The story so far:
ABC's "The Chair" monitors contestants' heartbeats as they answer questions while dealing with jolts like live alligators dangled before them. If a player's heartbeat goes up too much, his winnings go down. "The Chair" premiered Jan. 15.
Host John McEnroe, the tempermental former tennis star, has created a new catch phrase for the show: "You've just been beaten by...(ominous pause)...THE CHAIR."
And if those alligators don't do it, McEnroe just might.
As he joked at the ABC press conference, "Yelling is always an option."
"The Chair," however, was beaten to the punch by Fox's new game show "The Chamber," which was rushed onto the air two days before "The Chair's" premiere.
"The Chamber" monitors contestants' vital signs as they answer questions while being spun around and blasted with heat in what looks like an elaborate motion sickness machine.
Does "The Chamber" have a catch phrase yet? I don't know, as I couldn't stand to watch more than the first episode. Just watching brought back vicarious feelings of carsickness (The heat! The smell!) I hadn't experienced since those long bus rides during grade school field trips.
The debut "Chamber" contestant, luckless Chuck, couldn't think of anything to say other than, "This is getting interesting."
So it is. "The Chair" producers sued Fox a few weeks ago, claiming that they'd originally pitched their game show to the network, which then stole the idea. Fox then countersued, saying those claims were false and "The Chair" side was campaigning against "The Chamber" and sneaking onto its closed set to find out secrets.
Naturally, observers are having more than a few laughs about all this.
"I hear it will be left for a court to decide the age-old question, 'Which came first, "The Chair" or "The Chamber"?'" joked WB publicist Keith Marder. "You know as well as I do that if they succeed, everyone will have their own take on a game show. The WB will appeal to its core younger audience with 'The High Chair,' which UPN will buy in four years. And CBS, of course, will have 'The Rocking Chair.'"
In a bitter e-mail to fans, TV writer Judd Apatow noted, "So basically, they've turned 'Clockwork Orange' into a show."
Apatow's fine and critically adored high school comedy "Freaks and Geeks" was canceled almost two years ago by NBC, and now it looks like Fox may pull the plug on his similarly critically acclaimed - but low-rated - new college comedy, "Undeclared."
"And this comes from ABC, the people who bring you Mickey Mouse," he added about "The Chair."
"The people who control TV are scared and desperate right now," Apatow continued. "The only thing worse than a crappy show which Paddy Chayevsky couldn't have conceived in his worst nightmare is two mega-corps fighting over who thought of the crappy show first."
"Well, this is the world I must navigate, and I must be honest, I'm running out of gas... Thank God for TiVo. At least now we can make all the crap go away."
The continuing question with these new reality shows, of course, is: What WON'T they do. And lately the answer seems to be: Not much.
With that in mind, fiction writer George Saunders, with his tragi-comic tales from the dystopic near future, seems even more of a visionary.
I refer producers in need of inspiration to "Sea Oak," a story in Saunders' lates collection, "Pastoralia."
Characters in a run-down apartment building sit around watching "How My Child Died Violently" or "The Worst That Could Happen," which Saunders describes as "a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually happened but theoretically could."
"A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he's eaten by wolves. A man cuts off his hand chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a pre-school during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher."
It couldn't be any worse than "The Chamber."
One thing about these new gross-out game shows, though, is they do make you appreciate the old pros. Case in point: Bob Barker and "The Price is Right," which celebrates its 30th anniversary Thursday on CBS.
Last week a riotous stampede broke out when an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people showed up for just 900 tickets to the special's taping in Las Vegas. (The producers had expected only about 2,000 people.)
Bob Barker, snowy haired and wrinkled but as slick and good-humored as ever, was in fine form at a press luncheon in Pasadena two weeks before the Las Vegas melee. Someone asked if contestants in the old days were as dumb as they are now?
"Contestants have always been dumb, and they have remained dumb for 46 years," Barker said cheerfully - adding that, of course, he was kidding.
Some things have changed, though. Barker's fame increased with the Gen Y set after he appeared in the Adam Sandler comedy "Happy Gilmore," in which he played himself pummeling Sandler on the golf course.
"So people always ask me now, could I really beat up Adam Sandler?" Barker
said. "And the answer is, yes, of course I could. Adam Sandler couldn't beat
up Pat Sajak."