On The Price is Right

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I have always contended that The Price is Right is a truly American game show: the perfect blend of capitalism and democracy.
Mark Engler

Issue #57, October 2001


Before hitting the coast just south of San Francisco, Mike and I had tired. We drove remembering a dusty Utah and California's hot, irrigated interior offered us little relief. Occasionally, one of us reached an arm into the back seat, digging past days of empty aluminum cans, for a new tape to play. On the passenger side I spent more time groggily checking the ceiling than looking out my closed window.

tv picture!A few miles past Monterey, all that changed. We reached a point where Highway 1 rushes around a bend to reveal the fullness of the Pacific. The sight made us alert. "God damn!" we yelled as we pulled forward in our seats and stuck our heads out against the wind for a better view. We eased to the side of the road, ready for a run out into the surf.

As Iowans, we haven't quite realized the ideal of unchecked emotion. And we have not been trained to greet oceans. Having driven half way across the country, taking some precautions seemed sensible. We had arrived in California: Who knew what might happen? We did know that it was a place boasting large landscapes and flashy cities. Far from responding like innocent dupes, we armed ourselves with wariness. We kept on guard — even at the beach — so that we would not become the next victims of some infamous network of LA car thieves.

Sure, an occasional vehicle disappears from the streets of our hometown, but Des Moines is light on beaches and chop shops. It lacks infamy and flash as well.

Iowa does not make TV shows.

* * *

I have always contended that The Price is Right is a truly American game show: the perfect blend of capitalism and democracy.

Capitalism, because the program challenges contestants to price a range of marvelous prizes — commodities described lovingly in the course of the game. In functioning as an hour-long advertisement, the show pleases its sponsors. But at the same time, as a game show celebrating the consumerist endeavor, it out styles rival programs that merely award cash to the players. Cash prizes are practical, but stuff is more exciting. By offering correctly-priced items as prizes, The Price is Right at once basks in the dual joys of winning money and spending it. All around, it achieves a psychological effect demonstrably superior to its money-focused competitors:

A grandmother's reminiscence about the Wheel of Fortune: "I liked it better with the shopping." Yes, yes... Me, too. TV needs more than a big bank account. As Max Weber reminds us while tracing the convolutions in Protestant thinking, capitalist expansion relies on an occasional spending spree as much as it does on thrifty accumulation and deferred gratification. And while the economy as a whole may need to strike a balance, Hollywood is hardly the place for the deferred-gratification side of things.

A teen's cynicism in regard to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: "It's only a million. Even if you win it all, you still have to pay taxes." Well, yes, I guess that's true. Bankrolls will always grow stale when facing inflation in the real world. Besides, a million bucks is an abstraction. A kid will always go further on the playground hauling a load of 500 gumballs than he will flashing a five dollar bill.

* * *

My trip to The Price is Right began in 1983 on the living room sofa, watching TV on a Tuesday at 10 AM. Normally at this time on a weekday I would have sagged behind a desk in a second grade classroom, book-learning. But on this splendid morning I was sick. Not so sick, of course, that I would miss the early shows, bundled up in my blanket and drinking ginger ale. But sick enough to make school attendance unfathomable: My stomach didn't feel so well, and there was probably something wrong with my head, too.

Whether I had fooled my mom, or whether she simply indulged me, I didn't know for sure. I was certain that by about 3:30 that afternoon (when my brothers and friends got home, and when I would be feeling much, much better) Mom would wisely hold me to a doctrine of consistency, keeping me in bed to fortify my recovery and to make sure that I would not get ill too often. Since I would taste this sour twist all too soon, I had to savor the present.

Morning glowed as the highlight of my day off. The TV, in particular, radiated a fine warmth; The Price is Right filled the screen. After any early cartoons, before the soaps, it rested in an ideal time. Nothing exceptional occurred on the show that day. The contestants did not perform spectacularly. If anything, they bungled their chances at big prizes, lending me (neither a head of household nor a frequent shopper) the sense that I could better read the market. Indeed, I imagined myself there in the studio, cozy and excited, calling out prices with my fellows and maybe even getting called down to the stage. By the end of the show the phrase, "If you would like to be a contestant," wiggled through my brain.

