Twenty One (game show)

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For the similarly named game show, see Catch 21.
Twenty One
Created by Jack Barry
Dan Enright
Robert Noah
Presented by Jack Barry (1956–1958)
Monty Hall (Summer 1958)
Maury Povich (2000)
Country of origin United States
Location(s) NBC Studios
New York, New York (1956–1958)
NBC Studios
Burbank, California (2000)
Running time approx. 22–26 minutes (1956–1958)
approx. 44 minutes (2000)
Production company(s) Jack Barry-Dan Enright Productions (1956–1958)
The Fred Silverman Company (2000)
The Gurin Company (2000)
NBC Studios (2000)
Distributor NBCUniversal Television Distribution
Original channel CBS
Original run September 12, 1956 – October 16, 1958 (original version)
January 9, 2000 – May 28, 2000 (newer Maury Povich version)
Twenty One host Jack Barry (center), with contestants Vivienne Nearing and Charles Van Doren.

Twenty One is an American game show which aired in the late 1950s. While it included the most popular contestant of the quiz show era, it became notorious for being a rigged quiz show which nearly caused the demise of the entire genre in the wake of United States Senate investigations. The 1994 movie Quiz Show is based on these events. A new version aired in 2000 with Maury Povich hosting, lasting about five months on NBC.


Two contestants, a champion and an opponent, were both placed in separate isolation booths wearing headphones, arranged so they could not see or hear each other or the audience, due to the way the studio lighting hit the booths' glass. Unlike The $64,000 Question, contestants could not choose their own category of questions, which instead popped up—seemingly at random—from a dispensing machine on host Jack Barry's podium; there were more than one hundred possible categories. With the champion's booth and headphones still on, the challenger's booth was opened and their headphones turned off. The host revealed the category for that round of questions and asked the challenger to pick a point value to play for, from one to eleven points, with more difficult questions for higher-value points. A correct answer added those points to the contestant's score, while an incorrect one deducted them (though scores could not go lower than zero).

After the question, the opponent's headphones were turned back on, and their booth closed. The champion's booth was opened and their headphones were then turned off; the champion was given the same category and choice of questions. The champion always played second. If the challenger had reached 21 before their opponent, the champion was given one last chance to tie the game. In this case, the challenger's booth would be left on so they could follow what the champion decided. However, the champion was not told their opponent's score until after selecting a point value for the question. The object of the game was to score a total of 21 points, or to come closer to that number than their opponent within a maximum of five questions. After two categories were played, both booths were opened and both contestants were given the option to stop the game, without knowing their opponent's score. If one of the contestants stopped the game, whoever was ahead was declared the winner.

The difference in scores determined a champion's winnings. The winner received $500 for each point separating the contestants' scores (e.g., a champion who won 21–17 would win $2,000); the $500 figure increased by $500 each time the contestants went to a 21–21 tie. After each win, the champion was told a little bit about his or her next opponent and given the option to walk away. The decision whether or not to play on was crucial; if the champion elected to continue playing and lost, the new champion's total winnings would be taken out of their final total.


All questions were presented with multiple-choice responses which contained a varying number of possible choices based on the point value of the question. Questions worth 1–6 points offered three choices; questions worth 7–10 points offered four choices, with a "none of the above" answer on 10-point questions, and 11-point questions offered five. In addition, the 11-point questions always required the contestant to select two correct answers from the five possibilities.

Point values of incorrect answers were no longer deducted from a contestant's score. Instead, contestants earned a strike for each incorrect response; accumulating three strikes resulted in an automatic loss. This rule change meant that games could end without a winner, as the rounds again were played to completion. If one contestant had struck out on their turn and the second contestant had two strikes, they could also lose the game on an incorrect answer. However, a contestant did not know how his/her opponent had done unless explicitly told by the host.[1]

Once per game a contestant could call for a "Second Chance", which would allow the contestant to receive help from a friend or family member prior to providing an answer to the question. The "Second Chance" involved more risk, as an incorrect answer accumulated two strikes. If time ran out after at least two categories were played, the contestant with the most points won and advanced to the bonus round on the next episode. Also, in the first episode only, there was no option for either contestant to stop the game after the second category was played.

