If you watch reruns of Match Game from the ’70s, you can tell which episodes aired Thursdays or Fridays. The show taped a week of shows in one day, and the last two came after a vodka-fueled dinner break. “Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers would have martinis and get a little loopidy-doopidy,” fellow panelist Fannie Flagg exclusively tells Closer. “Those are some of my favorite memories.”

Fans were equally intoxicated by the show, in which contestants would guess how celebs filled in the blanks of suggestive sentences. Certain words weren’t allowed by censors, so safe synonyms like “tinkle” and “making whoopie” were substituted. “The real wit came in the use of euphemisms,” A. Ashley Hoff, author of Match Game 101: A Backstage History of Match Game, tells Closer. “They provided deeper laughs than a one-note ha-ha.”

Presiding over the madness was Gene Rayburn, a former radio DJ and Broadway song-and-dance man who started hosting a tamer version of the show in New York in 1962. It was canceled in 1969, then relaunched in LA in 1973 with a more freewheeling format and soon became the No. 1 show in daytime TV. “Gene was just the sweetest, silliest man,” says Fannie. “An adorable, flirty guy — always in a good mood and thrilled to have his job.” Adds Hoff, “He had great reflexes and was able to go with anything, no matter how out of the blue.”

Among the most popular panelists were Brett and Charles. “Besides being hilarious, they were two of the smartest people I have ever known,” says Fannie. “They got such a kick out of each other and razzed everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.”

One panelist, British actor Richard Dawson, became so popular that he developed an oversize ego that rubbed some of his costars the wrong way. “He was the devil, but he was funny,” says panelist Betty White. “His mind worked like a steel trap, but he wasn’t the happiest man in the world.”

Producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman tried to appease Richard by hiring him to do his own game show, Family Feud, inspired by Match Game’s “Super Match” round, in 1976. It soon took over Match Game’s time slot and skyrocketed to the top of the ratings. Richard did both shows for a while, then “he left Match Game,” Brett later recalled. “And everybody was thrilled.”

CBS bounced Match Game around the schedule. “Our ratings went down because we were on at 10 o’clock, then 1 o’clock, and finally when we got back to our regular time at 4 o’clock, our ratings never came back,” said Gene, adding sardonically, “Network vice presidents are brilliant men.”

Match Game was canceled in 1979 (and attempts to revive it have never matched its success). In 1999, Gene was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the TV Academy and died a month later. Brett and Charles both passed away in 2007, and Richard died in 2012. “I had as much fun doing Match Game as people did watching it,” Gene said in his final interview. “It was a great trip.” Adds Fannie, “I am forever grateful to Match Game. I just treasured that time.”

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