My plot to get myself into that audience, however, was short-lived. A great space exists between hatching an idea and putting it to paper. Several viewings separate the first instinct to write for tickets from the day you belatedly go scrambling for pen and pad, the address having been announced on TV a minute before. And several more days pass before you sit, notebook in hand, anticipating the moment when the announcer will come on to help you complete the zip code. Surely, many more severe complications would have hobbled my plan (how I would get to California, for example, or what the producers would have made of me when I arrived on the set, eight years old). But at the time, getting the address seemed the main problem. I did not have those days, those viewings, available to me.

Years later, as I sat in a Harvard student lounge between morning classes, my long-abandoned planning rose to memory. A TV sitting high atop a swivel wall mount played The Price is Right. I don't know why the program struck me that day. Maybe I overheard a snide classmate making a joke about the déclassé audience, a comment that clashed with my resurfacing sense of kinship. Or maybe I had skipped class altogether, and thus recalled how small pleasures could be enlarged when attained through clandestine means.

I decided to call up Mike, who was in his fourth year studying music at a Wisconsin college. Having enjoyed his share of sick days growing up down the street from me, he responded enthusiastically. The Price is Right became an increasingly central part of our post-graduation travel plans, vaguely scheduled for the following summer.

* * *

Mike and I imagined several training regimens that we would undertake in advance of our pilgrimage. Mike proposed creating home versions of the various games played on the show so that we could hone our skills: hitting a hole in one, expertly dropping chips down the Plinko board, cleanly following-through when spinning the big wheel. In a separate scheme, I pictured us studying long lists of suggested retail prices in order to gain an encyclopedic knowledge of new product lines.

tv picture!These plans never materialized, which was just as well. Unlike Jeopardy, a sanctuary for pale bibliophiles, The Price of Right does not reward this type of preparation. Its pricing games exude a neighborly (if not quite anti-intellectual) sensibility. Prospective contestants take initiative not by worming into almanacs, but by pressing iron-ons to their clothing, making sweatshirts that read "I Love U Bob!"

This is the democratic element of the show.

It's more than who's in the audience; it's their ability to participate in the proceedings. People not only yell out answers to the contestants, they aspire to become contestants themselves. While other studios must pay scouts to draw tourists off the streets of Hollywood to watch filmings, CBS never struggles with The Price is Right. The idea that any lucky audience member could be named in the call to "Come on down!" keeps the studio filled.

Anyone can potentially emerge from the crowd and work themselves into minor celebrity, not by humiliating themselves with embarrassing revelations (a la Jerry Springer), but by exhibiting the savoir-faire of a smart shopper — knowing the prices, the comparisons, the bargains. This is a knowledge fundamentally different from Quiz Show triviality. It is a practical intelligence. At its core, it derives from the humble shared experience of buying toiletries and dog foods, and of coveting a catalogue's higher-end items.

During the 1992 campaign, Debbie Gilbert, mother of two and part-time hospital worker, questioned candidate Bill Clinton in a Winston-Salem town meeting. "Governor," she said, "I want to know if you know how much it costs to buy a pound of hamburger, a pair of blue jeans, a tank of gas and a visit to the doctor's office."

The American people want to know that their President can correctly price the basics. They want to feel confident that he can make it off of contestants' row before they invest any faith in the idea that he might lead the country, victorious, through the showcase showdown.

* * *

Our summer road trip carried me from one coast to another. The first half was a largely utilitarian affair, moving my stuff out of an off-campus student cooperative in Cambridge back into my Mom's house in Des Moines. The second half was different, its purposes and landmarks less certain. I only intended to visit California for a couple of weeks. But on some level I felt open to the possibilities. Other than some government loans there was nothing really keeping me tied to the workaday economy. The Price is Right notwithstanding, my loyalty to popular culture was waning as well. Maybe I would end up living in a forest community in Northern California, where activists camped in the high branches of Redwoods marked for destruction. Or maybe I would fall in, ignobly, with the packs of Hollywood runaways I had seen profiled sensationally on television news magazines. For hours riding West through wheat fields, I inhabited these alternatives.

