Terry Teachout recently posted the following comments regarding What's My Line? I, too, enjoy that show. Over the holidays, at my parents' house, I saw an episode on which one of the panelists was a very young Johnny Carson. He was introduced as "John Carson, the host of Who Do You Trust?"
I was watching an old episode of What's My Line?, my all-time favorite game show, earlier this evening. (To read an essay about What's My Line? that I wrote not long after 9/11, go here.) This particular program must have originally aired in 1961 or 1962, because in introducing panelist Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, Arlene Francis mentioned in passing that two of Cerf's authors, William Faulkner and John O'Hara, had gotten good reviews in that morning’s papers.
This offhand comment took me by surprise. Bear in mind that What's My Line? was no ordinary game show: it was so popular that CBS broadcast it in prime time every Sunday night for a quarter-century. This being the case, does it strike you as at all surprising that the president of a publishing house was sufficiently famous in 1961 to have been a regular panelist on a high-rated network series? Or that Arlene Francis took it for granted that the viewers of What's My Line? might be interested in knowing that two major American novelists had just published new books, much less that they’d been favorably reviewed in the New York papers that day?
I hit the pause button and tried without success to envision some latter-day equivalent of this phenomenon. Can you imagine Paul Shaffer casually mentioning to David Letterman that he'd just been reading about Martin Amis's latest novel on Maud Newton's blog? For that matter, can you imagine Letterman or Leno interviewing any novelist at all? (O.K., maybe Stephen King, but that proves my point.) Or mentioning a piece they'd just read in The New Yorker? Or inviting Donna Murphy on the show to sing a song from Wonderful Town?
I could parse this cultural sea change in a dozen different ways, but it's past my bedtime, so I'll simply settle for reporting it.