfeiture and received another prize in place of the giant lollipop Jay Stewart was sucking on. Depending on the value of the zonk, contestants could even receive a stereo or television. (And who knows, maybe some of the contestants were happy to take home a Holstein cow.)
Let’s Give a Quote: Mark Goodson said in 1969, “I had been one of those who had said that a game of pure luck would not succeed. Monty is brilliant the way he does it… the tension he has built up. He makes those people feel that what they are deciding is decidable on the basis of judgment they have to make when indeed it’s not. I mean the fact is they could probably do just as well by flipping a coin every time. But he creates tension, and there is also that marvellous thing of vicariously sharing the win with someone else.”
Hall in 1973 on the media backlash against the show: “At first we laughed off the needling we got from the press as good free promotion. But now… I just feel lacerated. It really, really hurts. Let’s Make a Deal has nothing to do with greed. The human weakness it plays on is the gambling urge – and let’s face it, we’re a nation of gamblers. It’s not even a game show, really. It’s a happening. People having fun. Under the bizarre costumes is a spectrum of the American public – lawyers, doctors, plumbers, housewives – not a bunch of crazies. The fact that we offer them an unknown, which is gambling, is not bad taste, and the fact that when they lose, they still kiss me… that’s good taste.” (Yes, but do those kisses taste good?) Hall was on the receiving end of an estimated 20,000 kisses during the show’s first run.
Partners in Dealing: Announcer Jay Stewart and model Carol Merrill had important roles on the show, and not just from what their job titles suggested. Stewart often appeared on camera, helping Hall out with his deals (especially grocery pricing games), or appearing as Baby Jay in zonks, often with huge props. Merrill told Jefferson Graham how complicated her job was – remember, unlike TPIR, she was the show’s only model. “It’s characterised as a no-brains job. But I had to think fast and understand what was going on because there were all different ways to play. If a contestant wanted this, I went there, and the backstage crew would get so confused they would just follow me.” Merrill was pregnant in 1967 but hid it by wearing tent dresses. Claudia Brock and Barbara Lyon filled in for her during her maternity leave, which was short; Merrill stuck with the show until her eighth month and was cleared by the producers to stay on the show to her date of delivery. (Good for Stefan and Monty – very few producers would have been this accommodating in that era.)
Hall of Fame: Refer to Monty Hall as a game show host to his face and you’re liable to get a dirty look. Although Hall was proud of Deal, he hated the idea that his name would be synonymous with the show (which, of course, it is anyway), and looked to get Vegas bookings, talk-show engagements, sitcom work, and so on. He hosted the NBC Comedy Playhouse in 1968 (reruns of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater), and appeared on The Love Boat and as a guest voice on Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. But his most famous appearances were as himself on two episodes of The Odd Couple, one of which featured Oscar and Felix on a New York-based episode of LMaD, as the front and rear end of a horse.
Yeah, But What’s the Deal?: Wonder how the show went so seamlessly? It was scripted. Not rigged; the contestants made their decisions, but much of what Monty said was written down (although he was a facile ad-libber), and the script covered all possibilities offered the contestants. Here’s a sample deal, courtesy of TV Game Shows! (written by Maxene Fabe). This aired June 9, 1969, and note Ivan Ditmars’ orchestra was live in the studio.