Network TV is currently flooded with game shows in primetime. From Match Game, to The Weakest Link, to Supermarket Sweep, you can make a meal out of the many game shows on the Big Four networks each week, and helming those shows is a fleet of celebrity hosts.
But what makes a great primetime game show host? How well-equipped are some of these big names to lead their series? We've taken a dozen of our favorites and ranked them to figure out who is the best of the best.
Elizabeth Banks is a gifted comic actress, a producer, a director — and yes, she's also the host of Press Your Luck. But what makes Banks great as an actress doesn't always translate to her work as a host. She doesn't seem particularly invested in the contestants, and tends to perform her parts of the show as if she were playing Elizabeth Banks. Put another way: it seems like she's playing the role of a game show host, not actually being a game show host.
There's no question that ABC is deeply invested in Michael Strahan. After pulling the former New York Giants defensive end from Live! With Kelly to co-host Good Morning America — a scandalous move that infuriated Kelly Ripa at the time — the network has given Strahan further opportunities to flex his muscles as on-camera talent. There was Strahan, Sara & Keke, the short-lived GMA spinoff co-hosted by Sara Haines and Keke Palmer. There was a guest role on Black-ish. And there's his spot hosting The $100,000 Pyramid. It's not that Strahan is bad on the show, but Pyramid in particular is a format that benefits from great host-and-contestant banter, and Strahan doesn't quite hit that note. As a morning talk show host, he's aces, but his Pyramid performance proves that not all hosting gigs use the same skills.
Like her former co-host Strahan, The View's Haines is another member of ABC's talent reserves who's been brought in to fill a primetime game show-hosting slot. And, like Strahan, she's perfectly able as a host — she just doesn't bring a lot of flair to her role. I do think that her task is slightly more difficult, owing to The Chase's other talents and the somewhat convoluted format. Haines has to shuttle the show from section to section without losing the audience, while leaving most of the banter to the three Jeopardy! champions — Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, and James Holzhauer — whoserve as opponents for the contestants. It's kind of a thankless gig that Haines handles as best as she can. She's toward bottom of this pack, but more because of the constraints of the show than any failing of her own.
I won't argue that Joel McHale is particularly great at hosting the reboot of Card Sharks, a needlessly complicated show that I've watched many times and still don't fully underrstand, but I do put him above folks like Strahan and Haines because he's more interesting to watch. There's something almost surreal about his hosting style. He's so lackadaisical, so low-key in comparison to the chaos that surrounds him. You get the sense that he doesn't understand the show's rules any better than the rest of us, and he's OK with that. As a work of performance art, it almost works.
Like another higher up on this list, Jane Lynch has the long shadow of a beloved host hanging over her on Weakest Link, although Anne Robinson is (thankfully) still with us. As the original host of the show for both its US and UK incarnations, Robinson was essential to the Weakest Link brand, making Lynch's role in the show's revival that much more challenging. As I've written before, much of what works about the new show stems from its casting, while Lynch takes a bit of a step back. But what she does effectively is a credit to her: she keeps the acerbic qualities of Robinson's hosting without replicating them, artfully pitting contestants against each other as the game goes on.
Anthony Anderson — the Emmy-nominated star of Black-ish, and another key member of ABC's talent bench — gets the benefit of a celebrity panel on his show. The three or four celebs called in to guess who is telling the truth about their identity do much of the heavy lifting, with Anderson's role largely relegated to facilitating the game and asking the panelists to introduce themselves. But what makes this reboot of To Tell the Truth work (and what Anderson is particularly good at inspiring) is giant, outsized reactions to identity reveals. Take one look at how Anderson handles reveals and you'll see what I mean: he treats them as seismic shocks, and gets both the panel and the audience on board with his huge reactions. It's may seem small, but it's what makes the show work — and Anderson deserves credit for it.
