By: Scott RossPublished: November 2, 2022

Charles Van Doren

The next time someone bewails how splintered/balkanized/niche American culture has become, ask them if they’d rather live in a world where the top-rated TV shows were game shows pulling in 15 million viewers a night, because that was America in the 1950s and it led to one of the dumber scandals of the Twentieth Century.

In the fall of 1956, Herb Stempel made his debut on the popular game show Twenty-One and proceeded to kick the shit out of every contestant that stood before him. The dude was a trivia machine, "high-strung human Univac," in the words of the show’s creator, Dan Enright. And the truth is that Stempel legitimately had a head crammed with knowledge, but the show was a sham, as Stempel was being fed answers and coached. When America started to cool on Stempel, which is to say when the show’s ratings began to dip, producers found another stooge, Stempel’s polar opposite, Charles Van Doren. Van Doren was tall, well dressed, erudite, related to not one but two Pulitzer Prize winners, had a master's in astrophysics and a Ph.D. in English and was a professor at Columbia.

When Stempel and Van Doren faced off against each other on December 5, 1956, Stempel had been told to intentionally whiff on "What motion picture won the Academy Award in 1955?" As it happened, that year’s winning picture, Marty, had been one of Stempel’s favorites, he’d seen it three times. It pained him to answer On the Waterfront (though it's a clearly superior film)—but he did it, in part because Enright had promised him future employment on another show.

Stempel eventually burned through his winnings and turned to Enright for his new gig, only to be told that he’d first have to sign an affidavit swearing that he’d played and lost Twenty-Onefair and square. So Stempel ratted out Enright and rest and one by one other contestants started to corroborate Stempel’s claims about the fix being in. In time, Van Doren is so mortified that he goes into hiding.

The next thing you know, there are Congressional hearings – about a goddamn game show and a month in Van Doren emerges on November 2, 1959, to testify that it was all true, that he’d cheated, the $125,000 he’d one was filthy lucre.

Stempel would go on to finish college via the GI Bill before embarking on a twenty-year career with the New York City Transportation Department, Enright went into exile in Canada for a number of years before inching his way back to respectability in America’s game show industry, and Van Doren went on to become an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 1994, Robert Redford produced and directed a pretty good film called Quiz Show, which is a dramatization of this whole absurd mess. It stars Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro--see if you can guess who plays who.


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