Every Monday at approximately 11:50 a.m., I find myself sitting in a well-appointed lobby prior to my noon gig. As I wait to be escorted upstairs, I make it my business to look all-business. I smooth my jacket and my eyebrows. I fan out a piece of smart-person reading material and pretend to find it fascinating, just fascinating. Then, always by accident, I catch a glimpse of the TV monitors positioned just above.
Two minutes later, I'm a sweaty mess, cursing underneath my breath at the mouth-breather who has assigned a value of $58,000 to a vinyl-paneled RV. By the time I'm ushered into the studio, I have abandoned all pretense of coolness or coherence. And thus "The Price Is Right" and its legendarily competitive "Showcase Showdown" have claimed yet another victim.
I grew up in the golden era of game shows and spent many a gauzy afternoon shrieking at the TV screen (big bucks no whammy big bucks no whammy OH WHAMMY! WHYFORTH DOST THOU VEXETH ME SO?!) When I reached some approximation of functional adulthood, I was forced to winnow my time in front of the tube to a mere seven hours per day. Game shows, sadly, didn't make the cut. I assumed the genre had gone the way of the manatee, replaced by talk shows in which celebrities give advice about shoes and infidelity.
Happily, "The Price Is Right" has not changed. At all. It features the same blinking lights, disco-era theme music and wah-wah sound effects whenever a contestant spits the bit. Its players, alternately clad in customized T-shirts that profess undying host-lust and TV's most glorious assortment of pantsuits, still lose their crap upon being asked to come on down!
The show also hasn't pulled back on the ogling. Even in this era of political correctness, "The Price Is Right" somehow gets away with parading showgirls with impeccably bleached teeth (they've lost the "Barker's Beauties" moniker and are now officially referred to as "models") without incurring the wrath of ladybloggers. The show demands a lot from them: They smile, clap, wave and sit on things, often in the same five-second sequence. Katie Couric is rarely asked to do anywhere near as much.
The formula still works spectacularly. If you're immune to the low-glitz excitement, you are one sad, jaded bastard. We live in an all-irony-all-the-time culture, but there's something to be said for a show in which joy is the dominant emotion. After watching contestants peg the price of a can of Campbell's soup at $7, you might question whether they should be allowed to operate any piece of machinery more complicated than a can opener. At the same time, you'll root your head off for them. I'll sanitize this for the children reading at home, but one of my mid-show "Price Is Right" rants went something like this: "That's right, Vicki! You make that [expletive redacted] gift basket of [really bad expletive redacted] body lotions your bitch!" I rarely engage in a similarly emotional manner when watching, say, the Knicks.
Missing Bob Barker
I miss longtime show steward Bob Barker, though. Barker pulled off the nifty trick of making us believe he truly, deeply cared about the contestants and their price-gouging fates. Drew Carey, on the other hand, comes across as an emotionally uninvested administrator, predominantly interested in moving the broadcast from point A to point B. I'll give Carey this, though: he's quicker with an ad-lib than Barker ever was. On a recent show, a contestant approaching the stage found herself jammed between two individuals of Aykroydian girth. As she nudged them aside -- this had the effect of an ant pushing up against a grain silo -- Carey distracted viewers by speculating that perhaps she'd taken a wrong turn on her way to Contestant's Row. His light touch works well in such semi-thorny situations.
I'm skeptical about the value of "The Price Is Right" as a marketing vehicle, due to the clutter factor. It'd be impossible to track this precisely, but I'd estimate that ad copy comprises around 70% of all words spoken during a given episode. ("You'll be spending seven days at the beautiful Off-Ramp Motor Spa, where you'll dine on paper plates and fend off bedbugs with a spork!") There are roughly eight games per episode, some of which mention five products; to reach those games, contestants bid on another eight products. Factor in the random sponsorships (IHOP picks up the closed-captioning tab) and vaguely defined "promotional considerations" (1-800-Dentist, Nesquik and Cutco cutlery during the show, plus a whopping 18 companies listed at its conclusion), and viewers quickly experience brand overload.
I watched around six hours of "The Price Is Right" for this exercise and can't recall a single brand beyond the ones I wrote down (there was something about laser-ionized pomegrante juice, but I have no idea which company is responsible for its smooth gulpability and bountiful folic acid). Meanwhile, most of the marketers on board can't rationally expect to achieve something more than a middling promotional pop. Does cymbal giant Zildjian gain anything from hyping its wares in front of the show's mostly older audience? Probably not, unless the next generation of Neal Pearts (the drummer for Rush) have abandoned the web and the Wii for the mindless charms of game shows.
Here's what terrifies me: I work from home and have a TV positioned just over my right shoulder. Now that I've reunited with "The Price Is Right," I have no idea how I'll resist its gravitational pull. I suppose I could shoehorn it into my quarter-hourly breaks, but where's the fun in that?
Anyway, there's no other way to end this paean to lowbrow pageantry than with a sincere expression of gratitude: Thank you, "The Price Is Right," for remaining exactly what you always were. Here's hoping your next quarter-decade proceeds as blithely as your first one.