Family Feud (1988-1995)

Ray Combs was a nervous little man who turned up in the Los Angeles stand-up comedy circuit in the early-to-mid eighties with an absolutely terrible act — the kind of thing a non-professional might whip up for the Rotary Club’s annual pancake breakfast. But he seemed like a nice guy and he sure tried hard. And if his act wasn’t good enough to get him work as a real stand-up, it did land him some gigs doing audience warm-ups — a job that often serves as a kind of consolation prize for those denied real careers in comedy. Combs wasn’t too funny but he was so likeable and eager to succeed that studio audiences took to the guy, and he started developing some “buzz.” Jim McCawley, who was then booking comedians for Johnny Carson took an enormous gamble and put him on in 1986.

The act was still unsophisticated, and more than a few veteran stand-ups remarked that of all the performers they couldn’t imagine would ever make The Tonight Show, Combs was near the top of the list. Amazingly, he not only got on but he did well. (I saw him that evening and it seemed like the audience didn’t find him funny but thought he was trying so hard he deserved a huge ovation.) The spot got him a lot of attention and some high-profile auditions.

Two years later, Mark Goodson wanted to revive the game show Family Feud for syndication but needed a new host — preferably someone who’d be a lot more cooperative and inexpensive than the original emcee, Richard Dawson. They almost went with Joe Namath but when negotiations got difficult, Combs got the job. The above tickets would have been to some of his first shows, and things went well enough for a few years. But shortly after Mark Goodson passed away, ratings took a nosedive. In an unsuccessful effort to save the program, Jonathan Goodson (who’d taken over his father’s company) fired Combs and brought back Dawson, who didn’t fare any better. From that point on, the life and times of Ray Combs took a downward spiral — bad investments, other shows that didn’t make it, a bad car accident that left him with chronic back problems. Deeply depressed, he was finally placed in an institution where in 1996, he took his own life. He only had a few years of his dream but as others have pointed out, that’s a lot more than some people get.