David Letterman Hosts 1977 Game Show Pilot, 'The Riddlers' — Show Awful, Dave Hilarious

A good game show can be a lot of fun. And good game show hosts tend to be earnest about the proceedings yet cheerful and able to come up with a quip when needed; they charm (or at least attempt to) the guests; they have a good repartee with any celebrity guests. That's the model. When it's poorly done, it can be difficult to watch.

But what if there was a game show host who was wickedly funny and clearly didn't respect the proceedings at hand? A game show host who wasn't afraid to mock the celebrity guests, and whose sense of humor ran toward the absurd and arch? A host who was self-mocking while also mocking the situation in which he found himself?

Well, then you'd have David Letterman hosting a show called The Riddlers. The Riddlers was a game show pilot taped in 1977. That was before Letterman's first Tonight Show appearance, before his membership in the cast of the ill-fated Mary variety hour (watch Dave sing and dance!), both of which happened in 1978. In 1977, Letterman was doing stand-up in Los Angeles, and looking for television gigs anywhere he could find them. In 1978 and 1979 — after his successful first Tonight Show — Letterman could be seen guesting on multiple game shows.

But in 1977, Letterman was pretty much a nobody. But his agents got him in the door as host of The Riddlers. For a guy who needed a job, Letterman appears, in the pilot, completely unafraid to make fun of what is going on. His wit is rapier sharp, and he unsheaths it early and often.

The setup of the show is that a panel of five celebrities played against a panel of five "regular" folks. The folks got to keep their winnings; any winnings by the celebrities were given to home viewers. Early on, Letterman reads off the list of lucky home viewers who'll get the celebrities' money. Naming a woman from his hometown of Indianapolis, Letterman quips, "I used to look in her windows."

The game started with the host, Letterman, reading a riddle to the first person on a panel. If that person solved the riddle, he or she then turned to panelist No. 2 and read another riddle. If the second riddle was solved, the second panelist read another riddle to the third panelist, and so on. Solve nine riddles in a row, and your side win the game.

The celebrity panel goes first in the pilot, and the five celebrities are Jo Anne Worley, Robert Urich, Joyce Builifant, Michael McKean and Debralee Scott. That's a pretty good game show guest list in 1977! But confusion quickly reigns, and which point Letterman says, "Boy, this really makes you want to run out and buy the home game, doesn't it?"

The celebs manage to answer the first four questions, then McKean reads a riddle to Scott, who has no idea. "This answers the question," Dave says, "of whether or not the celebrities are tested before coming on the show." Ouch!

At one point later in the episode, a light bulb blows out with a loud pop. "Sniper fire," Dave suggests.

Here is the full pilot episode of The Riddlers (in this video posted to YouTube, the pilot is introduced by Elvira, which fits right in with Letterman's arch and absurdist comic sensibilities):

In 1991, panelist Michael McKean appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and they briefly discussed The Riddlers. Letterman recalls that they were supposed to tape two episodes that day, but following the first taping a producer told the cast that they had all they needed. Never a good sign!

McKean praises Letterman's hosting effort by saying, "You were the first game show host I had ever seen who knew that it was crap!" Well, Letterman replies, "It was a gig." Here are McKean and Dave talking about The Riddlers:

Imagine if The Riddlers had been greenlit, hit the airwaves, became a smash hit. Game-show host Dave. Probably would have been awesome! But American comedy might never have benefited from his huge influence on late-night talk.