In the 1950's, Jackie Gleason was infamous in the live television industry for refusing to do any rehearsing. CBS would not have to worry about scripts by putting Jackie Gleason, who was under a long term CBS contract, in a prime time game show where the focus of the show would be off-the-cuff witty ad libs, very much like Groucho Marx's successful You Bet Your Life.
CBS executives thought they could cash in on Gleason's popularity while also cashing in on the game show craze. The masterminds at CBS really came up with a doozy of a flop. You're in the Picture went something like this: four celebrity panelists would attempt to guess the content of a picture. The corny comedy catch was that the panelists could not see the picture since they were actually part of it.
The picture was painted on a giant seven foot high by ten foot wide piece of plywood and each celebrity panelist would put their head through a hole, making them part of the picture. It was like one of those old-fashioned Coney Island set-ups, except no one was throwing baseballs or eggs, or wet sponges. Maybe that would have been funnier. Unfortunately for TV audiences, CBS executives found this game hilarious. They felt the whole thing was an excellent format for Jackie Gleason to cut up, wise crack and ad lib the show into a ratings riot.
After the very first rehearsal, Jackie Gleason was furious. He wanted nothing to do with game show hosting and he thought the game CBS had concocted was ludicrous. But he was under a fifteen-year contract with CBS and had no choice. CBS lined up the first show's panel of celebrities. Logically they would be seeking young funny comedy performers who could all ad lib. Logic never came into it; they used Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling, Arthur Treacher and Pat Harrington, Jr.
On Friday night, in January of 1961, You're in the Picture made its debut. The five pictures that appeared on the first night's show were: Pocahontas Rescues John Smith, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Burlesque Beef Trust Girls, and Goldielocks and the Three Bears.
Less than half way through the broadcast it became evident that the show was a horrible disaster. The audience sure didn't feel involved with the program. Mostly, this was because it wasn't really a game show: there weren't any contestants, there wasn't any money at stake, and no skill was needed. The program was just of bunch of old unfunny celebrities making silly guesses and stupid wisecracks.
The show was so bad that most critics and audience members just felt awful for Jackie Gleason. He was, after all, still a much beloved television star. But nothing could change the fact that You're in the Picture really was simply dreadful, with the so-called witty banter forced, unfunny, and downright painful to watch. Near the end of that first broadcast, brave viewers who had not turned the channel could tell by looking at Gleason's face that he was well aware of just how bad the show was.
But Jackie Gleason could not get out of his CBS contract. He had to be on the air every Friday night for the rest of the season. Knowing this situation may ruin his career, he did the only thing he could: he showed up the following Friday night, pulled a chair up against a black curtain, sat down, and went on the air. Jackie Gleason did what few, if any, celebrities would have done. He spent the entire half-hour profusely apologizing and graciously asked his fans to forgive his poor judgment for having anything to do with that game show.
Starting the following week the name of the show was changed to The Jackie Gleason Show and each Friday night for the remainder of the season, Gleason would do a simple and quiet thirty-minute interview with a celebrity or friend. He never did another game show and shortly after that he was finally out of that damned CBS contract.