Twenty One (partially found Barry-Enright game show; 1956-1958)

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Twenty One (June 3, 1957) 0-33 screenshot.png

The show's logo.

Status: Partially Found

Twenty-One was an American game show created by Jack Barry & Dan Enright that aired on American network NBC from 1956-1958 and was hosted by Barry. The show is best known for having been at the centre of the 'quiz show scandals' of the period, in which several popular such shows were discovered to have been rigged by producers providing answers to selected contestants. Because Twenty-One was and still is mired deep in controversy, it never re-aired again and most of its episodes have become lost to time.

Format[edit | edit source]

Two contestants are sent off to isolation booths and wear headphones to prevent them from hearing each other's answers. They also cannot see the other contestant or the audience due to special lighting in the booths. One of the contestants must score 21 points or the closest to it by giving correct answers to questions given to them by the host.

Five rounds are played with a broad category with questions assigned points values from 1-11 based on difficulty. The contestant can choose the category and the value of the question. A correct answer awards the contestant the number of points assigned, while a wrong answer removes that number from the player's score. The contestants are not told their current totals.

After two rounds, the players are given the option of continuing or ending the game if they believe they are leading. If the game stops, the contestant with the most points wins. If no one stops voluntarily, the first player to reach twenty-one points wins the game. Should the new contestant reach twenty-one first once the current champion has reached a score of ten points or more, the champion is given one last chance to answer a question to tie. The challenger's booth remains connected during this time to make sure they can hear everything going on, the better to heighten the drama.[1]

Scandal & Cancellation[edit | edit source]

The show was created in response to the success of other Barry/Enright productions that were airing on the network at the time, The $64,000 Question and Tic Tac Dough. However, Enright would call the initial broadcast of Twenty-One "a dismal failure" as neither contestant could answer the questions given. Sponsor Geritol is said to have told the producers "in no uncertain terms that [they] never wanted to see a repeat of what happened the previous night," demanding improvements to the show to make it more exciting.[2]. With no other option seemingly available, Barry & Enright decided to rig the game by not only choosing contestants they considered suitably appealing, but giving them the answers ahead of time.

By the fall of 1956 post office clerk Herb Stempel was the show's reigning champion, having scored $69,500, but was disliked by the audience and Geritol. As a result the more conventionally handsome and likeable Columbia University graduate Charles Van Doren was brought in as a contestant on November 28th, 1956; he had previously wanted to be a contestant on Tic Tac Dough (despite not even owning a television set at the time) [3] but was talked into appearing on Twenty-One by Enright and associate producer Al Freedman.

The results more than lived up to everyone's expectations. Stempel and Van Doren tied four times before Van Doren went on to have a spectacular winning streak, scoring $129,000 by his final game in March 1957. Ratings soared, and Van Doren became a national celebrity. Stempel was aware of the rigging against him and attempted to blow the whistle, but very little came of it since without evidence his accusations were easily dismissed as jealousy.

The door was finally blown wide open when competing game show Dotto was cancelled in August 1958, after a notebook was discovered backstage containing answers to every question to be put to champion Marie Winn. This supported and revived Stempel's earlier accusations, and the scandal rapidly grew to the point where a grand jury was convened in the fall of that year to investigate the entire matter of rigged game shows (by now also including The $64,000 Question & Tic Tac Dough). This quickly elicited a confession by another former Twenty-One contestant, Richard Jackman.

Van Doren, meanwhile, had gone into hiding to avoid being subpoenaed. Barry & Enright continued to deny that Twenty-One had been rigged, until yet another contestant, James Snodgrass, came forward with registered letters that he had mailed to himself with every answer given to him before taping[4]. At this point, Van Doren emerged to confirm everything. He claimed that he had been told by Freeman that Stempel would be unbeatable otherwise, "that the show was merely entertainment and that giving help to quiz contests was a common practice and merely a part of show business", and that Van Doren would "be doing a great service to the intellectual life, to teachers and to education in general, by increasing public respect for the work of the mind through my performances." Van Doren went on to express great contrition at having actually achieved, as he felt, the exact opposite of this.[5]

Despite receiving a suspended sentence for initially lying to the grand jury, Van Doren emerged as a sympathetic figure and in later years would go on to fully reclaim his reputation as an intellectual, writing numerous history books and serving as the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica for two decades. Meanwhile, thanks to these findings and the subsequent precipitate dip in ratings, Twenty-One and the other Barry/Enright co-productions were abruptly cancelled in October 1958. Many other shows would follow, and the entire genre would remain under a cloud for some time. The need to regain that trust is why modern game shows incorporate some element of chance rather than straight Q&A.

Barry and Enright would not work together again until collaborating on a new version of Break The Bank in 1976, and a revival of The Joker's Wild in 1977. Barry died in 1984 of a heart attack[6] and Enright died in 1992 after a battle with cancer[7]. The scandal would later become the basis for the 1994 film Quiz Show. A new, non-rigged version of Twenty-One briefly aired in Spring 2000, hosted by talk show host Maury Povich, but the straight Q&A format is generally considered to be irrevocably tainted.

Availability[edit | edit source]

Thanks to the controversy - and since wiping tapes for reuse was common practice at the time - a large majority of the show is lost. The exact number of episodes of Twenty-One that were made is unknown. Only four episodes (including the Van Doren and Stempel matches from December 5th and 12th) can be found online. Six other episodes exist on audiotapes that haven't been uploaded online yet[8]. Thirty-two episodes are currently stored at the Library of Congress[9]. The March 1956 pilot for the show can also be found online[10]. The rest of the show can likely be considered entirely lost.

Gallery[edit | edit source]

Restored version of December 5th, 1956 episode
June 3rd, 1957 episode
January 23rd, 1957 episode
December 12th, 1956 episode


References[edit | edit source]