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Once an episode, a special celebrity would appear as the "Mystery Guest". For this, the panel would be blindfolded and the guest would usually try to disguise his voice.
For most of the CBS era, the panel consisted of publisher Bennett Cerf, sometimes-controversial columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress Arlene Francis, and a guest panelist. Following Kilgallen's death in 1965, her chair became a second rotating position.
What's My Line? holds the record for the longest-running Game Show in network primetime. After its CBS run, it went into daily syndication from 1968-75. Unlike its siblings, To Tell the Truth and I've Got a Secret, it has not returned to the airwaves within the last 35 years despite numerous attempts.
In November 2004, Jim Newman and J. Keith van Straaten began producing a one-hour live stage show in Los Angeles called What's My Line? Live On Stage. After moving to New York in 2008, the show became an authorized production by Fremantle Media.
GSN regularly aired repeats in its Late Night Black & White block, but eventually dropped that block of programming due to low ratings. A number of episodes have been released on low-budget DVD, but fans who want to see more would do well to Keep Circulating the Tapes.
Game Show Tropes in use:
- Bonus Round: The Mystery Guest segment.
- During the syndicated era, "Who's Who" was occasionally played. Four members of the audience were invited onstage and (out of sight of the panel) told the producer their jobs. The panelists, one at a time, then had to match the career (written on a card) with the person. For each panelist that was incorrect, the four-member group won $20 (for a maximum of $80 for a complete stumper).
- Home Game: Lowell made one in 1955, Whitman released one in 1969, and Endless Games came out with another in 2001.
- Unexpectedly Obscure Answer: Some occupations were very...weird, to say the least. Some of the syndicated Mystery Guests were also very big on the "Mystery" but very little on the "Guest", including series producer Gil Fates (and Daly himself, who both was host AND Mystery Guest on the final CBS show). Often, family members of the panel would also be included.
- Salvador Dali was asked if he was a "leading man," and answered yes, to which the host had to specify that it might not mean quite what the contestant was thinking.
- Animated Adaptation: Kellogg's did an ad parodying the show, although despite being one of the show's longest-running sponsors it is unknown if it ever aired on the series itself.
- Animated Credits Opening: Three distinct animated openings were used through the run of the series. The first two featured the same man as he would go from one occupation to another, while the third split the screen into three sections as the heads, torsos, and feet of various characters were mixed and matched. The third open (which was produced in color during a period where the CBS broadcasts were experimenting with color broadcasting) was adapted for use in most of the syndicated run.
- The Beatles: The episode that aired live, directly after the Beatles' historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, was broadcast from the next-door theatre. Being of the elder generation, John and the panel seemed less than impressed with the Fab Four. Dorothy introduced Bennett as "What's My Line's answer to the Beatles" while Bennett introduced John as "John Charles Ringo Daly"; John complained about the "obstacle course" they had to run to get around the goings-on next door; and during a game with a contestant who made Beatle wigs, one of the panel asked if he had something to do with "the current insect invasion invading our shores".
- On a later episode, Beatles manager Brian Epstein signed in as "Mr. X" during a regular round of play. While John spoke somewhat more respectful about the lads and Dorothy remarked how cute and funny they were, Bennett asked Epstein if there was "any point when you feel sorry about the whole thing?"
- Broadcast Live: Almost all of the CBS run was shown live.
- Catch Phrase: "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" and "Mystery Guest, will you enter and sign in, please."
- Roughly one-third into the CBS run, John seemed to become uncomfortable with his catchphrase. After trying to avoid this by saying things like "Mystery Guest please sign in after you enter", he eventually settled back into the tried-and-true.
- Cool Mask: As the show went on, the regular panelist's blindfolds (especially Dorothy's and Arlene's) would get more and more decorative. Some panelists who wore glasses, such as Steve Allen and Robert Q. Lewis, would get blindfolds with images of glasses printed on them. One Easter show found the panel wearing bunny masks.
- Creator Cameo: Show producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman both made appearances on the original series. Goodson appeared several times as both a Mystery Guest and a panelist, then appeared during the Grand Finale to receive congratulations. Todman appeared as a Mystery Guest and with Goodson on the finale, but was never a panelist.
