I’ve heard the phrase many times, of course, but never knew what it referred to (there wasn’t a TV in my house before I was 15) until I drove through Truth or Consequences, New Mexico back in 1984. I found out the town was named after a game show — because the producers promised to air the show from the first town that changed its name to that of the show.
The premise of the show was this: Contestants would be given a question. If they couldn’t answer it, they had to face the consequences. The questions were generally silly and unlikely to be answered. On an episode I watched on YouTube, the question was “Why was the wife concerned because her husband was a light drinker?” The answer was “Because he drank every night until it got light.”
The contestants on that show were a slow-witted sawmill worker and a chubby manager of a McDonald’s. The consequence was riding a unicycle. But they didn’t have to do it by themselves. A showman came out and carried the manager on his shoulders as he rode. Then they tried to get the mill worker up on an eight-foot tall unicycle. He managed to fall off and hit the stage pretty hard and break his sunglasses. Except that the mill worker wasn’t really a contestant — he was also a showman, which was revealed after he “somehow” managed to get up on the unicycle and ride off through the audience.
As a prize, the McDonald’s manager got “two pairs of slacks.”
The next bit dispensed with the question entirely. They dressed up a woman as an Indian mind-reader and had her answer questions until her soldier son figured out it was her. It took him two questions, kinda ruining the gag.
That particular show was mildly amusing, but I really enjoyed this clip of highlights from other shows.
Before it was on TV, Truth or Consequences had a long run on the radio. You can listen to several episodes here. (This sort of thing is why I love the Internet.)
On the December 20, 1947 show, they gave a woman Christmas seals — two live seals that she had to take home and keep overnight in order to get $50 of actual Christmas seals. The rest of the episode connected a paralyzed WWII veteran in a California hospital with several people from his hometown in Tennessee — through the “magic of radio.”
On the October 25, 1947 show they asked, “Why is a ship called a she?” Answer: “Because they’re always looking for buoys.” The contestants had to eat crackers and and put on a drama (involving a lot of words that begin with “P”) about a ship captain resisting the advances of a female spy. The announcer’s descriptions of “cracker shrapnel” flying around the studio made for some interesting radio. They challenged another contestant to “go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.” He won $1,500 by sitting in a barrel in an airplane as it flew over the falls, describing his experience live as he went.
I enjoyed the shows I watched and listened to, because those involved didn’t take themselves seriously and because it was a look into a less sophisticated time.