Mike and I made a point of livening the distance between the midwest and the coast by using back roads and by stopping at some eccentric attractions. Often, these involved elaborate displays erected in people's back yards. One Kansas farmer lined his field with ghastly wind ornaments, rough cut from sheet metal and painted with slogans mocking liberal causes and government tyranny. Another filled his lawn with a one-acre "Garden of Eden" constructed out of concrete. It stood complete with tree-like totems and a tomb at its center, the sculptor resting eternally inside. The fact that these monuments represented years of human labor seemed to me at once ridiculous and seriously intimidating. A remote town stared down the universe and came up with this: the world's largest hand-wound ball of twine, some eight feet in diameter, on display just a block past Casey's.

Another scene from the trip would haunt Mike: We drove into Taos, New Mexico, a place reknowned for its culture and charm, but we didn't know what to do. Looking at boutiques and art galleries didn't interest us, so we ended up wandering around a town square for a while. By the time we decided to move on, a large parade had begun a half-mile away, blocking several major roadways and snarling traffic all around. We couldn't even see the procession, but soon we were hopelessly stuck in a long line of cars. "I don't know why I remember that," Mike says now. "It was such a stupid thing."

I remember that, too. We had to maneuver for hours, trying different fruitless backstreets, before breaking onto open highway.

* * *

A day after arriving in Los Angeles we pulled into the CBS lot, the "Television City" whose mention had once felt to me exceptionally exotic, and began to wait. Like at Disneyland, waiting in line is the main activity of a day at the studios. Unlike Disney, CBS has not invented ways to disguise the dull task. We grouped together with the others slated for the afternoon taping, and studio interns spent many hours ushering us between different seating areas. The fact that we'd gotten up early, and that parts of the line held us in sunny expanses, kept us drooping along through the day.

I regained my spirits by focusing on the excitement of the game show at hand, and mentally preparing for the audition. Early in the day, a scare had circulated through our group that the show was rigged. A Price is Right functionary came out to reassure us, and to prep us about where the line would eventually lead. The line, we found out, led to a fifteen second audition. There, each audience member presented themselves in two sentences to the show's executives, who sized us up from a distance of fifty feet, their blond assistants taking notes.

"Sure, it's not a totally random selection," I explained to a California friend after the fact, "but it's still a meritocracy. Everyone still has a fair chance to make it."

My friend had worked in "the Industry" and was wise in the ways of Hollywood. "It's not democratic," he scoffed. "Guys like you and me don't get on. You have to be a nurse from Iowa to get on."

tv picture!But that's just it, my friend: I am a nurse from Iowa. Or even if not a nurse exactly, the operative point remained. By going on the show, I would affirm a vision of who I was and where I came from. I would visit my beloved TV community in person and revel in its unmediated purity. I would risk fame and fortune with my modest brethren. And in doing so, I would make a claim: "These," I would assert, "are my people."

Of course, when I failed to actually become a contestant, my feelings about all of this changed.

* * *

Bob Barker has appeared on his morning program continuously for some twenty-nine years — ruling, at six thousand episodes, over the longest-running game show in TV history.

In a monologue before the taping began, Bob told us his story. By then, our audience bounced with an enthusiasm remarkable given the long lines and the UV exposure that we had endured. Bob and announcer Rod Roddy brought on this change in mood with consecutive pre-show warm-up sessions. Rod's bit was an out-and-out pep rally, a practice of the cheers the producers wanted to see once the cameras engaged. Bob, who came on only after we were already psyched up, acted more like a talk show host, warm and commanding. He used Rod as a sidekick and throughout the show he would cast asides to the announcer, comments designed to flatter or provoke the crowd: "They look good out there, Rod." Or, if we weren't showing enough zeal: "I can't hear them, can you?"

This dialogue continued through the show. After the lead-in music played and the taping actually began, some of these barbs turned sharp. Bob harshly condemned the first two contestants after their unsuccessful efforts in the pricing games. "Rod, you keep sending me a bunch of losers." He said, shaking his head and passing judgment with an unsettling sincerity. Then he eased up slightly by looking out above the crowd and intoning, "Now why don't you call me a winner!"

What began as light trash talk became bawdy comedy as the show progressed. When one of the first people summoned out of the audience, Andrew, failed to win his way on stage for several rounds, the two announcers taunted him aggressively. "Where are you from?" Bob asked. "Baltimore? Well, you're never going to be able to show your face around there again."