- Crossover: John Daly played himself, narrating the pilot of Green Acres. A few weeks later, Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor appeared together as the Mystery Guests (one of the few, if not only, non-related-in-real-life couples to appear as Mystery Guests), and publicly thanked Daly for helping them get the show off to a good start.
- A Day in the Limelight:
- Panelist Bennett Cerf filled-in during one of Daly's very few absences. The following week, he admitted to John that he was very glad to be back on the panel-side.
- Semi-regular panelist Steve Allen got a chance to appear as a regular guest, as the panel had to guess his new sideline — selling motorcycles.
- John Daly got the chance to be the Mystery Guest on the last CBS episode, hopping back and forth between the chairs during questioning. Afterward, he explained that they did that because thousands of viewers had written in suggesting that he be the Mystery Guest, not knowing that the producers kept that option as a backup to use in case a scheduled Mystery Guest had missed the live broadcast.
- Similarly, Wally Bruner was the Mystery Guest on a 1969 episode (apparently done in haste, as the overlay showing his name looks different than the usual). Interestingly, Arlene Francis thought John Daly had come back to visit; she was close.
- Deadpan Snarker: Steve Allen.
- Expy: When I've Got a Secret creator Allan Sherman brought the idea to Goodson-Todman, they initially rejected it as being a copy of Line. Reportedly, Sherman replied that Line was so popular that somebody was going to copy it...so why not copy themselves?
- Frank Sinatra: Was both guest and panelist on one of the last CBS episodes, having more or less snubbed the show prior due to his feud with Dorothy Kilgallen.
- Hey, It's That Guy!:
- A pre-Star Trek William Shatner appeared as a panelist in a few CBS episodes.
- Leonard Nimoy was a Mystery Guest during the final syndicated season.
- Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford all made appearances before they became President — Reagan was both a Mystery Guest and a guest panelist on the CBS version, Ford a Mystery Guest on a 1969 Bruner episode, and Carter as "Mr. X" during a Blyden episode taped slightly more than a year before he ran for President. The panel, not wearing their blindfolds as it was a regular round, had no idea who Carter was.
- In Name Only: In the early 1980s, in the wake of the success of NBC's Real People and ABC's That's Incredible!, CBS aired a short-lived series hosted by Bob Barker called That's My Line!, a Reality Show that presented films of people in odd professions.
- Let X Be the Unknown: The standard way of introducing people whose names were well-known to the panel would be to have them sign in as Mr./Mrs. X, which once led Cerf to refer to Daly and the guest as "Ham and X".
- Match Game: Gene Rayburn was a panelist on a few episodes of both versions, while Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson were Mystery Guests during the syndicated era. Rayburn was on the panel during one of Dawson's appearances, and disqualified himself when he instantly recognized one of the voices Dawson regularly used on Match Game.
- Missing Episode: Most of the first two-and-a-half years are lost because at the time they were judged worthless and unfit to rerun (the only reason kinescopes were made in the first place was as proof that sponsors' ads were shown correctly) and destroyed for their silver content. This went on until about July 1952, when producer Gil Fates learned of the practice and saw to it that the films be saved and stored. Their value became apparent in 1975 when many episode segments were re-edited into the special What's My Line? At 25, and again in the mid-1990s when they became the backbone of Game Show Network.
- For obvious reasons, magazines such as TV Guide didn't list the Mystery Guest's identity, and Fates' work notes are the only resource as to the content of these early missing episodes.
- The first episode has been recently discovered. As its copyright was not renewed, it is in the public domain and can be seen here.
- Obvious Rule Patch:
- Early episodes featured a "walk-by" that would allow the panel to closely examine the contestants and their clothing, way of walking, etc. They then were allowed one guess, which was usually in the form of a joke (Dorothy Kilgallen: "I think he raises goldfish."; Steve Allen: "I think he lowers goldfish."). Although the panel did end up giving a few correct answers through this routine, it was eventually dropped to save time.
