Something bothered me after the iconic Bob Barker died in August. First, it broke my heart that Hollywood lost an icon, who lived to the ripe old age of 99 and carved out an indelible mark on a generation of television audiences. But in the wake of Barker’s death, almost everyone immediately linked him to his unforgettable cameo in Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore, where the two fought to the death on the golf course. And it should be mentioned. But not at the expense of Barker’s legendary run as the host of the daytime game show The Price is Right.
Game shows are a staple of the television medium, dating back to Melody Puzzles in 1937, Battle of Sexes in 1938, The Ask-It Basket in 1939. They grew to grand stature in the 1960s and 70s courtesy of hit game shows such as Jeopardy, The Gong Show, The $10,000 Pyramid, and Wheel of Fortune, to name just a few. It was during that stretch that Barker took over as host of The Price is Right (in 1972), and it’s a position that he held for 35 years before retiring in 2007. His influence still can be felt in the game-show environment to this day, from the advice Barker gave to replacement host Drew Carey to the energy and attitude that’s reflected in modern hosts like Steve Harvey or Michael Strahan.
With all of that in mind, I started to think about where Bob Barker would rank in the grand pantheon of game show hosts. And I realized that I knew way more about game show hosts than I ever assumed. Now, I’m keeping this focused on traditional game shows, not reality competitions (sorry, Jeff Probst). And so, here are the 15 greatest game show hosts of all time.
15. Pat Sajak
Pat Sajak makes it onto this list due to his longevity. The man has presided over Wheel of Fortune for more than four decades, which is a LONG time to be listening to people guess the same letters over and over, five nights a week. I preferred Wheel of Fortune when the contestants used to shop in between rounds, their floating heads purchasing items off of a set. At least then, Sajak had time to interact with his winners. Because my biggest knock on Sajak is that he’s vanilla, and his lack of viral moments in that 40+ year career tells you exactly how boring he managed to be. With all due respect, props to the man for keeping the wheel spinning, but maybe the show would have been more entertaining with Vanna White in the hosting role? It’s not too late to find out.
14. Marc Summers
If you are nodding your head at this placement (or even challenging that it needs to be higher), then you are amongst the millions of readers who spent time after school cheering on families as they competed in outrageous physical challenges that usually involved finding a flag in the messiest situations possible. Marc Summers presided over Double Dare on Nickelodeon, and stood out because he didn’t mind embracing the chaos that came with the clever competitions invented for the show. It was fun watching parents and kids clawing through life-sized bowls of spaghetti and sauce in hopes of winning a prize. But it was uproarious seeing the affable Summers coated in the same goop by the end of almost every episode, doing whatever it took to get the laugh. Trebek would never.
13. Regis Philbin / Dick Clark (tie)
Here’s the thing about the two men I have tied for 13th place on this list: Neither of them needed to be the host of a game show. They already were extremely popular (and successful) thanks to other endeavors. Both Regis Philbin and Dick Clark were staples in the homes of Americans thanks to other work they did on television. I’d put them in the same category as Michael Strahan, Elizabeth Banks, Jane Lynch, or Ben Stein. I don’t think of them as game show hosts first. They are entertainers who happened to host a show at some point in their career. But Philbin and Clark were so memorable as hosts of extremely popular primetime game shows (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The $10,000 Pyramid, respectively), that leaving them off of the list would be wrong.
12. Bob Eubanks
Where Regis and Dick Clark were known well outside the realm of their respective game show gigs, Bob Eubanks basically had The Newlywed Game as his badge of honor. But he was so effective at getting couples to talk about “making whoopee,” it immediately cemented him in the pantheon of game show hosts. Eubanks succeeded as a radio deejay before helping to launch The Newlywed Game in 1966, and his ability to disarm his contestants with open and candid conversation likely came from his early years on live radio. And because Eubanks kept returning to the format during several revivals, he became the only person in the entertainment industry to host the same game show in six consecutive decades (from the 1960s through the 2010s).
11. Anne Robinson
Do you know one thing that a game show host can do to cement their legacy? Come up with a catchphrase. “Have your pet spayed or neutered!” belongs to Bob Barker. “Survey says…” is linked forever to Richard Dawson. And during her run as the host of The Weakest Link, Anne Robinson locked her place on this list with her cruel, cold, and deliciously dismissive, “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” She didn’t have to be great beyond that, and she’d still get placement on this list. But because Robinson had tight chemistry with her contestants that I put her JUST outside the Top 10.
10. Howie Mandel
I almost lumped Howie Mandel into the same category as Regis Philbin and Dick Clark, because I remember him as an extremely successful stand-up comic who used to put rubber gloves over his head and blow them up using only his nose. It was a gimmick, but it worked! Over the years, though, the notorious germaphobe graduated to full-time contest host, and while he’s known for his current run on America’s Got Talent, I think he deserves a call out on this list for his tremendous work on Deal Or No Deal. Mandel’s gift as a stand-up allowed him to have tremendous conversations with the contestants, the banker, and the models holding the cases that were opened during the game. It made for a wildly entertaining, energetic primetime competition that also soared in syndication. Good deal!
