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No Pain? No Gain

And so it ends for The Chair, ABC's groundbreaking attempt to meld the heretofore divergent worlds of barroom trivia and psychological torture. The Mouse Network eighty-sixed the game show after a time-slot change failed to make America any more predisposed to tuning in and watching Jeopardy rejects get strapped to a Barcolounger and pestered by John McEnore. After just eight episodes, The Chair leaves the airwaves, having failed to revive ABC's crumbling prime-time game-show empire but finally answering a question that has daunted Man since the dawn of the 1980s: Is there anything more embarrassing than the sight of McEnore shrilly berating some hapless Wimbeldon linesman with a profanity-laced tirade not usually heard outside of loading docks and troop ships?

The answer? Oh my, yes. But only if he were to go back to sporting the McEn-Fro.

The producers of The Chair can at least take solace in the fact their show outlasted its rival in the brave new world of torment-based game shows, Fox's The Chamber. The casual observer might assume that there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between The Chair and The Chamber, that the shot-for-shot similarities between the two programs just proves that network executives are timorous copycats, bereft of original thought and content to churn out derivative piffle. Which just goes to show how little the casual observer knows -- The Chair and The Chamber were, in fact, two very different shows, awash in subtle nuances and crackling with the spice of variety. The Chair, of course, challenged contestants to answer general-knowledge questions while hooked up to a heart monitor and bolted onto a piece furniture that would spin and shoot out flames and otherwise mess with their heads. If their pulse rate rose above a certain level, then the jig was up. In contrast, The Chamber forced its contestant to answer general-knowledge questions while locked in a room that would shake and shimmy and spray them with water and send a small yet steady electrical charge through their lower extremities. The pulse rate of The Chamber's participants didn't factor into the contest -- for all I know, their heart could explode, and they'd still be allowed to compete so long as they were able to correctly answer that, yes, Gilligan and The Skipper took the other castaways on a three-hour tour.

See? Totally different.

There are other, more obvious contrasts as well. The Chair, as we've already established, was hosted by tennis great John McEnore, while The Chamber was hosted by Vitus Gerulaitis.

No, wait -- that can't be right. I've got to start researching these things better.

You might remember that there was a lawsuit about The Chair and The Chamber, with the two networks ready to duke it out in court over which one of them came up with the idea of abusing game show contestants for fun and prizes first. It's a safe bet that's one dispute that probably gets settled quietly and out of the public eye -- unless the suit is revised so that it's now to decide who deserves the blame for thinking up the concept.

Conventional wisdom will hold that the short, undistinguished runs of both The Chair and The Chamber prove that the sadomasochistic game show genre just doesn't have any legs, that people don't really care to watch their fellow man endure untold agonies for a shot at a generous cash prize, that perhaps the very idea behind either show was idiotic and doomed to fail the moment it sprang, half-formed, out of some moron programmer's thick skull. Such thinking is sound, astute, even sage -- but what if it's wrong? What if The Chair and The Chamber were undone not because they went to far, but because they didn't go far enough? What if America is ready for a torture-game show hybrid that doesn't settle for John McEnore sneering "Does this bug you? I'm not touching you" at contestants but goes the full nine yards and shows actual torture? Damnit, what if we could have gotten Vitus Gerulaitis to host? Or, since he's not available, Mats Wilander? Ile Nastase, at the very least.

Sadly, we'll never know. Cowardly ABC and Fox executives have canceled their respective shows, no doubt nipping the torture-show genre in the bud before they had a chance to run it into the ground, like the reality show craze and the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire phenomenon before it. We'll never get to see the steady parade of The Chair and The Chamber knockoffs clogging up primetime line-ups and giving hosting duties to dozens of out-of-work has-beens, 1980s stand-up comics and retired tennis stars. We'll never be able to watch the inevitable celebrity editions when Emeril Lagasse or Elle McPherson or the cast from Beverly Hills 90210 is strapped into the chair and pelted with grapefruit wedges when they can't successfully name all the U.S. presidents who were born in Virginia.

What a pity. What a waste. The TV networks could have ushered in a new era of mayhem, suffering and valuable parting gifts. Instead, as they so often do, they took the easy way out, leaving us to wonder what might have been, had they only followed their twin natural instincts toward copying others and lowering the bar to give us shows like:

Hangman. Host Chuck Woolery helps bring the beloved children's word game to your television set. Only in our version, when contestants guess the wrong letter, they're actually strung up. Watch Hangman and you'll swing from the gallows -- with laughter and excitement, that is!

Pressed by Stones. Contestants are strapped between two planks of lumber and quizzed by host Tom Arnold on everything from popular music to potpourri. Answer correctly, and they rack up the prizes. But answer wrong, and a series of heavy stones are placed on the top plank, constricting our contestants' breathing and making them wish they would have paid more attention to pop culture minutiae. Contestants win bonus prizes if, during the game, they confess to witchcraft.

Lethal Injection. It's a more humane form of fun and excitement, as contestants spin our lucky wheel to determine what host Ed Begley Jr. will inject in their veins. Perhaps it will be a harmless flu vaccine. Or a yummy chocolate treat. Or perhaps an air bubble.

Iron Maiden. Each week, join Adrian Smith, Steve Harris and other members of the seminal metal band as they answers questions about literature, economics, modern art and non-linear geometry to raise money for charity and risk crunchy beatings at the hands of European football hooligans for every question they get wrong.

Drawn and Quartered. Dom DeLuise is back and hosting this updated version of Win, Lose or Draw. Contestants are joined by celebrity panelists (Burt Reynolds, Ann-Margaret, Fran Tarkenton) for a game of sketch pad charades. The winners are awarded a fabulous Hawaiian vacation package. The losers are hacked to bits with their remains sent off the four corners of the world as a warning to other presumptuous game show contestants.

You Bet Your Fingers. Think you know a lot of trivia? Then just insert a finger into host Joe Pesci's digit-sized guillotine, and we'll see how smart you are.

Rock, Paper, Scissors. Host Gilbert Gottfried wants to know: which one of the three do you want Texas Rangers pitcher John Rocker to throw at your head when you give an incorrect answer?

Strip Poker. Morgan Fairchild hosts everyone's favorite sexy card game, where a losing hand means you have to take off an article of clothing -- so that co-host Richard Kiel can brand your bare flesh with a white-hot poker.

Password 2002. Host Chevy Chase and a cadre of witty celebrities (Ruth Buzzi, Bruce Villanch, Willie Tyler and Lester, the ghost of Waylon Flowers and Madam) are on hand to see which contestant knows the secret password, and which ones will be shot as spies at dawn.

Chinese Water Torture. John McEnroe marks his triumphant return to game shows when he forces contestants to watch videotaped reruns of The Chair and The Chamber. Whoever can hold out the longest is declared the victor and wins...

Well, actually, there are no winners here.


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