Host With the Most: The Cult of Bob Barker

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- "The Price Is Right" without Bob Barker could mean something profound to a lard-butt nation. Either he gets a life or you do. Maybe both.

Barker is 83 now. He's essentially the longest, oldest, most continuous anything on the air. At a recent taping of the game show in the spangly-sparkly CBS studio long ago named in his honor, he is wearing one of his perfectly fitted navy blue suits and a periwinkle blue tie. His face, neck and hands are layered in stage makeup the hue of pulverized Nevada, so much that you're not sure where it ends and the man begins. His hair (hair?) is snow white; he stopped dyeing it many seasons ago in a nod to the inevitable. "What are you going to do after [you retire]?" an audience member shouts out during a commercial break.

"Well, I plan to do a little more drinking," Barker deadpans.

* * *

Rich, what's the next item up for bid?

"Bob, it's this lovely floor clock!"

Wooooo, goes the audience, and then shouts bids to the lucky four on contestants' row.

Nobody wants a grandfather clock, not really. They want the grandfather figure, who keeps five $100 bills in his left coat pocket.

Winning the stuff is not necessarily winning: A 36-year-old woman in Phoenix, according to the Arizona Republic, is trying to sell a baby grand piano she won on a February episode, because she owes between $6,000 and $12,000 in taxes on her total take (which included six nights in Puerto Vallarta and a dinette set), when really what she most wanted was to kiss Barker on the cheek before he's gone (which she did). A Lee's Summit, Mo., couple, both public school teachers, tried in vain to raise $44,000 to pay the income and sales taxes on an $86,743 Dodge Viper the wife won on the show. "It's something you love and you can't keep," she told the Kansas City Star. "It's just one of those things that came from Bob."

In the first week of June, Barker will tape his last episode of "The Price Is Right," turning over the hosting job, which has been his for 35 seasons since the show's relaunch in 1972, to an as-yet-unchosen successor. (And then what? How do you feel about Mario Lopez in the job? John O'Hurley? What about George Hamilton? Ambivalent, right?)

The network will air two nights of a prime-time Barker retrospective and fete on May 16 and 17, and is asking fans to post 15-second farewell greetings on YouTube for possible broadcast.

About 5 1/2 million viewers tune in on an average day. People wait outside for as long as 18 hours for one of 325 seats in the audience; nine of them will be picked to play. In some deviation from the science of television demographics, the most devoted fans are not merely the busloads of church-permed, AARP-aged minxes, but, more intensely, legions of college kids in flip-flops.

Unless there's an uncanny streak of new-car winners, "The Price Is Right" is relatively cheap to make. More important, it is one of the easiest, happiest things on television to watch.

Just the sound of it feels, somehow nostalgically, like being in bed with the flu. ("Come on down!" roars the announcer, Rich Fields -- who replaced the late Rod Roddy in 2003, who replaced Johnny Olson in 1986 -- as you beg some 7Up and toast to stay on down.) There is the sound of it starting at 11 a.m., over those gooey-warm CBS airwaves, just when the day is still technically young and yet already somehow wasted. It feels like skipping class again and again, the MWF 10:30 section of Lit 125: The Emerging Self.

It is the sound of human, couch-bound torpor (hospital waiting rooms; snow days!) mixed gleefully with supply-side economics. (Something d-o-o economics, voo- doo economics. Bob Barker, it should be noted with each Grocery Game, graduated summa cum laude in economics, on a basketball scholarship, from Drury College in Missouri, Class of '47.) You win by knowing the stuff that matters -- the going price of soup, of baby wipes, of pain relief. Also there is wonder, exaltation, a new pool table, his-and-hers Jet Skis, this beautiful living room set. All this can be yours. If . . .

The Great American Audience

"I look at our audience as a microcosm of what America should be," says Roger Dobkowitz, 61, the show's longtime producer. "Of all the reality shows out there now, we're the most real. We enjoy our contestants being as real as they are. And what are they doing? They're doing their best. The audience really comes together and is proud of each contestant for doing the best they can. Nobody's trying to make somebody lose. It brings tears to my eyes to talk about it. . . .

"When a contestant loses a game, they're still so happy to be there. It's like something they've accomplished. It becomes this badge of honor -- they came to Mecca, they got up onstage, they met Bob Barker. They're not there for greed."

