Hello Cranker Darlings… CY is on hiatus this week because of the holiday… instead, I’m doing a written TBT from 10 years ago. I don’t do much longform/creative writing, but the experience of going to Los Angeles to see The Price is Right had a singularity to it. Hope you enjoy. — WP
Surviving a surreal morning with Bob Barker, a super-positive firefighter and a damn early wake-up call. [This post has been updated]
by Will Pollock (originally published fall 2005)
The Price Is Right line slumped down Beverly Boulevard like a soup kitchen before dawn. Bleary eyed and hopeful, I and my conspirator Scott fell into place at around 5 a.m., as numbers 151 and 152, respectively, behind other shit-tired men and women from all corners of the country. Some of the hopeful, we’d find out later, had tested the line before with varying degrees of success—including Scott himself.
The Los Angeles night shivered with an unusually brisk, wet wind as the line continued to build down the street. Many of these TPIR fanatics had been sleeping on the backbreaking sidewalk hoping to ride their experience to Contestants’ Row. Eventually another 200 people lined up behind us as we awaited the Moses-like parting of the Television City gates.
Speaking of Moses, many of the hopeful behaved like they were about to see the Second Coming, with prayer most definitely needed given how the show operates. TPIR works on a ticket-lottery system, so even if you request tickets far in advance (which we did), there is not a guarantee that you’ll actually get on stage for a close-up. You have to go through waiting, changing lines, stopping and starting, cheesy contestant interviews and more waiting. Hence the early arrivals of the weary, maintaining all hope that a strategic place in line meant getting a creepy hug from a frail Mr. Barker.
TPIR draws a spectrum of fans; a human Americana jumble. Newlyweds, veterans, housewives, the elderly, group members, nutty hillbillies, biker chicks and crazy frat boys. The variety of social backgrounds, racial make-ups and regional differences was both plainly evident and immaterial given that we were all seeking the same thing.
But instead of embracing the diversity of the moment and engaging my normally curious inclinations, at 5 a.m. I just wanted to stand face forward and wait for the soup line to inch forward. To wait quietly for my own private TPIR dream to be actualized. No small talk, thanks very much. I get cranky in the morning, as many of us do, without enough coffee. But the social dynamics of the morning would make Scott and me, as well as everyone else, ripe conversational targets. As a native New Yorker, I can pull off quite an attitude, but the accidental-tourist tactic doesn’t fly when you’re waiting at that time of day, with that much anticipation, alongside people with shirts that read “Bob Barker is my homeboy” and “I skipped work to get lucky with Bob” or “Keep the car! I want to bid on Barker’s Beauties.” Please.
There was a distinct euphoria in the air, to be sure, but it was tempered by the “um, seriously?” feeling of being around wackadoodles. Scott and I were coming to terms with how we were officially wackadoodle, too.
There was the chatterbox, big-boned elderly gal who wouldn’t shut her yap about her 13 kids and 67 grandkids (and not from Utah, by the way); there was the giddy foursome from North Dakota who looked about 14 but who were all inexplicably married to each other. There was also the attractive swarm of frat boys, many of whom make it far because the show’s gay producers are hoping to get in their pants. Allegedly.
Also piping up were Duane and Dawn from Oklahoma (all names changed), a sweet, middle-aged couple who were out in Los Angeles on vacation. Dawn looked every bit the part of the perky Southwest flight attendant, with perfect hair, nails, complexion and shoes. I really liked her shoes. As amiable as they were, it was still way too early to share small talk and trade recipes. They mostly picked on Scott since he was the expert Pricer among the two of us, having gone through the process once before. I kept facing forward, occasionally leaning out into the street to examine the other suckers on line. The new threesome chatted next to me and I listened to Scott respond in a kind and even voice. I didn’t have it in me.
In all, the waiting would take more than eight hours, with lots of stop and go, sitting and standing, and moving from one area to another. Slowly but surely, my morning frostiness began to thaw, and the small talk with fellow audience members led to some interesting revelations. Dawn, the Oklahoma flight attendant, is a breast cancer survivor, in complete remission for more than two years. They fought it together, she and Duane did—that much was clear, given the furrow of concern on his face while explaining her shiny pink-lapel ribbon.
I fell for the crazies around me, even rooted for them, because they wore their rough edges on their sleeves in the same way I do—in the way we all do in our own way.