- In the Mystery Guest segment, the panel was originally allowed to ask as many questions as they wanted until they got a "No". This was eventually changed to just one question apiece.
- According to Gil Fates' book, the producers were originally only going to let celebrities be the Mystery Guest once. However, a combination of supply-and-demand of available stars as well as a desire to see some make a repeat appearance (not to mention the fact that the show lasted much longer than anyone imagined it would back in 1950) quickly changed this.
- During the syndicated run, regular panelist Soupy Sales proved such an unexpected expert at identifying voices that a new rule (known as "Fates' Law" after producer Gil Fates) was installed in which, if someone made a guess and was wrong, they removed their blindfold and could not participate for the rest of that game.
- Old Shame: Surprisingly, it may well be the syndicated run. The ABC special What's My Line? At 25 never mentioned the syndicated version whatsoever, and featured no more than two clips from it, both in monochrome.
- "On the Next...": Early episodes had Daly show a picture of someone and say "This (man/woman) will appear on next week's show. Can you guess (his/her) occupation? Tune in next Sunday and find out."
- The Other Darrin: Almost every female brought in to replace Kilgallen. Many fans feel that her death marked the show's Jump the Shark moment.
- The Pete Best: Hal "Dimples" Block.
- Product Placement: As was common practice of the day, most of the CBS run featured that week's sponsor's logo on the front of the panel's desk. The logo was also on top of the sign-in board (a unique camera shot would always first have the logo front and center, and then slowly pan down as the contestant signs in), and an icon representing the company would be featured on Daly's money flip cards (Kellogg's had a cereal bowl icon, Florida Citrus Growers an icon of the state of Florida, etc.).
- The syndicated era often had inventors come on and have the panel try to guess what the invention was. After the game, the contestant was given a chance to talk about the product, either demonstrate the product or show a film of it in action, and give an address where viewers could find out more about it.
- Pungeon Master: Bennett Cerf, regularly. He would often credit these puns to "our host John Daly", much to Daly's chagrin. He was also usually the one to introduce John, as he sat at the end of the panel, and he would often give John ridiculous middle names.
- Which was an inside joke: John Charles Daly's family traditionally named all their sons "John Daly", the only difference being their middle names.
- Radio: A separate series ran from 1952-53, which John would plug during his closing remarks.
- Semi-regular panelist Fred Allen was best known at the time for his radio show, as well as his "feud" with Jack Benny.
- Red Scare: Why Louis Untermeyer was dropped as a panelist.
- Reunion Show: What's My Line? At 25.
- Salvador Dali: Appeared as a Mystery Guest.
- Star Trek: The Original Series: A pre-Star Trek William Shatner appeared in a handful of CBS episodes as a panelist, and Leonard Nimoy was a Mystery Guest in 1975.
- Trans Atlantic Equivalent: As was the case with most Goodson-Todman shows, there was a UK version of Line. Its host, Eamonn Andrews, made frequent appearances as a panelist on the American Line and To Tell the Truth.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: The syndicated run presented inventions that were awe-inspiring then but commonplace now — automatic teller machines, portable (paperback-sized) calculators, and home video games.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Given that they were both named Allen, they had roughly the same sense of off-beat humor, and the age was about right, a great deal of viewers incorrectly assumed that semi-regular panelist Fred Allen was semi-regular panelist Steve Allen's father. The two would often play along with this, and in somewhat of a continuation, a later episode had Steve saying how proud he was of the success of his son, Woody.
- Who Is This Guy Again?: One of the potential problems brought up when the idea of a syndicated run was thrown around in 1967-68 was getting five separate Mystery Guests per taping day. While this bullet was generally avoided with most Mystery Guests being as well-known as the ones from the CBS era (if not the same ones), others were stars and actors from Broadway shows and New York-based soap operas that had been nicknamed "Owls" by the crew, after the looks of "Who is this?" the panel would give after they took off their blindfolds.
- The show once had to stretch so far as to book series producer Gil Fates as a Mystery Guest during the week taped June 25, 1970. In his book What's My Line?, Fates described the resulting segment as "Very big Mystery, very little Guest."