and Joe Flint
September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

When it comes to taking easy shots, it doesn’t get much better than Hollywood Squares. C-list stars. Creaky double entendres. Jokes so corny you could make a chowder. So before a reincarnation debuts Sept. 14, 1998, can we get a collective WHY?

Ratings, for one thing: The original — which ran for 14 seasons beginning in 1966 — averaged a very healthy 3 million household viewers per season. Yes, Squares was revived in ’86, but the John Davidson-hosted affair was a bust. The strategy to avoid another fiasco? Bump it up to an A-list ”comedy event,” says Sean Perry, a VP of development at King World, the new show’s producer. ”It’s a big party with big stars that the average American dreams of being invited to.”

Although King World is keeping mum, industry insiders estimate that Squares will cost about $25 million a year, or $600,000 a week, to produce, making it the most expensive game show ever produced. A big chunk of that money will go to paying top-drawer writers and producers (many are Comic Relief vets) and the show’s centerpiece (and center square), Whoopi Goldberg. The TV neophyte will earn an estimated $7.5 million for toiling a total of 36 days per year, which works out to a nice daily wage of $208,333. (Billy Crystal and Jason Alexander turned down $9 million and $3 million, respectively.) ”We paid her Mexico and France,” jokes Perry. ”But seriously, her Q rating and recognition factor are huge.”

Goldberg, who will also executive-produce (i.e., personally call pals like Antonio Banderas and Whitney Houston to be squares), explains her motivation: ”I got my Oscar; I got my Grammy; I got my Golden Globe. Every time I turn around there’s a f—ing movie on TV I don’t remember being in. Now I just want to have fun,” she says. ”Sure, people have said it’s a dumb thing for me to do and it must mean it’s over for me, but I let the show speak for itself.”

In eavesdropping on a week’s worth of shows, shot back-to-back one Saturday in August, EW got an earful from the premier week’s guest list (a substantial, if not quite quantum, leap beyond Li’l Ol’ Winemaker Charley Weaver): chat diva Rosie O’Donnell, comedian Rita Rudner, Larry Sanders’ Jeffrey Tambor, CBS This Morning’s Mark McEwen, NewsRadio’s Andy Dick, Just Shoot Me’s Enrico Colantoni, Veronica’s Closet’s Kathy Najimy, and Arsenio Hall (who canceled just prior to taping due to a family emergency; comedy writer Bruce Vilanch filled in). Aside from some gift baskets — Bulgari scarves and ties, Sony CD players, Oliver Peoples sunglasses — and the smorgasbord supplied by caterer Wolfgang Puck, the guest stars get zip. Instead of a paycheck, King World has agreed to make donations to certain stars’ favorite charities, a ploy that also worked for future X’s and O’s Sharon Stone and Garth Brooks. Of those celebs who have declined to be squares, Goldberg says, ”Some people are just too hip or too introverted. You have to be able to come with fun in your heart or it won’t work.” She plans to contact Will Smith and Robert De Niro in the near future. ”Bob’s very, very shy,” Goldberg explains of this most unlikely game-show participant. ”But inherently, he’s fun.”

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