December 3, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | TV | December 3, 2007 |


I wonder what non-Americans must think of “The Price is Right”? I mean, here’s a show that — all told — is more than 50 years old and, because most Americans were introduced to the show at a very young age, we’ve probably never given a thought to the broader cultural implications of the game show staple. Personally, I have weirdly fond memories of the program, though I don’t think I’ve sat through more than 10 minutes of it since the year my grandfather finally succumbed to the Crisco sandwiches and the ice cream drenched in chicken gravy that were part of his regular diet. He and I used to bet quarters on whether or not contestants would win or lose, while bidding right along with them.

And I’m guessing that I’m not the only one who has a similarly shared experience with a grandparent over “The Price is Right,” particularly those grandparents who were part of the Greatest Generation, who came out of WWII looking for a show that might affirm their jingoistic love for capitalism. Originally launched in 1956, and updated in its current form in 1972 (during the height of Nixon’s reign), there is perhaps no show in the history of this country as motherfucking American as “The Price is Right.” I mean, really: What says “America” more than corn-fed Iowans in novelty t-shirts and ill-fitting jeans angling for prizes by bidding on luggage for an opportunity to win a new car by guessing the retail price of Pine Sol? Seriously: Is anyone as amazed as I am that this show is filmed in L.A.? I’ve been to L.A., and I’ve never seen anybody like the people that appear on this show within the city’s limits — are there shuttle busses that travel the country and pick up random Midwesterners and dump them in the “Price is Right” parking lot with a two-night stay at the local Ramada and a few vouchers to KFC?

I’m not trying to sound elitist or anti-Middle America; the truth is, I like that the “The Price is Right” exists — there is something comforting in the fact that, no matter what happens to this country, no matter how many 9/11s we might have, nor how lax cable and network television become with regard to language, violence, and sexual content, at 11 a.m. EST/10 CST, you can always tune in to see six real Americans guessing the price of hemorrhoid cream. There is no slice of American life on television more authentic than this show, even if — thematically — it has a xenophobic, anti-Socialist streak running through it (I suspect that the rest of the world’s weariness with the United States may also be why international versions of the show, popular in the 80s and 90s, nearly vanished within years after Bush took office). “The Price is Right” is the televised embodiment of our consumptive culture, a game show that combines our love of supermarkets, malls, and gas-guzzling automobiles, not to mention our YouTube fascination with people who like to make jackasses of themselves — contestants on “The Price is Right” rarely look dignified groping the host and/or falling to their knees when given the opportunity to win a cheap, American automobile. Occasionally, and on better days, you may even get to see an overweight Nebraskan attempt to somersault his way to contestant’s row — it may be the greatest thing you can see on a network game show.

And for 35 years, Bob Barker has been our loving host, carrying his extra-long microphone (why so long? was it mentholated?) from Plinko to the Shell Game, going through the motions over 6000 times without ever looking any worse for the wear. Barker was like a saltier version of Dick Clark, easygoing but slightly irascible in the same affectionate way that our sexist grandpas are. He suffered the death of two announcers, two fainting contestants, innumerable mechanical problems with the pricing games, and endured and outlasted several sexual harassment lawsuits in the 80s, filed by a few of Barker’s beauties, at least one of whom Bob admitted to schtupping (I believe that particular Beauty later posed for Playboy). Oh, and check out these fun facts: There were 78 perfect shows during his reign (shows where all six contestants won) and the single-contest record for winnings is $183,688 — that’s a whole lotta Juicy Fruit. And, of course, Barker famously ended each show with the oft-mocked refrain, “Help control the pet population; have your pet spayed or neutered,” basically single-handedly spearheading the pet castration movement.

And then, in June of this year, Barker retired and handed the reigns over to Drew Carey, a guy who’s never exhibited much talent, but who’s always been affable all the same. A heavy guy from Ohio with big-glasses (a prop), Drew Carey looks more like a contestant of “The Price is Right” than the host, a characteristic that seems to work for him within the context of “The Price is Right.” He has none of Barker’s easygoing nature, and there is nothing suave or particularly charming about him, but his clumsy oafishness may be the shot of adrenaline the show needed. By damn, he’s actually fun to watch, especially while he’s new; the silly “Price is Right” strategies — e.g., bidding only $1 or $1 more than the contestant before you — seem novel to Carey, and he seems genuinely bemused by many of the contestant, most of whom are clearly more familiar with the game than he is. He experiences the show in much the same way that viewers at home do, with a playful shake of the head and a look that says, “Can you believe this lady?” He trips over his own words, he laughs … no, cackles at his own bad jokes, and I’ve noticed that — unlike Barker — he never asks any of the contestants to move out from between himself and the camera. Hell, he even asks the contestants — while the big wheel is spinning — if there is anyone they would like to say hi to at home.

But the show itself and, more importantly, the contestants are still the same, with their overbearing excitement and the giggly enthusiasm they exhibit at the prospect of winning anything. I’m simply amazed that — after all these decades — a contestant will still lose his shit when the announcer exclaims, “A brand new car.” Moreover, their fashion always seems at least two decades behind, as if their entire wardrobe was purchased at K-Mart in 1987. Of course, that’s perfectly in tune with “The Price is Right” set, which is as garish as a wallpapered den in a 1977 ranch house, replete with hideous plush carpet and Christmas lights around the windowsill at all times of the year.

Indeed, while the numbskullery of contestants on the “Wheel of Fortune” never ceases to amaze, and while Alex Trebek’s pompousness on “Jeopardy” borders on douchetastic, “The Price is Right” may be the perfect daytime game show. If it were a breakfast, under Barker, it would’ve been like Fruit Loops and scrambled eggs, but under Carey’s control, it’s more like Cocoa Puffs and cold pizza. It’s still a lot of empty calories, but now it tastes even better.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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"The Price is Right" / Dustin Rowles

TV | December 3, 2007 | Comments ()



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