See them with blankies and plastic patio chairs, zealously staked out along the CBS compound at Fairfax and Beverly. Assistant producers come out sometime around noon and interview each ticket holder for possible contestanthood. Everyone gets that big, honey-yellow name tag with her or his name Sharpied in all caps upon it: ELISE. JACOB. RAJEAN. ANDREW. LESONYA. JOYCE. ASSAD. MELISSA.

Someone explain all the sorority girls, the Marines, the youth group missionaries, the frat rats, the stoners. (Well, the stoners we understand.) "Mom Needs a New Hot Tub," reads the pink, self-made XXL T-shirt worn by a woman whose name tag reads FLORA. She's using a cane, and so gets to wait out the last hour or so in the security lobby, with a woman pulling an oxygen tank.

"Think about it this way," Dobkowitz offers. "The median age in this country is 36 or 37, which means half the country does not know life without Bob Barker. You're young, you go out in the world and all the new things happen -- jobs, marriage. But turn on the set and Bob's doing the television show, and it's all okay."

It is no accident that, from the first season, the people who play "The Price Is Right" look exactly like the nation itself, no matter the year. They are dressed for immediate departure on Untucked Airlines. They seem like a lot of different thesis statements at once -- about diversity, about class, about consumption -- on a show that never meant to suggest any of that. Some ran on down, some skipped on down, one legendarily popped out of her tube top in the mid-'70s.

Up on that stage, they get bleary-eyed and sometimes tell Barker about being sick a lot in first grade, or about endless days spent at Meemaw's house watching TV, or they have him sign the tattoo they've gotten of his famous smiling face. Sometimes it's Bob on the shoulder, or else Bob on the calf, Bob on the biceps. It puzzles him and he does not question it.

Barker's wife, Dorothy Jo, has been dead 25 years, and he misses her greatly. They never had children. He has millions of grandchildren, though, if you broaden the definition of love and family to include being loved on television, by that sort of family. After a taping of the show earlier this year, in his dressing room, Barker considers this concept for a moment, as if it has never been suggested to him, and says yes, that's a good point, that's probably true.

Change Isn't Good

Barker remembers the late producer Mark Goodson presenting the concept and persuading him to host. ("I think we'll get a good run out of this," Goodson said. "I do, too," replied Barker, who already had a good run hosting "Truth or Consequences.") And there the concept remained: the chunky stagflation-era typography; the low-tech lights and buzzers; the glittery sets that appear to be covered in the felty hides of genuine Muppets; that jouncy, frantic theme song.

"Every time we talked about changing the show, people would scream 'No, no,' " Barker says. "I sometimes ask the audience . . . and I don't even get the word 'change' out of my mouth."

There are the increasingly geezy commercials (the Hoveround "mobility scooter"; Wilford Brimley's diabetes kit; or the ad beckoning "attention, mesothelioma and asbestos cancer victims") which hoveround nicely with the jokes about Bob being dead, yet clearly alive. Barker's heard them all, or makes them himself: Check for strings! Look for batteries!"Did you see a coffin in his dressing room?" jokes Craig Ferguson to a guest on "The Late Late Show," which tapes in a studio down the hall. "Was it filled with the dirt of his native land?"

Barker went on Ferguson's show last year and karate-chopped the comedian's desk in half. For the last decade, an odd offshoot of the cult of Bob Barker is his promotion to the status of improbable badass. In every audience Q&A, someone (usually a college boy) raises his hand to ask about "Happy Gilmore," the 1996 Adam Sandler golf comedy in which Barker, playing himself, beats Sandler -- who taunts him with "The price is wrong, bitch!" -- to a pulp on the green.

"And that's where it really seemed to start, this 'cult' thing," Barker says. "I have to tell you, I don't understand it. I wish I knew the answer. I wish I could bottle it. Whatever it is, I'm grateful for it." Eighty-three and up and at 'em! A banana each morning does the trick, Barker says, and then some light weights and some stretching, followed by an hour on the elliptical trainer, during which time he lets his beloved rabbits (Miss Honey Bunny and Mr. Rabbit) out of their room-size cage to play. After some home office work and phone calls (he hopes to die knowing as little as possible about e-mail) and an early, light lunch, he descends yet another day into the land of Plinko, Punch a Bunch, Lucky $even and It's in the Bag. There is no chauffeured car; Barker drives himself.

For the last several years, he has renewed his million-dollar contract one season at a time. He liked the symmetry of ending it at 35 seasons--6,500-plus episodes is enough, and he's been on the air in one way or another for 50 years, more than that if you count radio.