Unlike the 1950s version, if the game ended in a tie, no new game was played. Instead, the contestants would be asked one question, and the first contestant to ring-in got to answer. If right, he or she won the game and went on to play the bonus game (for more info, see below). If wrong, the opponent got a chance to answer, and if correct, he or she moved on, but if incorrect, a new tie-breaker question was played.


Losing challengers received $1,000 as a consolation prize. Rather than receiving a dollar value multiplied by the point difference after winning each game, champions received progressively larger amounts for each opponent defeated. Originally, the payoff structure was as follows:

Game number Prize
1 $100,000
2 $200,000
3 $300,000
4 $400,000

These amounts accumulated, so winning four games would be worth $1,000,000. After winning a fourth game, the contestant started the chain again at $100,000 for defeating a fifth opponent, $200,000 for defeating a sixth, and so on.

After a few early episodes, the prize ladder changed to the following:

Game number Prize
1 $25,000
2 $50,000
3 $100,000
4 $250,000
5 $500,000
6 $750,000
7 $1,000,000

These amounts accumulated, so winning seven games would be worth at least $2,675,000. As before, any contestant who defeated a seventh opponent started from the beginning of the chain.

When the rules changed, the returning champion had won one game and $100,000 in his appearance on the final show under the old prize structure. Instead of being "grandfathered" under the old prize structure, he played and won his second game for $250,000 (the next amount after $100,000), and played but lost his third game for $500,000.

Contestant selection[edit]

During the first six episodes, the audience chose the winner's next opponent. The audience would be presented with two potential challengers to face the current champion, and the audience would vote for an opponent using keypads. The person who received the higher vote played against the champion; the other person would be one of the two potential challengers to be voted on for the next game. In the first episode, there were three potential opponents to face the champion. After the sixth episode, the process was changed to a random selection. At the beginning of the show, six potential challengers would be introduced, and would be selected randomly from that group for each new game. People who had not been selected by the end of the show were not guaranteed to return on the following show, although some people did appear on the show multiple times before being selected to play.

Perfect 21[edit]

This version also featured a new bonus round, "Perfect 21". The champion was given a category, and asked up to six true/false questions in that category, worth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 points consecutively. Each point was worth $10,000, for a total of $210,000. The contestant could stop and take any money won after each correct answer, as an incorrect answer ended the game and cost the contestant all money accumulated in the bonus round (main game winnings as well as winnings from previous bonus rounds were never at stake).

Big winners[edit]

Under the first payoff structure, Rahim Oberholtzer was the biggest winner, collecting $1,120,000 (at the time, the all-time game show winnings record) over four victories, three of which were due to his opponents striking out.

David Legler won $1,765,000 over six wins with the new payout structure. Legler was the top winner of American game shows until 2001 and is now the seventh-highest winner from an American television game show.

Broadcast history[edit]

Twenty One was originally conceived by host Jack Barry and producing partner Dan Enright as a weekly half-hour program for CBS' 1956–1957 schedule. The show was ultimately picked up by NBC, and ran from September 10, 1956 to October 17, 1958, under the sponsorship of Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the makers of Geritol. The series finished at #21 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1957-1958 season.[2]

Jim Lange hosted a pilot for an abandoned syndicated revival of the show in 1982.

NBC revived the show in 2000 with Maury Povich as host, after ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, FOX's Greed, and CBS' Winning Lines proved big-money game shows had once again become viable prime-time network fare. NBC aired first-run episodes through the end of May sweeps, after which the network declined to renew the series. Several unaired episodes aired on PAX TV in the summer of 2000.


Main article: Quiz show scandals


The initial broadcast of Twenty One was played honestly, with no manipulation of the game by the producers. Unfortunately, that broadcast was, in the words of producer Dan Enright, "a dismal failure"; the first two contestants succeeded only in making a mockery of the format by how little they really knew. Show sponsor Geritol, upon seeing this opening-night performance, reportedly became furious with the results, and threatened to pull their sponsorship of the show if it happened again.[citation needed]

The end result: Twenty One was not merely "fixed", it was almost completely choreographed. Contestants were cast almost as if they were actors, and in fact were active and (usually) willing partners in the deception. They were given instruction as to how to dress, what to say to the host, when to say it, what questions to answer, what questions to miss, even when to mop their brows in their isolation booths (which had air conditioning that could be cut off at will, to make them sweat more).