Kimmel has a thankless task he seems well aware of: in the biggest moment of this celebrity Millionaire revival (when David Chang won a million dollars), Kimmel noted that he can't possibly compare to his late predecessor, Regis Philbin. "I'm no Regis, we all know that," he said. "God, I wish I was." You can tell Kimmel really knows his Millionaire history, rattling off former top prize winners regularly to put the celebrity contestants' performances in perspective. His skills as a talk show host come through clearly as he draws the thoughts and emotions out of the celebrity contestants. He may sit in Philbin's long shadow, but he handles the role with grace and respect for the legend who came before him.
Craig Ferguson gets major points for intimacy. Not that he gets particularly close with his contestants emotionally; more that by virtue of the format of The Hustler, he's very close to them physically. The social strategy game shoots in a small library set, with the five contestants huddled around a table as Ferguson circles around them. Equipped with his thick Scottish brogue, Ferguson guides them through their journey to determine which of them is the titular Hustler, lobbing accusations of his own and stirring the pot to keep things interesting. He doesn't get a flashy set or big graphics to help him; Ferguson is basically a one-man show. Although I wish the show handled eliminations better (Ferguson shoves contestants behind a bookcase — which is as awkward as it sounds), he does a solid job running the ship on his own.
There will always be a certain veneer of "Is this a 30 Rock joke?" to new TV projects for Jane Krakowski. Whether it be playing mother to a modern, rebellious Emily Dickinson on Dickinson, or hosting FOX's shiny Name That Tune reboot with Idol's Randy Jackson as her band leader, everything Krakowski does on TV feels like it could be Jenna Maroney doing it. But in that way, Krakowski is exactly the right fit for this contemporary musical guessing game. She mugs to the camera before commercial breaks, banters with Jackson, and even sings here and there when she can steal the opportunity. It's early yet, but Krakowski seems to be proving she's learned a few things about hosting from her Match Game panel appearances.
Pat Sajak's biggest advantage among this group is that he literally does this for a living (and he has for decades). While most of the hosts on this list do a few episodes a year and otherwise have no game show hosting experience (Hollywood Game Night host Lynch being an exception), this is Sajak's bread and butter. Sure, hosting celebrities instead of the show's typical contestants could have thrown him off his game — bigger personalities require more wrangling — but so far, Sajak has proven to perhaps be even more effective with star contestants, patiently explaining rules and holding their hands through the game. What could have been a clunkier version of "America's Game" instead feels just as seamless as the main series, with a bit more banter for good measure. Sajak's experienced hand is largely responsible for the new show's success.
ABC's rebooted Match Game was one of the first primetime network game shows of the modern era, which makes Alec Baldwin a veteran on this list, and his experience comes through on the show. Whether he's dealing with nonsense answers from the contestants or drunken antics from the celebrity panel, Baldwin keeps things moving. He cracks jokes as well as the funniest folks on the panel, and rightfully never lets the contestants themselves fade out of focus. Really, he's terrific; my only knock on his hosting is a small one: since he's got a full star panel, he's got the advantage of other pros to banter with. (Multiple other hosts on this list have appeared on his show.) While Lynch, Ferguson, and my #1 pick are the sole stars of their series, Baldwin is more of a master of ceremonies among a lot of big personalities. Banter is easier for him than it is for others. So that puts him just shy of the top slot, but only for that reason.
Leslie Jones and Supermarket Sweep are a match made in game show heaven. Jones' high-energy, bombastic hosting is a perfect fit for this loud, physical game. You need someone just as invested in the contestants' success as they are, and Jones goes hard for these contestants. When they succeed, she's right there jumping with them. When they fail, she's comforting, always looking for the bright side. And when they just need a laugh, she's ready to banter with them, as well as with her assistants on the show. Sure, you can't see Jones hosting Weakest Link or The Chase, but by the same token, you can't imagine Lynch or Haines hosting Supermarket Sweep. Jones is the perfect pick to host this show, and she gives it her all in every episode, making her the cream of the crop among TV's current crop of primetime game show hosts..
Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.
TOPICS: Game Shows, The $100,000 Pyramid, Card Sharks, Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, The Chase, The Hustler, Match Game, Name That Tune, Press Your Luck, Supermarket Sweep, To Tell the Truth, The Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire