Jackie Gleason once hosted a show so bad that it only ran one episode, followed by an on-air apology
Jackie Gleason is a total TV powerhouse, right? There's no way that anything he touches could flop. Especially if it doesn't just flop, but flops so magnificently that it goes down in TV history.
Well... this is the story of You're in the Picture.
At the time, Gleason was already a huge star. The Jackie Gleason Show (started as Cavalcade of Stars and later renamed) was a big success, coming in at #2 in the Neilsen ratings for the 1954-1955 season. Its most successful sketches were spun off into their own show, a little thing you may have heard of called The Honeymooners.
By 1961, the world was Gleason's oyster. On January 20, 1961, the same night that John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, he appeared as a host on a brand-new show called You're in the Picture.
Have you ever put your head in one of those character cut-out standees at a park or festival? That was the basic premise of the show. A panel of four celebrity guests would appear in a "picture" by placing their heads in the cut-outs of a famous scene or song lyric, and would have to ask Gleason yes/no questions to guess what the scene was. If the guests guessed correctly, 100 CARE packages would be donated in their name. If they didn't, the packages would be donated in Gleason's name instead.
The first episode had "pictures" featuring Pocahontas rescuing John Smith, four playing cards, a group of men leering at a woman in a bikini, and high schoolers at a track meet. The celebrity guests were Pat Harrington Jr., Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling and Arthur Treacher.
How bad was the show? After the episode finished, Gleason asked the stagehands what they thought. When all they could offer was "the commercials were great," Gleason knew he was in trouble. It took very little time for the critics to confirm this.
The next week, audiences tuning in for the second episode of You're in the Picture were treated to something unusual: Gleason sitting in a chair on a bare stage, where he proceeded to apologize for the bad quality of the show. Gleason called the show "the biggest bomb in history."
It wasn't all bad, though. After all, this is still Jackie Gleason we're talking about. He handled the on-air apology with a sense of humor and a little good-natured self-depreciation, like when he tried to identify who was responsible for the terrible show without taking the blame himself and ended up blaming the stagehand who said, "You're on the air" before the show. Another moment involved having stagehands bring out an example of one of the pictures but with their heads turned away, which Gleason jokes is because they don't want their wives and families attached to the show.
The apology, ironically, got much better reviews than the actual show. However, show sponsor Kellogg's pulled their sponsorship after Gleason made a joke during the apology about how his coffee cup contained a new kind of coffee called "Chock Full O’Booze."
Gleason obviously bounced back okay, since he's one of the most famous comedians of all time. For the rest of us, You're in the Picture serves as a reminder that even the greatest of us all can have a bad day.
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