Foolish games

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Since Monty Hall made his first deal for two safety pins, an embroidered handkerchief and a can of sardines with a hysterical member of his studio audience, game shows have had a license to be quirky. In fact, few game shows have had the straight-laced dignity of Alex Trebek’s encyclopedic adventures on "Jeopardy" or even Pat Sajak and Vanna White’s rather serious letter hunting on "Wheel of Fortune."

Most have made hacking out their own brands of goofiness a fine art, especially the dating shows, such as "The Dating Game" and "Love Connection," where contestants don’t win the money, the car or the vacation, but rather, an awkward night on the town with a stranger. The best-case scenario for these poor, unsuspecting singles is a spot on "The Newlywed Game" the following year. Or for the young and hip, a post-breakup trip to MTV’s "Blame Game," where two obnoxious hosts make fun of contestants’ emotional weaknesses in barely translatable legalese until a fake judge lowers the gavel on whomever winds up looking the most pathetic at the end.

Game shows don’t really evolve; they just get more bizarre. And Comedy Central’s spring 1999 launch "VS." is the perfect show to carry on a weird legacy. It’s a cross between the buzzer-and-a-question format of "Jeopardy"and the team spirit of "Family Feud." The topics are always somewhere between tongue-in-cheek and completely off-the-wall, such as: "Reality Snake Bites" and "Whenever I’m In The Milk Section, I Like To Smell The Dairy Air." But at least the contestants and audience are prepared for it.

The mercilessly quick-witted host of "VS.," Greg Proops – who got his start doing improvisational comedy on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" – often gives the show’s inherent stupidity a little more humor than it deserves. Of course, his experience as a comic and an actor gives him more range than the average game show host; he also played an alien in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

On "VS.," Proops plays host to two teams – usually three members each – that are from starkly contrasting economic classes, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, or careers. Pitting vegans against deli workers, surf punks against teachers, housewives against fetish models, football players against cheerleaders, Romans against Greeks and Rastafarians against capitalists is reminiscent of Bill Maher’s hodgepodge forums on "Politically Incorrect," without the celebrities, politicians or rambling monologues. And speaking of political correctness (or a lack thereof), "VS." draws lines in the sand and highlights differences – and requires competition, no less – between these "labeled" people.

Because this is its main shtick, the show doesn’t quite live up to any "Schoolhouse Rock" melting pot sentiments, the unifying power of khaki pants and sweater vests featured in Gap TV commercials, or Calvin Klein’s androgynous models making olfactory bids for oneness between the sexes. But it doesn’t seem shocking either, because it is part of an interesting sway. "VS.," "Politically Incorrect" and such shows as "The Man Show" – a testosterone fest that also airs on Comedy Central – are part of an increasing number of successful departures from holding up old "PC" standards in the media.

Watching transvestites in a battle of brains against a trio of soccer moms might seem like a cruel experiment that only confirms stereotypes. But through surprising displays of knowledge, ignorance and opinions, the "VS." arena is also a place for breaking stereotypes of gender, race, economic class and identity. And much to Proops’ delight, there is always plenty of material for an entire stand-up routine during each show. So the content doesn’t need to be very compelling.

Do Rastafarians know more about football or Bob Marley than capitalists? Who knows more about rock ’n’ roll music, bikers or prison guards? Unfortunately, most of the time, nobody knows much of anything on "VS." But many of the answers are surprising. The topics from which the contestants choose their questions are confusing, because they obviously are meant to get a laugh more than they are meant to be understood. For instance, with such topics as "Why Tipper? Because She’s A Cow" what both contestants and audience members are to expect is anybody’s guess.

To simplify a game show that has great potential to be complicated by its own obligation to be a comedy, most of the questions in the four rounds played focus on pop culture and general information. Then the excitement tops out during the lightning round, followed by the final round, which is good for $1,000 for the team that answers the last question correctly.

"VS." is sort of a dumbed-down walk on the game show wild side compared with its Comedy Central network neighbor, "Win Ben Stein’s Money," which is intelligent and elegantly simple, but also about as dry as James Bond’s martini. Part of the strength of "VS." is its ability to balance a leaning toward self-parody with self-awareness and gritty humor. Sure, its entire premise is about clashes, stereotypes and controversy, but it is carried out in such a guileless and humorous way that I think even Mr. Hall would approve.

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