For someone who spends an inordinate percentage of his waking life staring at screens, I don't watch a lot of television. What a lot of folks consider to be a godsend—the so-called Golden Age of TV—is to me more of a pain in the ass: Just how many shows am I expected to watch? Also, no matter how many great shows get made, it won't change the way that I watch TV, which is the way I've always watched TV, and in my opinion the only way TV should be watched: You slump down, flip a switch, and find something that's on.
In The Future, when we're all implanted with screens in our retinas and "TV" becomes merely a euphemism for sitting in proximity to one another while experiencing the same on-demand program, this'll be something I miss: the pleasurable happenstance of catching 10 minutes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, or tuning in right in the middle of Commando, during the part where Arnold drops the guy from The Warriors off a cliff ("Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied!") It's just this kind of random clicking (remember when that term referred to changing channels?) that led to my re-discovery of Family Feud, which is the best show on television now that Breaking Bad is over with.
Do you know how good Family Feud is? Family Feud is hella good. There are a handful of things that make Family Feud as good as it is. Let's discuss them now.
One of the great myths of television is that its programming is a reflection of our larger culture. This is horseshit. Whatever lessons Tony Soprano has to teach us about fatherhood in the age of Prozac are left to the coastal commentariat to argue about. A genius chemist can't provide for his family in New Mexico, of all places, where rents are super-low? That's a First World problem right there. And let's not even bring up the allegedly reality-driven lineups of Bravo, etc. TV's about as real as Guardians of the Galaxy. Aside from your local news, which most people now ignore entirely except when an anchor quits live on-air or something, Family Feud is the best window into our actual lives.
The premise is so simple: normal Americans trying to predict the opinions of other normal Americans. Fuck trivia—who knows the names of all 23 presidents, anyway? Fuck a spinning wheel. Fuck whatever Howie Mandel is doing. Let's ask real people, with their blemishes and beer guts and preference for pistachio-colored oxfords and garish orange ties, to guess what other real people think, and not on, like, the big issues of the day or anything silly like that. Instead, let's marvel that someone would answer a prompt like "Name something that might be fully loaded" with "my man region," and have that guess be validated on the board (by two people!), albeit rephrased as "My Willing Wiener."
That's another amazing thing about Family Feud: It is a parade of repressed sexual thoughts. For any given question, someone will give a sex-related answer. It never fails. It's almost as if backstage before the show, the producers are conducting all kinds of suggestive mind-control tricks along the lines of, "Whatever you do, don't think of a pink elephant," except in this case it's, "Don't say penis, or breasts, or name any sex act," because it's a guarantee that at least once (and sometimes many more times) per episode, someone will do just that, and when they do, it'll be in the most gingerly embarrassed way possible. As in (real answer): "Their sperm."
The whole show is not so subtly engineered to provoke such moments. The question to the above answer was, "Name something you put in your mouth but don't swallow." Reader, I ask you: What other answer could there be besides semen? Actually, I guess there are plenty, because it wasn't on the board. (Top answer: "gum.") But still, someone did say that—a "pastor's wife," no less.
Which brings us to another reason that Family Feud is amazing: Steve Fucking Harvey. I love this man. Steve Harvey has both a syndicated talk-radio show and a daytime talk show, is a bestselling author, hosts Family Feud (he started in 2010), and has a moustache you could use to shovel snow. How does he do all this? He will gladly tell you during one of his many speaking tours. Steve is a man of god, but he's down to earth about it.
Steve: "Name something women like to squeeze, pastor."
The Pastor: "Their ... breasts."
He is also a benevolent dictator. Steve is the Bill Belichick of game-show hosts. It is his show, and he does it his way. That he consistently gets away with making fun of contestants to their faces while they laugh at themselves and high-five him is a testament to his charm and goodwill. At least once an episode, he tells someone their answer is completely asinine, but instead of saying "completely asinine," what he'll do is just stare at them for about four or five beats, letting the audience supply all the chagrin. If the answer is particularly bad, he'll lower his voice as if to have a private conversation with the contestant about their inner lives, suggesting that beneath the veneer of that particular church pastor or military veteran (lotta both on this show), there exists a raging pervert just dying to get out.
This cheerfully ribald atmosphere also helps the producers completely fucking rig the game and manage to avoid pissing anyone off. As I'm sure you know, the goal of Family Feud is to be the first family to reach 300 points, whereupon two members of your brood get to play Fast Money. There's initially 100 points on the line during each round, but in the later rounds the points double or triple, which combined with carefully chosen sets of questions (that can yield a ton of points or very few, depending), this gives the backstage braintrust enough tricks to keep things close and avoid blowouts, with nearly every single game coming down to the last round, which can net you 300 points on its own. It's like a baseball game where one run counts as three in the ninth inning.
This system of manipulating the survey questions gets nutty during Fast Money, when certain questions clearly have a diverse range of low-scoring answers (e.g. any question that beings, "On a scale of one to 10 …"), compared to others where there's a clear majority answer ("Complete this sentence: 'Once in a ____'"). Obviously Family Feud is a game, and a game show at that, so entertainment value trumps sensical competitive rules, but, ya know, just in case any of its producers reading this: I see right through you. (Another low-rent feature of the Feud is how little money is at stake: a mere $20,000 if you win fast money, which happens maybe once every five shows. And that's presumably divided amongst your crew.)
The last thing that makes Family Feud so rad is it's just on all the fucking time. I don't know what kind of cable system you have, but in my area, it seems like it's driving a good half-dozen networks at any point in the day. Granted, sometimes it's the Richard Karn version or some retro Richard Dawson shit, which god help you if you watch—unlike Sammy Hagar, Pierce Brosnan, and the siblings in the Vacation movies, Harvey is the rare transplant who's actually made his entertainment vehicle the best its ever been—but it's generally the current instantiation.
Despite this, I hardly ever catch a repeat. Steve's only been hosting it since 2010, but the man is such a workhorse that he must have generated thousands of episodes (they shoot like five a day, which you can tell because the winning family always comes back dressed the same, whereas Steve has a brand-new suit on, another subtle indicator that he is not someone with whom you fuck). The fact that he makes each new episode feel fresh is no small feat, but I guess it helps when septuagenarian church ladies are liable to yell out something about dicks every few minutes. That's some real American shit right there.
Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter.
Image by Sam Woolley.