This Is Your Life

By Jim Davidson
Posted 7/10/2005


Ralph Edwards surprises honoree Nat King Cole as Nat's daughters Natalie and Carol look on in the January 6, 1960 telecast

It's been called TV's first reality show, but whatever it was, This Is Your Life was certainly one of America's most beloved institutions. Each week, viewers would tune in to see host Ralph Edwards throw what was, in effect, a big surprise party. The show would typically honor the accomplishments of one distinguished individual and feature a review of the honoree's life. Family and friends, some of whom the honoree hadn't seen in years, would be brought onstage for an often teary-eyed reunion.

Like many early TV shows, This Is Your Life started on radio. Initially, Edwards, who was the program's producer as well as its host, intended to honor World War II veterans who had lost limbs in their country's service. The idea was to show them how much their fellow citizens appreciated their sacrifice and to help with their readjustment to civilian life. But soon, the show's subjects began to include educators, humanitarians, entertainers, and anyone who had accomplished something noteworthy. A lifelong contributor to worthy causes, Edwards would frequently throw in a plug for whatever charity the honoree might be involved with.

A glance at the honoree list reveals not only a host of famous celebrities but many ordinary people who had managed to make a difference. It was this mix of the well-known and the unsung that gave TIYL such an interesting balance. And the genuine emotion on the faces of the show's subjects at being honored by friends and family made it good television.

On April 3, 1954, Your Show of Shows, did a hilarious spoof of TIYL (called This Is Your Story), with Carl Reiner as the amiable Ralph Edwards-type host and Sid Caesar as the reluctant honoree. Six years later, Edwards got the last laugh when he made Reiner his subject on the real TIYL.

TIYL ran on radio from 1948 to 1950 before moving over to TV in 1952. It finished its initial TV run in 1961 but came back in syndication from 1971 to 1973. A second syndicated edition hosted by Joe Campanella ran during the 1983-84 season. There were also several TIYL specials on NBC in 1981, 1987, and 1993.

This Is Your Life's TV Pilot

According to the official This Is Your Life website, the first televised episode of the show was a filmed radio broadcast of Ralph Edwards's other show Truth or Consquences, featuring an honoree named Emma Crooks Gilbert. A search of the site shows that episode airing on April 12, 1950. But, there's a fundamental problem with this bit of information. At the time, both Truth or Consequences and This Is Your Life aired weekly on radio. It hardly seems logical that Edwards would choose TOC and not TIYL to film a pilot for TIYL. A check of The New York Times radio listings for Wednesday, April 12, 1950 reveals that This Is Your Life, airing in its regular Wednesday night time slot, featured honoree Emma Crooks Gilbert. This radio show may have been filmed, but it didn't air on TV on that date.

The TIYL website may have gotten this episode confused with a later Truth or Consequences episode that served as a pilot for TIYL. It featured songwriter Nacio Herb Brown and aired on TV on May 24, 1951. At the time, there was no TIYL, either on radio or television, so Edwards used TOC, which had already begun its run on TV, to air his TIYL pilot.

An email to the TIYL website seeking clarification on this subject didn't receive a response.


This Is Your Life Official Website
A history of the show and a search function that allows you to look up anyone who appeared in an episode.

My Complete List of This Is Your Life Episodes
While the official site enables you to look up anyone on the show, that doesn't do much good if you don't know who to look up. You'll find a complete list of honorees here.

Nielsen Ratings (for years in which TIYL ranked in the top 30)
(Tied with The Colgate Comedy Hour)

Copyright 2005 by Jim Davidson. All Rights Reserved.