"From Hollywood, it's the game where knowledge is king and lady luck is queen...it's 'The Joker's Wild'!"
"The Joker's Wild" was a fairly standard question-and-answer game show, but with the addition of a slot machine-type device. Six categories of questions would be in play in each game, and the two contestants would each answer one question at a time, spinning the three "wheels" on the one-armed bandit to determine which of the categories they could choose from. If three different categories were showing, they could pick one of the three for $50; a double was worth $100 if they picked that category, and a three of a kind was worth $200. There were also jokers included among the categories. As the title suggested, they were wild, allowing the contestant to pick any category, or making a single into a double or a triple to increase the dollar values. Three jokers were worth $500, and since that was the amount it took to win the game, that lucky spin meant an automatic win if the contestant could answer one question correctly.
The show premiered on CBS on September 4, 1972, at 10:00 A.M. Eastern time, immediately preceding the premiere of "The Price Is Right." The host was Jack Barry, hoping that everyone had forgotten about his role in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s by now.
Also featured was an instrumental theme song called "The Savers," written and performed on the Moog synthesizer by Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley. It's such an archetypal piece of music that, when I first heard it, I said, "That sounds like a game show theme," years before I was aware of its use on "The Joker's Wild."
The bonus round changed several times during the run of the show, but it always involved trying to "face the devil." A different set of three wheels would be loaded into the slot machine, with the contestant trying to spin for prizes, and later for cash, without a devil showing up and causing them to lose everything they'd won in the bonus round prior to that.
"The Joker's Wild" last aired on CBS on June 13, 1975. However, it was revived in syndication in the fall of 1977, and became more popular than it had been in its network run. Jack Barry continued as host, with occasional fill-in work by Jim Peck. When Barry died in the summer of 1984, he was replaced by Bill Cullen, who hosted until the show was canceled in 1986. This version dumped "The Savers" for a less electronic theme by Hal Hidey.
The syndicated version was also famous for the big floor-mounted lever that was used by the contestant to spin during the bonus round, rather than the small levers that sat on the contestants' desks, which were used during the main game (and during the bonus round on the network version).
There was also a separate children's version called "Joker! Joker!! Joker!!!" that aired in weekly syndication from 1979 to 1981. Jack Barry was also the host of this version, despite his tendency to frighten small children.
The show was revived in syndication one more time, in the fall of 1990, this time with host Pat Finn and different rules. "The Joker's Wild" was now "a game of definitions," with three contestants spinning to see how much questions would be worth, and with each contestant answering questions until they were incorrect. The bonus round involved the winning contestant first answering more questions to rack up spins, trying to either get three jokers or three matching prizes on the wheels. This version was mercifully canceled quickly.
Many local TV stations paired up "The Joker's Wild" with "Tic Tac Dough" during the years they were both in syndication, which made sense, given that they were both question-and-answer shows from Jack Barry-Dan Enright Productions.
USA Network aired reruns of the 1977-86 syndicated version in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and also aired reruns of the 1990 version a couple of years after everyone had forgotten about it. Game Show Network eventually picked up the rights to the 1977-86 version.
The videotapes of the network version had thought to be lost (recorded over or destroyed), but a stash was found in the late 1990s at WCBS in New York. Game Show Network began running reruns of that version as well, giving hope to game show fans everywhere that other shows would turn up in similar fashion.