I was very big into game shows growing up; I loved watching Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, The Price is Right, Family Feud, and reruns of a number of gameshows that aired back in the day on USA Network. The discovery of GSN when I got to college created a further appreciation that introduced me to games of which I wasn’t previously aware, such as Match Game.
By far, my favorite gameshow was a cult classic that aired for three years on CBS in the mid 80s, and then for three times that in reruns on USA Network, Press Your Luck. Like many kids my age, I think I was as addicted to the Whammy animations as I was the game itself, but it had a way of creating some interesting drama unlike many shows of the time. The sheer luck element of stopping a (supposedly) random board created some interesting tension.
Moments like the one above are definitely a highlight of the show. As the spins mount and dollars rack up, it’s hard not to get engrossed in the action.
The show also was responsible for one of the more infamous moments in game show history, when a contestant named Michael Larson went on to break an earnings record for the show. It turns out he realized the board wasn’t as random as it seemed, and the limited number of patterns meant he could cash in. GSN’s “Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal,” which aired in 2003 and seen in the clip above, is a well-produced documentary that tells the story in full and is narrated by the show’s host, Peter Tomarken, in one of his last appearances before his untimely death.
Of course, the show is probably best known for the high-pitched Whammy character, which parodied pop culture, consumed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, and was a very unique and memorable component to the fast-paced game.
The show was revived in 2002 for a two-season run after a positive reception to further reruns of the classic PYL series on GSN. Todd Newton hosted.
Many people don’t know the show had a very similar predecessor, “Second Chance,” which aired for 13 weeks in the late 70s. The comparisons are clear, with devils serving the Whammy role and the second round having the big dollar space with a free spin, and even the rotating set between questions and the big board rounds. Press Your Luck clearly benefited from some technical improvements, and the second pass was superior to the first, but watching the original version (most episodes are lost to time) is fascinating in its own way.
The show also was featured as part of a limited-run series “Gameshow Marathon,” which aired in 2006 and featured a particularly good game between Kathy Najimy and Tim Meadows (Leslie Neilsen was the third contestant but he wasn’t as fortunate). They put together a replica of the old set and it was a reminder of how great the show really was. This episode triggered interest for awhile at CBS of potentially reviving the series, but ultimately they revived “Let’s Make a Deal” instead.
The entire episode is on YouTube, but the last portions of the big board can be seen above and below.