It was the gerbil heard round the world—or at least the gerbil reference heard round the world.
When asked by Family Feud host Steve Harvey to answer the question, “What does a doctor pull out of a person?” an excitable contestant replied, “A gerbil!”
The reply elicited laughter and shock from those in the live studio audience and on the set, including host Steve Harvey. (For those of you confused as to why someone would offer that response, and why some find it so funny, feel free to google “gerbilling” at your own peril.)
But the gerbil clip was not the only recent headline-grabbing revelation for Family Feud. According to the latest ratings, the long-running game show may soon achieve something it has not done in nearly three decades: reclaim the title of most popular game show in America. So how does a TV show that was last at its peak in the early 1980s finally regain its momentum in 2015?
Besides the ratings, there are other signs of Family Feud’s newfound cultural significance. According to casting producer Sara Dansby, who has worked with the show fourteen years, in the past about 200 families would show up at auditions for the show. In the last year or so, between 600 and 700 families have been showing up around the country.
Asked to reveal the secret behind Family Feud’s recent surge, longtime executive producer Gaby Johnston replied, “It’s Steve Harvey. That’s our secret sauce. It’s Steve Harvey.” She then went on to recount that during the comedian’s first year on the show back in 2010, after a long day of taping, she turned to him and said, “You know what? This is going to be huge.” Though Johnston had served during the reigns of previous hosts Ray Combs, John O’Hurley, and Richard Karn, she sensed something different happening with Harvey, specifically the way contestants reacted to him—his mannerisms and, most of all, his humor.
“Steve Harvey has really given it life and I think its resurgence has a lot to do with him,” said TV historian and former network executive Tim Brooks. He went on to explain that in most game shows, the show really revolves around the game itself. On Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, people tune in to see if people get the answers right, not to see if Alex Trebek will say or do something interesting. “In the more game-oriented shows the host is essentially a traffic cop,” he said. “On the other hand, someone like Steve Harvey is very involved with the contestants.” He noted that the Harvey era was not an immediate smash but has enjoyed a slow and steady rise.
One can’t help but wonder if Harvey would have been able to guide the show to the same ratings bump in a pre-Facebook, pre-YouTube era. Because as Johnston explained, one of the first major moments of the Harvey era was when a contestant stunned him with her response to a question about what body part most men would say is bigger now than it was when they were 16. She blurted “Penis,” leaving Harvey speechless for nearly 30 seconds. The clip went viral.
The response was completely overwhelming and unexpected, but after that Johnston says they began seeing how creative they could get with the questions. “A lot of humor has been added in and we’ve added in questions that lean that way. The material’s a little more—well, not so politically correct, but it’s fun.” But she pointed out that no matter how risqué some of their questions may seem, the writers are often just as surprised as the audience by the out-there responses. For instance, no one predicted that someone would reply “gerbil” on air, especially not in response to that question.
Youtube is now filled with clips of people giving awkward answers to awkward questions courtesy of Family Feud.
And therein lies one of the greatest keys to Family Feud’s newfound success: risqué questions or answers are coming from some of the seemingly least risqué people on the planet. Your local minister, or elementary school teacher may be asked a question like, “What’s a food men enjoy watching women eat?” While everyone at home may be thinking, “popsicle,” there is inherent shock value and entertainment in hearing an 82-year old, devoutly religious grandmother blurt that out on the air to help her family win $20,000.
Calling Steve Harvey “that cool, hip uncle you like to see at the cookout,” entertainment journalist Jawn Murray of AlwaysAList.com said that Harvey’s success on Family Feud is indicative of a larger sea change in television. “Diversity is something that has grown substantially in the game show genre,” he said. He noted that black comedians like Wayne Brady, Sherri Shepherd, Cedric the Entertainer, and actors Alfonso Ribeiro and Terry Crews had all found recent success hosting game shows.
Previous hosts “fit a formula” Murray said. “They were obviously white. They either had this dry humor or this car salesman kind of energy.” Harvey, on the other hand, is more accessible and relatable. Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR added, “When you look at shows like The View and The Talk, there’s always an African American, down-to-earth person on the panel whose usually a comic, and I think Steve is the male version of that.”
Murray concluded, “Steve’s success speaks to [the fact that] good humor, good content, and good delivery really defies racial barriers.”
Having tested game shows for audiences during his previous stints at networks, Brooks said of Family Feud: “This is one of those shows when it gets the right combination of a host that’s good on his feet, got a sense of humor, and can really engage with the contestants, the game almost becomes secondary to that.”
He continued, “This is a game show that depends more on the host than a typical game show. That’s one of the reasons it flourished under [Richard] Dawson and not some of the others and came back so much under Harvey. I think Harvey has brought back that something special.”