June 06, 2007

A Farewell to The Price Is Right

Bob Barker filmed his last Price is Right, but there’s a time delay between his retirement and regularly scheduled programming. June 6th is a sad day, yet the big, bawling farewell is over a week away. It’s akin to pulling off the Band-Aid very, very slowly.

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well
In my youth*

Making physical contact with the past can be curiously calming. Simply touching a childhood teddy bear or baseball glove can instantly transport us back to a free and happy place, a private moment of intense time travel. Anyone who has ever gone back to find their childhood homes or haunts either damaged or demolished knows the nauseous equilibrium shift that causes; it’s an erasure of everyone’s history. I feel that same kind of public sadness and discontent about The Price Is Right (TPIR) coming to an end.

It has been the only unchanging entity in my life from nursery school to this very day. TPIR is more than a game show, it’s a measure of time. It’s been like having a favorite grandma forever baking favorite cookies to take the edge off a hard day of adulthood.

Simply hearing the theme music creates a Pavlovian need for a fried egg sandwich, as my babysitter made me one to eat while hanging out with Bob Barker and Janice. Come grade school, I looked forward to the Shell Game and current Green Giant canned pea prices when home for sick, snow or holidays. Come high school summer vacations, the ending theme song meant it was time to stop sitting around getting high and actually go do something.

As a productive, organized and aspiring adult, any type of illness is treated with a medicinal viewing of TPIR. It’s my audio equivalent of, “Aw, you poor little thing. Here, this should make you feel better: A New Dishwasher!!!

Let everyone debate the true reality
I’d rather see the world the way it used to be*

We’ve all pretty much taken for granted that the show has never altered in any significant manner. Because of that, we may also not realize how bizarre the concept is: A daytime TV game show has aired for 35 years without ever really changing.

In our accelerating entertainment culture, TV shows are constantly being dickered with, and we accept new sets, new theme songs and new cast members as part of the deal. But aside from subtle redesigns of the Showcase Showdown podiums and Barker’s hair and weight, it has looked the same for 4 decades. Meaning, every M-F, there are millions of people between the ages of 3 and 93 watching repetitive actions take place on post-psychedelic department store décor from 1972, and it feels perfectly natural.

Surely at many points, some up-and-coming CBS hotshot suit has begged for a cosmetic update to appeal to (insert that season’s hottest demographic). Yet, it defiantly remains the same. Reporter Ken Smith wrote a nice piece about his day as a contestant hopeful in the audience. This part filled my heart with love:

“The first thing I noticed is how vintage the set looks, with its old-school light bulbs and glitter paint. I could clearly see the silver paint peeling off the giant “$1000000” sign they hang during the ‘Million Dollar Spectacular’ episodes, and the place even had a certain musty, old theater smell to it. While it’s comforting to know that the show hasn’t changed much in 35 years, I wasn’t expecting it to appear quite so lived in.”

Oh, that’s exactly how I imagined the set to be! It breaks my heart to be told it’s all really true because I lay you odds Barker’s town car had barely left the parking lot for the final time when producers started trashing the parts of the Styrofoam Fruity Pebbles set that weren’t stolen as souvenirs. Woe onto those impatient dismantlers, for the karmic wheel can become the Showcase money wheel always landing zero, and thanks for playing.

In a world of volatile programming, TV formats are constantly being altered for ratings. TPIR has danced with fellow game shows and soap operas, ignored Jerry Springer nation, waited out Oprah and judge shows, and remained standing as the only daytime game show. Week after week, decade after decade, the show goes on as if nothing has really changed, or changing just enough to avoid creepiness.

I’m confident that this fly-in-amber oddity is due to the resolve and power of Bob Barker. Obviously, the game show has always made piles of money for the network, so much so that it’s not worth a CBS CEO’s life to spar with Barker and his winning formula – his cleverly low-overhead formula. In the process of defining and defending his lucrative territory, Barker created a kingdom, and much like Henry the 8th, King Barker had many Queens.

But thinking young
And growing older
Is no sin*

One of the things that endear Barker to us is his good-natured irascibility. He came up when many game show hosts were sarcastic, flip and snickering, but Bob never converted to rice pudding to keep viewers. It’s this consistent personality trait that has me totally believing every story of affairs, pinching and parties that went on backstage between him and the Barker’s Beauties.

A few of his Beauties filed suit against him, and those were taken care of with a minimum of fuss and/or enough money to make them drop suit. He never denied what was true, but also never called a press conference to discuss it; his generation still follows a chivalrous code toward women. With chivalry in mind, I think it’s worthwhile to look at the Beauties from another reality.

Unlike being a Playboy Playmate, there are only about two handfuls of Barkers Beauties. This prestigious club has so few members that they couldn’t fill a short bus. It is also the only modeling gig with any measure of job security, because Barker is attentive to his ladies long past the industry’s typical sell-by date.

Janice Pennington, one of the original Barkers Beauties, is a brilliant example of rising above a “this year’s model” mentality. She was a 30-year old former Playmate when the show began in 1972, and reigned supreme until her dismissal in 2000, at the age of 58. That dismissal was not because of age – if that were really an issue she would have been gone a decade or so earlier – but because the Queen was disloyal to the King. Janice sided with the banished Holly in a court case. Previous to Holly’s dismissal (and subsequent legal battle with Bob) she worked with them for 18 years. I’ve never held one job for that long, have you?

Relatively speaking, TPIR must have been a great place to work, because no one ever wanted to leave. Show announcers only stopped working because of death (Johnny Olson and Rod Roddy), and death need not stop your billing on the show.

I can still hear Johnny say, “This has been a Mark Goodson/Bill Toddman Production.” Toddman died in 1979 but they kept using the production tag line until 1983. Goodson died in 1992, but “For the sake of tradition, and through special permission…The Price Is Right continues to use the Mark Goodson Productions name, logo, and announcement at the end of each episode, even though the original company no longer exists.”

“For the sake of tradition,” is the peculiar aspect of the shows longevity and success. In the malleable, superfluous world of entertainment, Barker was defiantly steadfast, upholding a tradition until we noticed it was a tradition. His unique business practices also created a sense of permanence, like families or the neighbors on the block where you grew up.

Now there's more to do
Than watch my sailboat glide

And everyday can be

My magic carpet ride*

So Barker’s retirement feels like losing my teddy bear just as the bulldozers come to demolish my childhood home. It’s a bit weird to feel so emotional over a game show, but The Price Is Right was a weird, magical adventure that transcended beyond several different realities.

Sure, the show will go on with a new host (who better not dare use the tall, skinny mike) and a new set with the prerequisite Battlestar Gallactica décor. There will be dry ice, silicone sister merchandise models, and contestants hamming it up in hopes of becoming the next celebutard. Considering the Barker Legacy, the producers had better not be fool enough to simply insert a new host into the 35-year old blueprint.

So catch me if you can
I’m goin’ back*

Bob Barker has certainly earned a rest, because 35 years of keeping an unwavering enterprise alive is hard work, even though he made it look easy. I hope our profound sadness does not ruin his triumphant farewell, and may he have a long and satisfying retirement. Thank you Mr. Barker, and help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered. Goodbye everybody.

* “Goin’ Back” by Gerry Goffin & Carole King