ZOOM: The New Hollywood Squares (Without, Alas, Paul Lynde)

Why, hello. It’s been too long, blogworld. I’ve missed you. I’ve been busy working on an essay for my writing class, which now meets on the Zoom platform instead of in person because of, well — you know why. We had our last class of this session on Wednesday night, arrayed like D List celebrities on our Hollywood Squares screen.

For those of you not branded “elderly” in our COVID-19 nightmare world, Hollywood Squares was a daytime TV show popular among housewives and retirees from 1966 to 2004. Arranged three across and three down to simulate a tic tac toe board, each square held a rotating cast of characters like Rose Marie,  Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charlie Weaver and a long list of other more or less washed up movie and television personalities.

Think Dancing With the Stars without the costumes or the sexy music (but those ’70s outfits … phew). Contestants guessed whether the answer offered by the celebrity/square of their choice to a fatuous question was correct. If they guessed right, they were rewarded with an X or an O, on the way to tic tac toe and a prize.  

The perennial center square — Paul Lynde — was a constant. Reliably sardonic, he was an utterly over-the-top gay man in an era when that was actually quite remarkable for network TV. I loved him. Alas, my Zoommate roster does not include such a snarky, funny character, unless you count the only male of the group, Charlie, who can be quite wry, but without the delectable bitchiness that only Paul Lynde could deliver. Some samples of his usually off-color humor can be found here.

Instead, we writing class nerds gaze into our computer cameras, emerging from our  poorly lit squares to opine on the thematic flow, authenticity of voice, grammatical correctness and overall interest of the piece(s) of the week. It feels a little ridiculous. If I didn’t have a glass of wine to sip on throughout the two hour marathon I would feign technical difficulties and mysteriously disappear.

Why is Zooming so much less satisfying than meeting in person? Is it just because the medium makes each of us look even longer in the tooth than we already are?

Trish & Friend

As “serious people,” we don’t put on the layers of makeup that would be necessary to keep us from looking like death warmed over onscreen. And now that no one can get a haircut or have our roots done, any hope of looking “anchor chair ready” is a pipe dream. The only saving grace is that the square only shows us from the shoulders up, hiding the reality, in my case, that I haven’t worn a bra or anything other than sweat pants for six weeks. 

I’m not the only one who has reservations about Zoom. It’s hackable, a phenomenon called zoombombing, which when our pets do it is adorable, but not so much when your dissertation defense is interrupted by racist, pornographic doodles. It is, for all it’s “at home with fill-in-the-blank” alleged coziness, impersonal, awkward and inauthentic. Worst of all, I feel like I am being breathed on by a halitosis riddled close talking colleague. Get outta my face!!!

Recent articles in The New Yorker by a professor and in theYale Review by a student point out that humanities courses are meant to encourage discussion, empathetic listening, give and take. That is virtually impossible (every pun intended) within this platform. All of the body language that makes in-person discussion so fruitful is lost. People interrupt more and listen less as they fiddle with their keypads or shoo off interloping partners, pets or phone calls. And it all feels pretty humorless as well.

Which brings me back to the Hollywood Squares. It was silly. It was funny. It was pure camp. Paul Lynde died at sixty in 1982, but the show didn’t go off the air until 2004, the same year that the first season of Donald Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice, debuted. I never really got into The Apprentice; I thought the premise was manipulative, materialistic, championing the value of winning at all costs. And now we are captives in our own homes due not just to the coronavirus, but to Trump’s need to make everything a game of survival in which he decides who advances to the next episode and who doesn’t.

Even though I really don’t like meeting with my fellow writers by laptop, at least on Zoom, I can pretend to be on the Hollywood Squares set instead of in the fake boardroom of The Apprentice, which morphed into the Situation Room in season 16. The host, the contestants and the celebrities on the Hollywood Squares are just out to have a little fun and sell some detergent or toothpaste instead of encouraging us from the press room podium to drink bleach to kill the virus. So, maybe I’ll channel my inner Paul Lynde and try to inject some saltiness into the Zoom format to relieve us all from feeling as if we are about to be not just fired, but left to die by Trump, the country’s demonic CEO. Or maybe next time I’ll just put on makeup and a bra and call it a success.

15 thoughts on “ZOOM: The New Hollywood Squares (Without, Alas, Paul Lynde)”

  1. Love what you wrote and I am not here to be a writerly critic- a fellow human who shares a love of articulating thoughts and feelings in an intimate way which you always do. I didn’t watch much TV overall but I do remember Hollywood Squares a little. It is a much better image than how I feel about zooming meetings. I have connected this way with friends and family but I find it hard to focus. I have declined to participate in executive style meetings I was involved in before now- I find 14 people poring over documents to be revised inside their squares hard to follow. I feel less and less a need to presume my opinion is actually all that important. My writing group met socially today while we learned how to screenshare funny videos we received around the pandemic. Some very good ones! Someone suggested we actually could do a real writing group, but many people mumbled that they hadn’t been writing all that much lately so we’ll see. If we do, I will impose Hollywood Squares around us and fortunately we do have a reliably wry and caustic writer who never fails to crack us up.

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    1. My group has had trouble writing too. I think it is just so hard to summon the muse without the stimulation that everyday life used to include…simple things like an overheard conversation or dog park antics or a trip to the museum or heck, a trip to anywhere! We are all adjusting to a much smaller vantage point. In that sense being boxed into the square really fits!

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  2. I loved watching Hollywood Squares with my grandmother, but only when I was pretty young… not old enough to know that Paul Lynde was gay. News to me, which is funny, because if I ever thought about it, I would have come to that conclusion. We’re having a zoom party for my dad on his birthday next weekk. He was asking me what it was like and I compared it to the opening of the Brady Bunch. There, now I’ve dated myself. He though it sounded fun. I told him I attended to a zoom board meeting last night and fun isn’t the adjective I’d use. I’m finding all sorts of surprising benefits of the quarantine. Zoom isn’t one of them.

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  3. Thanks for the flashback to Paul Lynde and the perfect comparison of Zooming to Hollywood Squares, which is now etched indelibly on what’s left of my brain.

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  4. It feels like such a strain for me to speak on Zoom. I don’t like seeing myself on the screen–like speaking into a mirror, but not to myself. It all feels awkward. I commend you for trying–with or without the bra. Ha! We’re on the same page there. I put on jeans today and that felt like an accomplishment!

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  5. I know!! No wonder all of the clothing stores are having huge sales. Who even wears more than sweats anymore? Thanks for reading and commenting and stay well.

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  6. This is such a great piece. Perfect comparison. Paul Lynne was a real hoot on that show. Our only Zoom meetings have been with a biking group. We did happy hours and one couple would do a PowerPoint presentation about a trip they’d done. The last one was my turn and it really felt stale and stilted by then. I’m guessing that has run its course. Thank goodness.

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  7. I guess I’m elderly. Lol. I remember watching Hollywood Squares. I haven’t tried Zoom, since I just learned how to do Facetime (another sign of oldness). Next I have to learn how to text. 🙂 You’re description of your class and the challenges with glamor got me laughing. At least you have a sense of humor about it. Hang in there and have a lovely week at home. Take care.

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