Then there was Stuart, who wore jeans, cowboy boots and a frighteningly electric-orange shirt that read on the back in bold letters, “I’ve been married to the same woman for more than 50 years.” On the shirt’s front: “And I’ve been competing with Bob for 30 years.” While his wife’s longing for Bob could be awkward for Stuart, they created the show’s most touching, off-camera scene, where Stuart and his wife awarded Bob with a plaque from their small town in Texas, signed by the mayor, that showed appreciation for Bob’s work on the show.
They fought it together, she and Duane did—that much was clear, given the furrow of concern on his face while explaining her shiny pink-lapel ribbon.
As luck would have it, Scott and I sat directly behind Stuart and his wife, watching the show unfold through their eyes, and you’d think that this was some sort of life-affirming pilgrimage that they were now actualizing. They seemed to live for this moment, and as Stuart’s wife Lydia pined for Bob’s attention from the audience, you could see how unbelievably important this whole process was for her. For both of them. Stuart got called and made it as far as the Big Wheel.
(UPDATE: Courtesy of Scott, here’s a clip from our episode as it aired, complete with Stuart winning on Contestants’ Row)
So, only about three-quarters of the way through my experience did I realize the greater purpose of my being there: the crazy audience members to whom I was trying to give my best New York rebuff are the whole point of the show. The entire point. If you think audience members on The Price is Right are crazy… ding ding ding! They are crazy; they—I mean we—have been up since the crack of yesterday, waiting and making ridiculous conversation with people we’d never socialize with even on a bad day. TPIR’s frenzied audience members appear to be and are the most insane, socially outrageous group of rebelrousers the world has ever known. We were sleep-deprived caged animals that had been allowed to appear on national TV.
History has proved the theory of outrageous TPIR behavior. Remember the woman who lost her tube top as she “came on down”? Or what about the “gentle”man who insisted on one show that he, too, should have a chance to kiss Bob on the cheek? (The announcer now tells you before the show starts that men kissing Bob is not allowed. I never had that urge, but I should like to have equal opportunity. A clear case of penis discrimination.)
Where most American game shows revel in phony “get to know ya” nicecities and decorous, congenial pretenses—think Alex Trebek sliding past his players—TPIR is exactly as it appears on television. Loud, outrageous, colorful, manic, bold, beautiful, obnoxious, exhausting and irritating all in one sell package. It’s the same basic TV premise that’s been whipping up viewers with candied schmaltz for more than 30 years. But it’s always all about the audience—Television Studio is transformed into a temporary padded cell for pent up, overtired audience members who scream until they’re horse as they prod their fellow brothers and sisters to win a hideous Broyhill furniture set.
Loud, outrageous, colorful, manic, bold, beautiful, obnoxious, exhausting and irritating all in one sell package; the same basic TV premise that’s been whipping up viewers with candied schmaltz for more than 30 years.
More details and snippets of my fellow contestants emerged. Nathan, the grand winner of the day with more than $40,000 in winnings—including a new Jeep, camping equipment and a wad of cash—is the elemental sign of our romantic American priorities: a tan, smooth, jovial, twentysomething. He was a dashing, be-earinged firefighter and paramedic from Baltimore City who was as adorable as he was concerned for his fellow audience members. He befriended just about everyone he talked to, including us. His personality and dashing looks made him stand out from the rest. He was my hero of the day. Scott and I predicted he would get picked, and sure enough, he was not only picked but he came away the big winner.
Surviving multiple model lawsuits, sex scandals, a venerable if slightly arrogant host, and a long parade of leggy Beauties, Bob Barker and TPIR have held the nation’s interest—and given us a mode of escape, both as viewers and contestants—for more than three decades. As much as I resisted the chance to meet new people while waking up that morning, I ended up invested. I cared about whom was going to be picked and why, how many folks won, and what their guessed prices were. I fell for the crazies around me, even rooted for them, because they wore their rough edges on their sleeves in the same way I do—in the way we all do.
Scott and I were never called, but the experience itself was quite enough. While we walked away satisfied and proud that we survived the grueling hours and made some new friends, my insistence on smooching Bob will have to wait for another time. ❏
Will Pollock is a cranky New York City escapee living in Atlanta. He’s a freelance multimedia journalist and author of two books (Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way. Sign up for the mailing list, follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—and check out the book links below.
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