"I'm going to miss it tremendously. I know I will," he says. "When my wife and I came to California, she produced my radio show, and so we were always talking about 'the show,' you see. Can we do this on the show? What are we going to do on the show today, tomorrow? It was the show, the show, the show."

The person who knows the least about the future of the show, it turns out, is Barker, even though he is, until he retires, the executive producer:

"They tried a nighttime 'Price Is Right,' which was a colossal flop. They had everything modern and it didn't work. It's a delicate thing we have here and if they start fooling with it, tweaking this and tweaking that, then I'll think that will be a mistake," Barker says. "But I've talked in greater detail with you right now about what happens to 'The Price Is Right' than I've talked with anybody [in charge], because they haven't asked me."

It's Showtime

The crew rehearses without him, on the tacit understanding that Barker needs no rehearsal. He knows each of the 80 or so pricing games by heart and rarely, if ever, gets confused. An assistant delivers a yellow sheet of legal paper with the day's six games (eight if you include the Showcase Showdown and the Showcase itself) listed in pencil. "That will tell me if we're going to have two plugs on Games 2, 3 and 4, or something like that, and that's it," Barker says. "Away we go. Grind out another hit."

By 1 p.m., out on the stage, the crew practices wheeling cars and sofas and pricing games into place, while announcer Fields rehearses that distinctive script copy that will describe everything from "a NEW CAR!!" to a set of roasting pans.

The Barker Beauties, in hair rollers and bathrobes, are being told which spot to stand on for each reveal.

Oh, the Barker Beauties! Younger and perhaps hotter now, named Phire and Brandi and such. Thanks to the first Beauties, most sentient beings now know how to properly show off a refrigerator; that it's all in the wrist. There are as many as seven of them now and they rotate shows, to keep things fresh. (And Barker is not boinking any of them, and they are not suing him for harassment or discrimination -- that sort of unpleasantness, which at one point involved multiple lawsuits with several former Beauties, is past, thanks for your question.)

The crowd is ushered in, with the energy of sleepless speed addicts who just got a fresh fix. The sound system pumps a techno-beat version of the theme song, and they dance goonily. Names are called to "come on down" and do they ever. Those big paneled doors upstage part -- a little arthritically, as if they need to be greased or replaced -- and Barker strolls purposefully out toward them, and it is bliss, and he basks in it for a professional 10 seconds and away we go, grind out another hit:

Rich, show us the first item up for bid!

It's an above-ground pool. (Of course it is.) ELISE wins it, bidding $1,800, closest to the "actual retail price" of $2,974, goes on to play the Clock Game, and she spits out prices faster than Barker can say "higher" or "lower," and finally Barker sits down on the pink-carpeted platform and makes a hammy production of how old he's gotten. "You did great," ELISE assures him, after winning a pair of recliners and a set of dumbbells.

JACOB, a young Marine, wins a set of Igloo coolers and plays Cliff Hangers to win an Ikea kitchen. LESONYA bids $1,300 on a pool table and Hot Pockets frozen sandwiches, and the actual retail price is $1,300 exactly, so she gets $500, but sorry, LESONYA (cue the sad tuba bleat), no Pontiac Grand Prix.

KEITH, a retired military man, wins his-and-hers American Tourister luggage and then, in one of "Price's" cinchiest games (Side by Side), a Yamaha upright piano ($7,995). ANDREW, decked out in a giant white T-shirt on which he has painted Barker's signature sign-off ("reminding you to have your pets spayed and neutered"), wins a curio cabinet filled with porcelain kitties ($2,280) and then wins $10,000 cash by guessing that salsa, cat litter, cold medicine and stain remover each cost less than $8. JOYCE wins an Aquabot pool cleaner, but in playing That's Too Much, stops too early on the price of a Ford Mustang -- $20,902. (JOYCE, that's too little.)

But it's not over.

When you don't win, when Barker places his hand warmly near your lumbar and sort of half walks you, half pushes you off the edge of your fleeting fame, it's still not over, because you can hang your hopes on the Showcase Showdown.

They keep the wheel backstage. During a commercial break, several stagehands drag it into place, where it sits on a red carpet.

Reach up there and give that wheel a spin and see who gets closest to a dollar without going over. See what the fates are telling you. See what Bob says. See what America is, or was. Boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-- "I'd like to say hi to my girlfriend, Kim, and Mom and Walter, and Trina" -- boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop . . .

Boop . . . boop . . .

Boop . . .


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