"Hot Potato" had been something of a pet project for Barry & Enright Productions in 1983. They initially pitched the show to CBS, with co-creator Jack Barry hosting a run-through game with four-player teams at Television City in the summer of 1983. CBS passed, but NBC was intrigued enough to request a full-fledged pilot.

The next step was casting an emcee. According to a TV Guide story, NBC initially requested a hip, good-looking emcee to host, but was dissatisfied with what they saw during preparations for the taping. So NBC simply asked if Bill Cullen was available to host, and Bill came aboard for the new endeavor.

Although it's not a perfect match for what was seen in the aired series, NBC and the producers were apparently pleased with how this pilot turned out because very little changed when the show launched the following month. The familiar open sees the contestants introducing each other and Bill greeting a surprisingly frenzied-sounding audience. The impressive theme music from Hal Hidey isn't in place just yet. A very-similar sounding, repetitive synth piece is in its place, and Barry & Enright repurposed the music from a previous game show, "Play the Percentages," for cues in the pilot.

Oddly enough, despite the fact that there was almost certainly no intention to air this pilot, it included a contestant call, with Charlie O'Donnell asking for "manicurists, Marines, mommies, or mechanics." Bill cheerfully encouraged the audience to form their own group if they didn't fit any of those categories. "Something that starts with J, maybe," Bill suggested.


From there, the pilot game progressed quite as you'd expect, with only two minor differences in the rules. One was that giving an answer already given was considered a wrong answer (on the aired series, the contestants would be given a second chance if they repeated). The other difference was that instead of paying out a flat $1,000 for winning the game, the money was paid out as the game progressed. Each round paid $500, with $1,000 & 2 rounds winning the game.

Like the front game, the bonus round was familiar to fans of the aired series, but just a wee bit different. Again, Bill was asking the same question over and over again, but with new pairs of choices each time. Here's what was different...

For the pilot, Bill asked a total of seven questions. To start, each of the three teammates played a question alone for $200 of "stake money." After all three of them had played a question, they answered the remaining four questions as a team, and it was a double-or-nothing payoff each time. They could choose to stop and take the money AFTER seeing each pair of choices (as opposed to the series, where that decision had to be made sight unseen) or play on. Playing the round perfectly could result in a grand total of $9,600.

And so the pilot ended, Barry & Enright tinkered ever so slightly with the game, and the show began regular taping later that month. And that, dear reader, is the story of how "Hot Potato" came to be.

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