Dreaming Up Questions to Choke On, the New Newlywed Game Writers Never Quit Making Whoopee

updated 08/03/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/03/1987 01:00AM

Where is the strangest place you've ever made whoopee? Would your mother be surprised to know when you first made whoopee? Where is your husband clumsiest—the restaurant, the dance floor or the bedroom?

Though that sounds like a nightmare interview with Dr. Ruth, there's no real doubt about where those queries come from. Like "what did he know and when did he know it," such questions are ingrained in the American consciousness.

If your wife were a car, what would need to be repaired most, her fenders or transmission? Which of your wife's friends would most likely be harpooned if she were floating in the ocean? If your sex life were made into a movie, which part of the video store would it be found in—horror, fantasy or XXX-rated weirdo?

These questions, of course, are asked only on The New Newlywed Game. As popped by Bob Eubanks, the tanned, thin-lipped host with the receding pompadour, the queries are designed to see whether the cheerful couples holding hands on the segmented banquette really know each other. These are the questions that have provided voyeuristic giggles for millions since the show debuted in 1966.

True, not everyone has seen the humor. Legend has it that Howard Hughes was planning to buy ABC, but after catching The Newlywed Game one afternoon, he was so shocked that he immediately called off the deal. Then in 1974 ABC canceled the show, a divorce that Eubanks blames on Watergate and low marriage rates. The game returned in syndicated form two years later. A perennial since then, The New Newlywed Game has really taken off in the ratings. Maybe because marriage is back in vogue with a vengeance, the show has climbed into daytime's Top 10.

Much credit for the show's success, and craziness, must go to the triumvirate of writers who dream up those soul-searching, spouse-searing questions. The scribes can be found in a muddle of unkempt offices on a small Hollywood movie lot near Sunset and Gower, working 12 hours a day to pound out approximately 600 questions a week from which the producers make their selections.

Writer No. 1 and creative consultant, Larry Gotterer, 30, intended to be an accountant. But when he lost a hypothetical $17,000 on a Boston University exam, his professor suggested that he try another field. Gotterer moved to California and progressed from answering phones to TV producing and consulting before landing on The New Newlywed Game in 1985. He never asks his wife of six years, Alison, to help with questions ("She might make me answer them"), but his radar is always on. "It's not that I'm walking around constantly trying to come up with Newlywed questions," Gotterer says. "I've been doing it so long, my mind is kind of on automatic."

Not so for writer No. 2, Bruce Kernohan, 34, who is the quietest of the bunch but claims to have the most Hawaiian shirts. "When the show's over, I'm hard-pressed to tell you the questions we just did," he says. "People ask me to tell them just one question I wrote that day, and I can't remember. I leave my work at the office." A graduate of the University of California at Irvine, Kernohan had hoped for a music career. But when TV's Card Sharks rejected his theme song, he ended up writing for the quiz show. Kernohan joined The New Newlywed Game in 1985, and since he isn't married, he gets many of his ideas from the books on his library shelves: American Couples (A Survey Book), 1999 Belly Laughs or Fascinating Facts About Love, Sex and Marriage.

Writer No. 3 is Bruce Starin, 35. Born in Miami, Starin joined the show in February after working as a cruise director and acting in matzo Westerns—cowboy epics shot in Israel. "I was the only one who could do a Southern accent," he says. He may owe his question-writing agility to his stint at sea, when passengers would ask what time the midnight buffet began. He now works in a cramped cubicle surrounded by his muses: a rubber chicken, an inkblot test, a desktop Godzilla and a reminder sign that says "Breathe." When inspiration sags he pulls out a handy reference book: 2001 Insults for All Occasions. Many of Starin's ideas occur in the car, so his wife of 18 months, Geraldine, is always ready to take notes when he drives.

The best sources are the couples themselves—the 750 people (out of 10,000 applicants) who appear on the show each year. They're approved after producing a marriage certificate, answering a questionnaire and then passing two auditions designed to prove that they can maintain a high excitement level. Then it's on to the set, where Eubanks, the show's first and only host, will stare at them. "I learned that the best way to get people to answer is not to talk to them but to stare at them," says Eubanks, 49. (Soon the contestants may be staring back: He's just had a face-lift and tummy-tuck.)

The couples are introduced and then, with the "wives safely secured offstage," the husbands are interrogated, with the women returning later to give their own answers. "Gentlemen, for 10 points, which would your wife say happened closest to your wedding day: You had an encounter with an old girlfriend, or she had an encounter with an old boyfriend?" Three hundred people in the studio audience and an easy 10 million viewers hone in. "I'd say it was me, three days before the wedding," says one husband. "You did?" prompts a wide-eyed Eubanks. "I didn't have enough friends to have a bachelor party," explains the husband.

The combination of writers' questions and Eubanks' third-degree gaze has produced some memorable disclosures. There was the Marine who admitted he'd once pooped in his football pants, and the husband who said his wife's cooking was so bad he had to use the Heimlich maneuver on the dog. There was the man who admitted his favorite whoopee-making place was a trampoline. ("Once you get going, you don't have to work anymore.") There was the husband who couldn't remember his wife's measurements and gave his locker combination instead, and the viewer who spotted her missing husband on the show, claiming he was married to another woman. Embarrassing? That's nothing. One woman once accused her husband—on-air—of having an affair. "I saw the blood leave his face," says Eubanks. "She turned to him and said, 'You didn't know I knew, did you?' Me, I'm under the podium looking for paper clips. She said, 'I knew about it, but I wanted to wait until we got on national TV to tell everybody.' But what was funny about it is that 10 points later they were hugging and kissing. I've always said 10 points can solve a problem in any marriage. Twenty-five can make it last forever."

And kooky questions can do the same for a TV show. One woman, asked where she thought she could gain inches and where she could lose them, said, "I can't believe you ask these questions." Eubanks didn't miss a beat. "What's more amazing," he said, "is that you guys answer them."

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