One night, it’s Julia Roberts laughing hysterically as she gets hit in the face with a beach ball. On another, it’s Nick Cannon playing Pictionary with Megan Fox. Or Glenn Close smearing her face with pie in a food-eating contest.
But that’s just on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” Tune into NBC a little earlier on Thursdays for “Hollywood Game Night,” and you’ll see a bevy of celebrities chortling over a game of Catchphrase or Charades. Or flip over to Craig Ferguson’s syndicated “Celebrity Name Game” to see the likes of David Arquette and Lisa Kudrow race the clock to guess the VIPs identified by vague clues.
Does it feel like we’re back in the 1970s of “Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares”? Once again, stars are lining up to cut loose in the old format of wacky TV game shows. Except now, in the social media age, it’s almost mandatory for celebrities to prove they’re really Just Like Us.
Proof these games have officially reached the tipping point: “Saturday Night Live” expertly parodied “Hollywood Game Night” this weekend. With “stars” like Morgan Freeman (played by Jay Pharaoh), Kathie Lee Gifford (Kristen Wiig) and Al Pacino (Bill Hader), they poked fun at some of the more absurd bits on the Emmy-winning show: “Starting with a game called Snack Time, where we show you an unwrapped piece of candy and you tell us what it is,” proclaimed SNL’s Kate McKinnon as host Jane Lynch. “. . . and that’s a real game we play on this show.” (It really is!)
“Celebrity Name Game” is similarly uncomplicated: Stars pair up with civilian contestants, who try to guess famous names (from actors to politicians to book characters) based on various clues — you may have played similar parlor games known as “Celebrity” or “Taboo.” When seemingly obvious answers are blown, hilarity ensues: In one clip from the show making the rounds, the name “Craig Ferguson” came up; Arquette vainly pointed at the host, but the mortified contestant couldn’t remember his name.
So what’s the appeal? Ferguson recently got on the phone with reporters for a conference call and we asked: Why exactly do people like watching Zachary Levi and Rachael Ray playing a game called “50 Charades of Grey” or Jimmy Fallon challenging acclaimed actors in karaoke contests?
“I think audiences like seeing the humanizing effect of somebody being as informal as that, because once you’re playing a game, it’s a little more difficult to remain aloof,” Ferguson said. “If you’re playing beer pong or you’re playing ‘Celebrity Name Game,” it’s difficult to maintain that sort of grand distance. And I think audiences like that — particularly television audiences crave intimacy from the medium.”
What if something goes terribly wrong during one of the games? It doesn’t matter. A casual atmosphere prevails. And celebrities seem to enjoy a promotional stop on a TV show that doesn’t just involve sitting on a couch and retelling pre-screened anecdotes.
“The guests like it because the pressure to remain grand and aloof — and also the pressure to somehow appear sparkling or inspire a conversation — is off,” Ferguson said. “All you have to do is play the game, so the guesswork is out of it. So I think for both sides of the equation, that’s the attraction.”
So far, the celeb pairings on his show are pretty random, except for Courtney Cox and David Arquette — the apparently still-friendly exes produce the show through their production company, Coquette. Many of their showbiz friends stop by to play, such as Cox’s “Cougar Town” co-star Josh Hopkins and former “Friends” pal Lisa Kudrow. Partners have included Darren Criss with Sheryl Crow, and Tom Arnold with Spice Girl Mel B. This week’s guests are Jane Leeves (“Hot in Cleveland”), Tony Hale (“Veep), Dan Bucatinsky (“Scandal”) and Jim O’Heir (“Parks and Recreation”).
And if the show’s antics jolt your preconceived notion about a celebrity — well, that’s what everyone was going for here. Ferguson said he was especially impressed by how child star-turned-“Extra” host Mario Lopez played the game.
“I actually was shocked and rather taken aback by [his] game playing ability and comedic timing,” Ferguson admitted. “He’s good at his job, but I thought ‘He’s a talking head on TV.’ But actually he’s got chops — it was nice to watch.”