Tic-Tac-Dough's biggest star
At a Tic Tac Dough reunion at Game Show Congress 2006, mega-champ Thom McKee made a point of talking to as many of the show’s fans as he could. “Game shows are the fair-haired stepchild of prime time TV,” says McKee. “But people have come a long way for this. It is very touching.”
The reunion also gave McKee’s children a chance to better understand the hoopla their father went through in 1980, when he went on an amazing Tic Tac Dough streak that made him the Ken Jennings of the day.
“Things were different then,” he recalls, comparing the fanfare that accompanied his streak with the media juggernaut that accompanied Jennings’. “But still, it got in all the papers and there was a time we couldn’t go out for dinner without being recognized.”
McKee’s streak would dominate the game show record books for some 20 years. He won $312,700 in cash and prizes (some $800,000 in 2006 dollars), won 43 times, played 88 straight games and was on for 46 straight days. It wasn’t until Who Wants to be a Millionaire that somebody broke his money record, and in North America, it wasn’t until Ken Jennings came along that most of his longevity records fell.
Like Jennings, McKee has the same graciousness and modesty about his records. “I knew, sooner or later, they would fall. The money amounts kept getting bigger. I didn’t have any jealousy, though. I had my time and made the most of it. Besides, no matter how good you are, there’s always somebody who’s better.”
To that end, McKee reached Jennings during his streak and congratulated him on his run. “He wrote back and said he used to watch me when he was a kid and that I was one of his inspirations.”
He also challenged Jennings to a game of Trivial Pursuit, which has yet to take place, even though the pair and their wives had been to dinner once. “We kept joking how we’d lose to each other.”
The higher prize money, however, does not tempt McKee to try for a new streak on either Millionaire or Jeopardy. “I never had the urge. My feeling is, I had my shot. I don’t really need the money. To go on another game show and win would be selfish. And I’m 50 now. I don’t have the memory I used to have, so I could end up losing my first game!”
McKee also concedes that he was helped by the strong incumbency factor on Tic Tac Dough. Because the champ always went first, McKee could usually lock up the center square, which is a huge advantage. Other factors were at play, as well. “There were definitely people on who were smarter than I was, but they had more trouble playing under pressure.”
That sense of sportsmanship also helped him adjust when the inevitable loss finally came. “I was quite tired, because I was still in navy flight training then, so I knew the answers to some of the questions, but I just couldn’t get them out. But it didn’t bother me, because there were times earlier when I could have, should have, lost, but instead the other player got hard questions and I was back in the game.”
McKee’s appearance came at a time when Tic Tac Dough was one of the few trivia games on TV. McKee had grown up watching the Art Fleming version of Jeopardy, but the Alex Trebek era was still several years away. “A friend of mine in my training classes in San Diego had gone up and done Joker’s Wild and made $4900, which was a lot of money for struggling young navy officers who didn’t have two nickels to run together.”
His wife Jenny took the contestant test as well, and at first the producers wanted them for a couples show. Jenny, however, did not want to be on TV, and McKee feared that he had no chance at Tic Tac Dough, either. Instead, he got the call to go on. And ironically, the frequent shots of Jenny after McKee’s wins also made her something of a star, as well.
Today, McKee is a real estate developer in Maryland. As for Tic Tac Dough, the game itself was changed to add more nuances to the game, changing it dramatically. Either way, people still have fond memories of the show. And thanks a reunion with Wink Martindale, McKee and dozens of fans, so now do McKee’s kids.