9. Jim Lange
Of all the people showcased on this list, Jim Lange might be the most prolific in the game show field. A radio disc jockey (like so many other TV hosts before him), Lange stayed incredibly busy by hosting Oh My Word, $100,000 Name That Tune, Bowling for Dollars, Bullseye, Triple Threat, and others. But his masterpiece has to be The Dating Game, which he presided over for 15 years, charming beautiful bachelorettes with his banter while they fielded questions and answers from hopeful bachelors. Lange was a pro’s pro with a real gift for pacing, and knowing how to keep the flirtatious game show on the right side of the line.
8. Ken Ober
A few people on this list landed one seminal gig, and made it into a career. That list has to include the brilliant Ken Ober, a comedian and actor who bounced around to a couple of gigs (and even hosted a few other game shows) but forever will be known for his outstanding work on the loose, freestyling, rowdy, and twisted MTV game show Remote Control. It catered to the kids who were tuning into the network on a daily basis. It was low-budget. It was goofy. And Ober was cool, offering snack breaks for the contestants, and introducing Adam Sandler and Colin Quinn to the world. This show needs a reboot, with Ober, Sandler, and Quinn back in their roles.
7. Wink Martindale
Some people were just born to host game shows. And if you embrace the stage name Wink Martindale on behalf of your professional career, you basically accept the fact that this is going to be your lot in life… and it’s best that you try to become the best of the best at it. And that’s what Wink Martindale did, primarily on Tic-Tac-Dough from 1978-85. Martindale made a basic game of tic-tac-toe entertaining and suspenseful, though adding a fire-breathing dragon behind one of the squares probably helped. Basically, though, if you mention the name “Wink,” we immediately think of Tic-Tac-Dough, and that shows real power and influence.
6. Steve Harvey
Here’s where we start getting into the cream of the crop. Steve Harvey is outstanding as the host of Family Feud and Celebrity Family Feud. And as you’ll see with the list progressing, he had enormous shoes to fill as host of this long-running game show. But Harvey has mastered the art of viral videos, whether they come from emotional surprises in the audience, or hilariously inappropriate answers from clueless contestants. Harvey makes fun without ever insulting, spotlights the absurd for the right amount of time, and has earned the “Uncle Steve” nickname that so many players have lovingly adopted. With Harvey, it’s all in the Family.
5. Chuck Barris
The top five is filled with heavy hitters. And if you believe Chuck Barris, it’s filled with professional hitmen, as well. Barris once claimed in his autobiography that he had worked for years in the CIA. He retracted that claim years later, then gently retracted the retraction, never revealing the truth before his death in 2017. What we DO know about Barris is that he created two wildly popular game shows in The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, then turned himself into a household name as the ring leader of the televised circus known as The Gong Show. The acts were increasingly bizarre on that program, and Barris was the idea host, keeping things moving and perpetually entertaining. He was both dependable and unpredictable, in the same package. What a gift.
4. Gene Rayburn
Play the game with me. “Gene Rayburn was so talented at his job, he could BLANK, and still not get fired!” Cue the unforgettable Match Game theme song. The great Rayburn hosted the classic Match Game, and the best part about him was the way that he interacted with the celebrity panel… which was usually the funniest content on daytime television. Match Game made household names of Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers, Betty White, Vicki Lawrence, Nipsey Russell, and the legendary Rip Taylor. It took a razor-sharp wit and quick mind to keep up with the ball-breaking comics on that show, and Rayburn was magnificent with his timing, comebacks, and banter. Match Game wouldn’t have succeeded without him.
3. Richard Dawson
No one in the game show universe was cooler than Richard Dawson. Dudes admired his humor and style. Every woman on the Family Feud set wanted to kiss him (and usually did). He was a rock star game show host who treated Family Feud like a world tour. He read mildly suggestive clues, fielded bizarre answers from families competing for cash, and he wrung the sharpest jokes out of the entire endeavor. Dawson was a comedic actor on Hogan’s Heroes as well as a beloved panelist on Match Game. But survey says it is his stint on the original Family Feud that turned him into a legend.
2. Alex Trebek
The late, great Alex Trebek changed the game when it came to hosting a game show. The majority of hosts prior to Trebek treated guests with respect. They were happy to have them there, and usually encouraged them to succeed. Trebek? Not so much. At best, Trebek seemed to tolerate the Jeopardy contestants, a tone that best reflected the intellectual challenge of the program. We wanted to be really good at Jeopardy because we thought it might please Alex Trebek. That attitude probably only works on one show, but Jeopardy was the one to use it on. It turned Trebek into a game show god.
1. Bob Barker
Bob Barker had it all. The host of The Price is Right was witty, warm, and wise. He could be charming with guests, or impatient (when the contestants warranted it). In time, as Barker grew older and more generations welcomed him into their homes, the television personality felt more like a family member we’d check in on daily, rather than a “character” on a show. Barker would trade his unusually thin Price is Right microphone for celebrated cameos like the one opposite Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore. And he made controlling the pet population his charitable mission. But basically, the skilled Barker made the act of guessing grocery prices into an art, and every other game show host we see from this point forward will owe a debt of gratitude to him.