Charles Van Doren[edit]

Charles Van Doren, a college professor, was introduced as a contestant on Twenty One on November 28, 1956, as a challenger to then-champion Herbert Stempel, a dominant contestant, though somewhat unpopular with viewers and eventually the sponsor. Van Doren and Stempel ultimately played to a series of four 21–21 games, with audience interest building with each passing week and each new game, until finally the clean-cut, "All American Boy" newcomer was able to outlast his bookish, quasi-intellectual opponent, who at one point after the game was referred to backstage as a "freak with a sponge memory". The film Quiz Show depicts the turning point as coming on a question directed to Stempel: "What film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955?" Stempel legitimately knew the answer to that question was Marty, as it was one of his favorite films. The producers ordered him to answer the question with 1954's Best Picture winner, On the Waterfront.

Stempel later recalled that there was a moment in the booth when his conscience and sense of fair play warred with his sense of obligation and that he almost disrupted the scripted outcome by giving the correct answer. Stempel answered incorrectly as he was instructed, but redeemed himself by staying in the game and earning enough points to tie Van Doren's score, unlike the depiction of events in Quiz Show. Stempel was finally defeated in the next game, with Van Doren leading: the surviving kinescope of the broadcast shows Stempel failing to come up with the title of William Allen White's August 15, 1896, editorial in the Emporia Gazette, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" After the missed question, Van Doren quit with 18 points, which was enough to win. Van Doren's victory began one of the longest and most storied runs of any champion in the history of television game shows. Van Doren's popularity soared as a result of his success on Twenty One, earning him a place on the cover of Time magazine and even a regular feature spot on NBC's Today show; at one point, the program even surpassed CBS' I Love Lucy in the ratings. He was finally unseated as champion on March 11, 1957, by Vivienne Wax Nearing (1926–2007), after winning a total of $143,000.

In the meantime Stempel, disgruntled over being ordered to "take a dive", attempted to blow the whistle on what exactly was going on behind the scenes at Twenty One, even going so far as to have a federal investigator look into the show. Initially, little came of these investigations and Stempel's accusations were dismissed as jealousy because there was no hard evidence to back up his claims. While a congressional investigation did have an impact on Twenty One during this period, the investigation in question was the HUAC hearings into possible Communists in entertainment; the show's director, Charles S. Dubin, was fired by NBC in June, 1958, after he refused to answer whether he ever had been part of the Communist party.[3]

In August 1958 Dotto, a popular CBS daytime game show, was abruptly canceled after a contestant found a notebook containing the answers to every question that was to be asked to the show's current champion, future journalist Marie Winn. Suddenly, Stempel's allegations began to make more sense. Even so, the public at large didn't seem to want to accept the dishonesty until Van Doren, under oath before a House hearing, ultimately confessed to being given answers to all of his questions before each show.[citation needed]

Joseph Stone, the assistant New York district attorney who investigated the scandals, says in his book Prime Time and Misdemeanors that question writer Glorianne Rader was instructed by Dan Enright and associate producer Al Freedman, who had chosen the categories for the next broadcast earlier in the week, to place them in Barry's dispensing machine a few minutes before airtime; this was done to avoid any slipups in the planned outcome.

Twenty One was canceled without advance warning after its broadcast of October 17, 1958. A nighttime version of Concentration took over its time slot the following week. The scandal forced producers Barry and Enright into virtual exile. Barry would not host another national TV show for more than a decade, and Enright moved to Canada to continue his production career.


