How ‘Numb Nuts’ Helped Launch ‘The Newlywed Game’
On July 11, 1966, The Newlywed Game premiered on television, quickly becoming a hit through the simple act of making private lives public.
The program was the brainchild of television veterans Robert "Nick" Nicholson and E. Roger Muir. The duo had young adult children at the time who were separately preparing for marriage. While discussing the respective nuptials, both men noted that the couples were “in a cloud” about getting married.
“We decided that we would capitalize on this and we came up with a show format called The Newlywed Game,” Muir later recalled to the Archive of American Television.
The original concept featured a celebrity couple facing off against married pairs. At the network’s suggestion, the idea was tweaked, with the celebrity aspect removed and a greater focus placed on couples proving who knew more about their spouse. Wives and husbands would be asked questions separately, with teams earning points only if both spouse’s answers matched. The winning couple was awarded prizes for their home, like new appliances.
Watch an Early Episode of 'The Newlywed Game'
Chuck Barris, best known for creating The Gong Show and The Dating Game, would sign on as The Newlywed Game’s producer, tasked with furthering its development. His first mission was to find a host. The original choice was Scott Beach, until a young DJ named Bob Eubanks stopped by Barris’ office. Even though the producer had already made up his mind, he agreed to give Eubanks a tryout.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Eubanks later confessed. “I started asking these questions and, man, this couple got into it and it was hilarious … and I got credit for it.”
Eubanks was hired, while Beach was shifted to the show’s announcer. Soon afterward, Eubanks had to do a run-through for the network, essentially an un-filmed episode of the series to showcase how the game would work. One question in particular grabbed the executives’ attention.
“I asked the question, ‘What’s your favorite nickname for your husband?’ Eubanks recalled asking one of the wives. “And she said, ‘Numb Nuts.’ And the ABC executives in the front row flipped over backwards.” According to Eubanks, that moment sealed the deal for the show. “[ABC] bought the show without a pilot based on ‘Numb Nuts.’”
Not everyone was thrilled with the show’s off-color direction. Muir, who referred to Barris as a “difficult guy” to work with, noted that the producer “allowed things to get on the show that [the creators] wouldn’t have.”
To Barris, the show wasn’t rude; it was honest. “The Newlywed Game had some obscene answers,” the producer admitted decades later to the Television Academy. “Those answers just came out. And we kinda liked them.”
Watch an Infamous Blooper From 'The Newlywed Game'
Questions on the show weren’t necessarily designed to create off-color moments. The bigger goal was to have couples bickering, disagreeing or revealing surprisingly private aspects of their home life to a national television audience. “This was edgy television at the time,” Eubanks explained. “It was the first time that we looked into people’s bedrooms.”
Though the host thought The Newlywed Game would last only 13 weeks, it far exceeded expectations. On July 11, 1966, the game show premiered right as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was giving a press conference. While other networks interrupted their programming to broadcast McNamara, ABC stuck with The Newlywed Game, quickly exposing the show to a large audience of viewers who were channel surfing to avoid the news conference. The fortuitous timing helped The Newlywed Game become an instant success.
"The beauty of The Newlywed Game was it was the height of simplicity," Barris explained to SF Gate decades later. "It just took four couples, eight questions and a washer-dryer, and we had a show."
The program became a staple of daytime television, with viewers consistently tuning in to get a glimpse inside the personal lives of the couples in competition. While Barris continued pushing the envelope, Eubanks became the show’s moral compass.
“I refused to ask about 40 percent of the questions,” the host confessed. He also wasn’t willing to use the term “making love” for sex, despite approval from the network to do so. The reason went back to an uncomfortable moment in the car with his daughter.
“A guy on the radio said, ‘I get horny when it rains,’” Eubanks remembered. “And my little 10-year-old daughter looked at me and said, ‘What does horny mean, dad?’ And it made me so mad.”
Not wanting to put other parents in a similar situation, Eubanks decided to go with the term “making whoopee” as his euphemism for sex, the term coming from a popular jazz song recorded by artists such as Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Surprisingly, "making whoopee" became an unexpected catchphrase for the show.
The Newlywed Game’s original run would last until 1974. It has returned in various forms - in both network and syndicated versions -- ever since. In total, the program has spent more than 25 years on the air.
Eubanks, who remains the show’s longest-tenured host, credits The Newlywed Game’s original format for its impressive longevity. “I don’t think we were a game show,” he admitted. “I think we were a comedy show that happened to have a game.”