Rod jumped on the cue, suggesting that perhaps Andrew could move to Las Vegas, where even the sorriest of human specimen could find employment. Bob delighted in the idea. With teeth gleaming and eyebrows raised, he proposed that Andrew work as a stripper:

"Rod, is there anything we can do for him... to help him get established out there?"
 
"Maybe we can make some calls, Bob."
 
"Because I can just see him in the clubs... He'll be the... 'the Baltimore Bomber!'"

In the audience we gaped, at once titillated and amazed, while the shameless routine continued. After Andrew lost another round, a stage manager came out and handed Bob a G-String. The host twirled the undergarment mockingly before tossing it at contestants' row, wishing the player well in his career change.

Although designed to shock, the performance felt appropriate to me almost immediately, fulfilling some quiet expectations about the show's actors. Rod served as an intermediary personality. Outside of his booming radio voice he might have been one of us: one of us, admittedly, who stayed in Television City too long collecting forward ties and glittery silk suits. Bob, in contrast, embodied celebrity. He delivered on the Hollywood promise of polished charisma with a seedy tint. He drew us close, his unglamorous initiates, by intimating sexual motifs of the show previously kept implicit. He flaunted our naivete; while bringing us in to his confidence. The idea that he would be a predator when it came to sexual harassment in the office then felt entirely plausible, a proposition only the most thick or lawerly would protest.

tv picture!The risque act kept me engaged for a time. But at some point the spell wore off. I looked at the people around me in the studio, hopeful and captive, and I felt introverted in a way I hadn't before. The appeal of Bob and Rod's performances slipped away. Their routine then seemed to be no more than a blatant bid to control our emotions — to evoke the proper range of excitement, awe, and anxiety in the audience. Struck by the actors' crass professionalism, I became aware of a fact that I had previously managed to ignore: that for the show, we served as props, not as community. Whatever feelings of closeness I intuited between audience members, whatever feelings of identification I valued, had little to do with the production that I was witnessing. The source of these things resided elsewhere. Though the game was only a little more than half through, I knew that my audition — which had consisted of my best beaming smile and a high-energy description of "driving all the way just to be here!" — had not worked. I would not come on down; I would not be the next contestant on the Price is Right.

With this disillusionment came a sense of elated detachment. I relaxed and surveyed the studio. I saw that as Bob continued to built rapport, the filming process rolled around us efficiently. Sets changed and cameras swung into new positions. I had thought that The Price is Right's aesthetics would impress themselves more firmly when I sat in the taping than when seeing them on TV: that the show's gaudy greens would be greener, the prizes more sparkling, and Plinko's plinking more pronounced. In fact, these things seemed muted. The famed "Barker's Beauties" rarely appeared in the open, mostly showing off the merchandise from the half-obscured prize rooms embedded in the set. Of the theater, I remember the dimly lit rows of seats, and chatting with the couple sitting behind me.

While we were inside, Mike tried to keep me focused: "When they start to film us in the audience, don't look off to the side at the monitor, trying to see yourself. You got to look straight into the camera, so that you'll look cool on TV." Yet therein lay the dilemma. In home viewing, the television's cuts and close-ups filter off superfluous action and train your attention on stage. In person, you choose between watching the games and the swirling cameras. The distractions can prove more compelling than the stage show.

Commercial-free, the taping sped by. Before I had time to overhaul whatever hope I had harbored for a populist reclamation of the program, the interns whisked us from the auditorium. They handed us postcards inscribed with the date, a few months off, when the show would air. We walked out into the sun.

* * *

By the time the air date arrived, I had moved out of the country, to Costa Rica. Mike, however, recorded the program between gigs in Minneapolis. Now when we go back to Iowa we can show our episode of The Price is Right at parties to admiring friends. I enjoy these screenings, but usually feel chagrined by the peculiar video. On tape, Bob behaves well, models take center stage, and advertisements intrude. I do not recognize the game's angles or pacing. Its contestants seem unfamiliar to me.

While I hold my eyes to the TV, my attention strays. For against this suspect record of a moment I had long anticipated, my mind turns to more reliable things: to sick days and road trips, to oceans.

This is Mark Engler's first essay for Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 2001 by Mark Engler. Image of man and TV from archives of Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.
 

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