“3’s a Crowd” (1979)

I enjoy people who wax nostalgic for the sophistication of the 50s and 60s, when country clubs were appropriately segregated, women were expected to wear gloves and pearls to go grocery shopping, and children were discouraged from expressing their wants and needs. It was also a time when men were truly men, and not just encouraged, but expected to have mistresses. Often, their mistresses did double duty as their secretaries, back when “maintaining one’s figure” was considered as essential a secretarial skill as typing and shorthand.

By the 70s, thanks largely to the equal rights movement, men indiscriminately sleeping around on their wives was considered less a right than a burden for women to quietly bear until either they developed a crippling Valium habit, or filed for divorce. Still, there remained one horrifying reminder of such a dark period, 1979’s 3’s a Crowd, a “game show” of sorts that ran in syndication for five mind blowing months.

3’s a Crowd was basically The Newlywed Game, with a twist: instead of just husbands and wives being asked questions about the most intimate details of their lives (particularly how often and in what places they made whoopie) to see if their answers matched, there was the added element of the husbands’ secretaries. “Who knows a man better, his wife or his secretary?” was the salacious tagline, one that promised all sorts of shenanigans, catfights, and men sheepishly shrugging, as if to say “Hey, you know how broads are when they get jealous.”

3’s a Crowd was the creation of sentient coke spoon Chuck Barris, who was also responsible for the previously mentioned Newlywed GameThe Dating Game, and The Gong Show. Massive amounts of cocaine is the only reasonable explanation for how anyone thought a show in which participants put their marriages on the line in front of a live studio audience could fly. The format of the show was simple: the husbands would appear first to answer three uncomfortably personal questions, then their secretaries would appear to answer the same questions, followed by their wives. Whoever got the most matching answers (the secretaries vs. the wives) won the big prize, a tremendous windfall of $1,000, split three ways.

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You wouldn’t think $333, even in the 70s, would be worth humiliating yourself on television, and yet they somehow managed to find contestants. In the pilot episode (which, astonishingly, was enough to order almost a whole season of this pile of medical waste), the husbands are Don, an automobile leasing manager from Dayton, Ohio, Gary, a branch manager for a “leading clerical supply company” from North Dakota, and Steve, who owns an “advisory business.” It’s important to note immediately that exactly none of these men are either attractive or personable enough to warrant having one woman attend to all their needs, let alone two. Things start off with a bang (so to speak), with the first question, which is “How often have you visited your secretary’s apartment?” Steve gives the only correct answer, which is zero. Gary says once, but it was with his wife. Don, meanwhile, states 45 to 50 times. When host Jim Peck states that he can only give one answer, Don settles on 50.

Things get squirmier still with the second question, which is what “private little nickname” the husbands have for their secretaries. Mind you, this is asked in a casually knowing way, as if it’s perfectly normal (if not expected) that a man would call his secretary anything other than her given name. Don answers that his nickname for his secretary is the bafflingly atrocious “Little Sex.” While you ponder what kind of mouth breathing creep would choose such an unpleasant name for his employee, Gary and Steve’s answers are the equally awful “Sponge Buns” and “Sexpot.”

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You might expect that the third and final question would be “How many restraining orders are currently out against you?” Instead, it’s “What’s a funny story you’ve told your secretary about your wife?” Don answers that he and his wife once had sex in a hearse, Gary, clearly obsessed with butts, answers that his nickname for his wife is “Jell-O Buns,” while Steve evidently thinks it’s appropriate to tell his secretary that his wife doesn’t wear underwear with pantyhose. Let me reiterate, the premise of this entire show rests solely on the notion that it is not at all unusual for men to discuss their sex lives in the most gruesome detail with their office staff. Hearing about your boss’s wife’s panty sitch was merely part and parcel with moving up in the corporate ladder from secretary to maybe senior secretary, if you were lucky.

Don’t start scratching those hives just yet–it’s time for round two, which introduces the secretaries. Considering the lewdness that drips from every word both the show’s announcer and Jim Peck say, you’d expect the secretaries to all resemble Ulla from The Producers, young, blonde, busty, and capable of little more than sitting around and looking sexy. Instead, they’re all extraordinarily average looking women. According to the announcer, Kathy, Don’s secretary, “owns a cat,” while Gary’s secretary, Barbara, “also owns a cat,” and Liz, Steve’s secretary “has no pets at all.”

All three secretaries’ answers regarding how many times their bosses have visited their apartments match. Having outed themselves on camera as probably sleeping together, Don and Kathy giggle and shift nervously in their seats. Kathy’s answer regarding Don’s nickname doesn’t match his–in fact, her answer is bleeped out, suggesting it might be something even more repulsive than “Little Sex.” Barbara agrees that, yes, Gary, the man who pays her salary, calls her “Sponge Buns.” Gary expresses his happiness that their answers match by grabbing her bottom and trying to kiss her. Rather than giving him a warming blast of pepper spray to the eyes, Barbara laughs and meekly pushes him away, in a manner that suggests this is something she has to do quite often.

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Put aside that copy of The S.C.U.M. Manifesto, because you won’t want to miss the third round, which brings out the wives. Don’s wife, Phyllis, looks like Kathy after twenty years of being married to an unfaithful oaf like Don, and according to the announcer, “her two favorite pastimes are shopping and sex…probably in that order!” Gary’s wife Lori’s hobbies also include shopping, while Steve’s wife, Keni, owns her own business and enjoys “dancing and most sports.”

In response to the first question, Phyllis can do little but laugh in bemused disbelief that Don has been to Kathy’s apartment fifty times, while Don mutters something about going there to drop off papers and take his kids swimming. If you think we’ve reached peak grotesqueness, when Don claims that his nickname for Kathy is “Little Sex” (for god’s sake what does that even mean) Phyllis protests “That’s my nickname!” The only trio that doesn’t seem to be all but bristling with tension and discomfort is Steve and his wife and secretary, who, appropriately, only match answers in the first question. If not for the fact that Steve admits to referring to his secretary as “Sexpot,” you’d almost think he treats her like a normal human being, and not a jizz rag who occasionally answers the phone.

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The secretaries end up winning overall, taking home that cool $300. As the show closes, Gary tries grabbing both Barbara and Lori’s bottom, to which they both laugh and push him away. The prize for humiliating your wife on national television? Turtle Wax and a can of spray starch.

Chuck Barris later claimed that public reaction to Three’s a Crowd was so negative that it not only killed the show, but every other show Barris was involved with at the time. Seemingly a good fit in the age of jiggle television, when actresses went visibly braless, its casual misogyny evidently went a step too far for audiences who were slowly but surely coming around to the idea of “women’s lib.” To enjoy a show like Three’s a Crowd is to accept that men really do treat their secretaries like General Halftrack chasing Miss Buxley around her desk, and that a meager amount of money (about $1,000 by today’s standards) is adequate compensation for putting up with it. The studio audience here doesn’t boo Don’s admission that he’s been to his secretary’s apartment fifty times, they titter and applaud–Don’s a man’s man, after all, just getting his due after a hard day of pushing papers around. What an elegant, tasteful time “the past” was.

Original airdate: September 7, 1979

Watch it here 

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