The scandal also caused the Federal Communications Commission to mandate the sale of Barry-Enright's radio station in Hollywood, Florida, WGMA. The station was purchased by its general manager, C. Edward Little, who promptly affiliated the station with the Mutual Broadcasting System. After serving for a time as the head of Mutual's affiliates association, Little became the president of Mutual from 1972–79. During this time Little created the Mutual Black Network, the first U.S. broadcast network catering exclusively to African-Americans, in addition to the Mutual Spanish Network and the Mutual Southwest Network. Under Little's administration, Mutual became the first commercial broadcasting entity to use satellite technology for program delivery. During his tenure as head of Mutual, Little hired Larry King to host an all-night phone-in talk show Little had created. King was a one-time announcer for Little at WGMA. King, who had previously hosted a similar morning show on Miami radio station WIOD, went on to national fame on both radio and television, winning a coveted Peabody Award along the way.

Jack Barry finally returned to game show hosting in 1969, succeeding Dennis Wholey on ABC's The Generation Gap for which he publicly thanked the producers and ABC-TV for giving him a chance for a comeback. In 1971, he sold ABC his first new game show The Reel Game which he also hosted. It ran for 13 weeks. He became a success again as a producer-host with The Joker's Wild, which ran on CBS from 1972–1975 and in syndication from 1977–1986 (Barry died in May 1984 and was replaced by Bill Cullen for the final two years). Enright would work as Joker '​s executive producer in the final year on CBS, and the two revived their partnership full-time in 1976, reviving Tic-Tac-Dough which also ran until 1986. It was revived once more in 1990, but was cancelled after a few months. Enright died in 1992.[4]


A second attempt actually made it to air when NBC, in the wake of the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, revived the tainted quiz show on January 9, 2000. The new version was produced by Phil Gurin and Fred Silverman. The rules of this version, hosted by Maury Povich (and announced by John Cramer), were somewhat different from those of the 1950s version. It was taped at NBC Studios, stage 1 in Burbank, the longtime studio of The Tonight Show.[citation needed]

Licensed merchandise[edit]

A board game based on the original 1956–58 version was released by Lowell in 1957.

A paperback quiz book featuring 1–11 point questions in each of the 45 categories was released by Pyramid in 1958.

International versions[edit]

Twenty-One is one of only three Barry–Enright game shows known to have foreign adaptations, the others being Tic-Tac-Dough and Concentration.

Country Name Host Channel Year Aired
 Australia Big Nine Athol Guy Nine Network 1969-1970
 Austria Einundzwanzig Rudolf Hornegg
Elmar Gunsch
ORF 1958-1974
late 1980s
das Quiz 21 Karin Resetarits and Thomas Schuttken 1998
 Brazil Vinte e Um Silvio Santos SBT 2007
 Canada (French) Vingt-et-un Guy Mongrain TVA September 2004 to May 2005
 Germany Haetten Sie's gewusst? Hans (Heinz) Maegerlein ARD 1958-1969
Quiz Einundzwaning Hans Meisner RTL 2000-2002
 Poland Dwadzieścia jeden Rafał Rykowski TVP1 2000-2002
 United Kingdom Twenty-One Chris Howland ITV July 3-December 23, 1958
 United States Twenty One Jack Barry 1956-1958
Monty Hall 1958
NBC September 12, 1956 - October 16, 1958
Maury Povich January 9, 2000 - May 28, 2000

Episode status[edit]

Thirty-two episodes are held by the Library of Congress.[citation needed] The episode on which Van Doren defeated Stempel was released as part of a retail home video compilation featuring other episodes of game shows.

The 2000 version is intact and has been rerun on Game Show Network.


  1. ^ A mistake occurred during an early episode wherein Povich informed the second contestant that his opponent had lost and that all he had to do now was answer a single question to win the game. The contestant promptly requested and successfully answered a 1-point question (the easiest question possible), accompanied by the applause of the audience and a clear expression of chagrin and horror on Povich's face as he realized the mistake he had made (as he was not supposed to say anything until after the question choice was made). Immediately after a commercial break, Povich acknowledged his mistake in revealing to the contestant that his opponent had already lost, but explained that the only effect had been essentially to give a "gift" to that contestant since his opponent had already lost the game and was not affected by the mistake.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Associated Press. "Director of '21' ousted after Un-American probe," Abilene Reporter-News, June 19, 1958, page 7A.
  4. ^

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