By Adam Nedeff, researcher for the National Archives of Game Show History
Have you ever teased a friend who was about to make a bad decision by saying “You’ll be sorry”? And you probably didn’t just say it. You probably said it with an odd, sing-song inflection. “You’lllllll be soooooooo-rrrrrrrryyyyyy!”
It was probably just something you picked up. You’ve heard friends say it. You’ve heard characters say it in movies and TV shows. But when you said “You’llllllll be sooooooooo-rrrrrrrrryyyyy” in that distinctive way, did you ever ask yourself why you’re saying it like that?
When you say “You’ll be sorry” like that, you’re quoting a game show catchphrase that has enjoyed a stunningly long life beyond that of its show.
Take It or Leave It debuted on CBS Radio in 1940 with host Bob Hawk. An audience member’s name was drawn from a fishbowl, and that person would select a category from a simple blackboard onstage. Hawk asked a question valued at $1. The show’s title came from the dilemma attached to a correct answer. The contestant could quit with the money they won, or leave it for a chance to answer another question worth double the value, from $2 to $4 to $8 to $16 to $32, all the way up to the famous “$64 question.”
“Sixty-four-dollar question” itself became a common phrase, being invoked at sports events, Senate hearings, and political press conferences. Today, “Sixty-four-dollar question” is listed in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary with the definition “Noun: a crucial question expressing the basic issue on a problematical subject.”
A new host took over the show in December 1941, Phil Baker, the man generally credited with “You’ll be sorry.” He began saying it to contestants who opted to forfeit their money to go for another question. The audience picked up on it and began saying it with him. As the years went by, the delivery of the line grew more exaggerated, until it reached the strange sing-song tone that we know today. A 1943 report mentions that the older soldiers at military induction centers were known to stand near the barber chairs and yell “You’llllll be soooo-rrrrrrrryyy!” as the new recruits got their heads shaved.
With a popular host, a big audience (35 million listeners a week by one estimate), and catchphrases that permeated the language, Take It or Leave It achieved a rare level of success for a game show—it was adapted into a movie. In 1944, 20th-Century Fox treated moviegoers to Take It or Leave It, a movie co-starring Phil Baker as himself. The movie’s premise was simple and inexpensive: a contestant selected the category “Scenes from Motion Pictures of the Past,” with each question leading to a musical scene from a past 20th-Century Fox film.
Baker departed the show in 1947, replaced by Garry Moore, who hosted it until the series ended in 1950. Five years later, plans were being made for the CBS television network to introduce a new version of the show, with a thousandfold increase in the cash prizes. Moore was offered the job of hosting the new series, but declined, saying he suspected that with prizes that big, “hanky-panky” was inevitable. He called it. The $64,000 Question would be one of the defining shows of the Quiz Show Scandal.
DO YOU REMEMBER…THESE OTHER GAME SHOW PHRASES THAT ENTERED OUR VOCABULARY?
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”—What’s My Line? panelist Steve Allen had established that a contestant’s line of work involved a product. Trying to figure out the product, Allen tried to zero in on the size of it by asking “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” For a question asked in such a specific set of circumstances, it became a common phrase in the English language, as a simple way to try to establish facts about an unknown thing.
“Will the real (____) please stand up?”—To Tell the Truth ended every game with a simple request to reveal which of the three contestants was the person that they were claiming to be. Within five years, Rod Serling presented an episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” An animated series, Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down? showed up on Saturday morning TV in the 1970s. And Eminem had a signature hit in 2000 with the classic “Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up?”
“The password is…”—When Password was originally developed in 1961, producer Bob Stewart wanted to do something helpful for his mother, an immigrant who spoke English fluently but had never learned how to read it. Stewart had the show’s announcer whisper each password while it was displayed in the lower third of the screen, so his mother would be able to understand the game at all times. It became a common way to say that the reason or solution for something was so simple, it could be expressed in one word.