Series: 21

1956-58 NBC Game Show where host Jack Barry asked knowledge questions of two contestants, each of whom was in a Sound Proof Booth and not aware of the other's progress. Question values were worth from 1-11 points, appropriately increasing in difficulty. The object was to be the first player to score 21, but both players had the option to stop the game after two rounds. The winner (first to reach 21, or in the lead if the game was stopped) received $500 per point in the margin of victory. Every time a game ended in a tie, the contestants played again with the stakes raised by $500 per point.

By modern standards, the questions were brutally difficult, often with several parts. To add to the pressure, the champion had the option to walk away after each win; if he played again and lost, the new champ's winnings for that game were paid out of his total.

While Twenty-One is well-known for being a rigged game, the debut show wasn't. It was only after the first two contestants kept missing questions that Dan Enright opted to pretty much "script" the proceedings, including giving certain players the answers. One such player, James Snodgrass, sent letters to himself via registered mail which contained the answers to his shows before he played them (in May 1957), which proved very useful later on.

Probably the most pivotal moment came early in the show's run, in late November-early December 1956, when then-champion Herb Stempel faced off against Charles Van Doren. Both were given the answers in advance, and Stempel was specifically told to get a certain question wrong (about the 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture; the answer was Marty, one of Stempel's favorite films, but he was told to say On the Waterfront). Unlike what the 1994 movie Quiz Show would have you believe, they actually went on for another tie game before Van Doren won, and the scandal investigations didn't begin until a Dotto standby contestant came forth with the smoking gun in mid-1958.

(On a side note, the biggest winner was not Van Doren or even Hank Bloomgarden {who defeated Snodgrass in 1957} — that was Elfrida Von Nardoff, who amassed $220,500 in July 1958.)

A revival was attempted in 1982 with Bullseye host Jim Lange, but didn't sell. In 2000, NBC retooled the game for primetime with Maury Povich as host. It ran for just under six months, but paid out big — Rahim Oberholtzer won $1.1 Million, and David Legler topped that by winning $1.75 Million, both American game-show records. Legler's record would stand until Kevin Olmstead won the graduated grand prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (who would then be passed by Ken Jennings).

Not to be confused with the film of the same name.

Game Show Tropes in use:

  • Bonus Round:
    • 1982: Random numbers from 1-11 flashed; the player chose whether to keep the number or give it to the "computer". The "computer" has to stop at 17 and above, and beating it awarded $2,000 and a trip.
    • 2000: "Perfect 21", six true/false questions of increasing difficulty under a specific category. Each question was worth from $10,000-$60,000, a total of $210,000. Bailing is an option; a wrong answer loses the money. Never fully won, the closest was 5/6 for $150,000.
  • Lifelines: The "Second Chance" rule in the 2000 revival that allowed a friend or relative to be brought onstage and give an answer. One of the few instances where using the Lifeline incurred an additional penalty, as getting the question wrong then gave you two Strikes instead of just one.
  • Personnel:
    • The Announcer: Charlie O'Donnell for the 1982 pilot.
    • Game Show Host: Jack Barry originally hosted the 1950s version, followed by Monty Hall for the last six months. Jim Lange hosted a 1982 pilot, and Maury Povich helmed the 2000 version.
    • Studio Audience
  • Sound Proof Booth: Pretty much defined this Trope.
  • Confetti Drop: Confetti and balloons were released whenever a contestant surpassed the $1,000,000 mark.
  • Who Wants To Be Who Wants To Be A Millionaire: The 2000 remake was basically NBC's answer to Millionaire.

This show provides examples of:

  • Pilot: At least two.
  • Recycled Soundtrack: The unsold 1982 pilot featured "Don't Let it Show" by The Alan Parsons Project. Though it was only the tail-end of the song, the irony regarding the use of the song was nothing short of stunning, with lyrics such as "Even if it's taking the easy way out"/Keep it inside of you"/"Don't give in"/"Don't tell them anything"/"Don't let it"/"Don't let it show".
  • Stage Money: On the 2000 version, bundles of cash were given to the defeated contestants. Challengers got $1,000, which Maury took out of his pocket. Champs' winnings were brought out on a silver tray and counted into a tote bag.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent: Many.
    • Granada Television produced a version for ITV from 3 July to 23 December 1958 with Chris Howland hosting, but pulled due to the quiz show scandals (with contestant Stanley Armstrong claiming he had been given "definite leads" to the answers).
    • Hätten Sie's gewusst? ran in Germany on public broadcaster ARD from 1958–69, hosted by Hans "Heinz" Maegerlein. At eleven years, it's the longest-running version of the show.
    • Australia's Nine Network aired Big Nine in 1968, hosted by Athol Guy. No, seriously, that's his name.