Come on down – The Price is Right still go­ing strong

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - Karen HELLER

LOS AN­GE­LES — Does Amie Ya­niak know the price of a chili-red Mini Cooper? Oh, no, it ap­pears she does not.

“I don’t know what I’m do­ing! I have no idea how much that car is worth!” says Ya­niak, a mu­sic ther­a­pist/vo­cal coach/health and well­ness coach/ta­ble­side gua­camole maker. (Hey, it’s L.A.)

On this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing, stand­ing next to im­per­turbable host Drew Carey, it mat­ters not one bit, be­cause the re­lent­lessly ebul­lient Ya­niak was plucked to be a con­tes­tant on The Price Is Right, Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar and long­est-run­ning day­time game show, launched in 1956, re­launched on CBS in 1972 and ded­i­cated to con­tes­tants guess­ing the price of al­most ev­ery­thing with­out ever go­ing a penny over.

The Price Is Right, af­ter all, is one of the few game shows in which the au­di­ence pitches in sug­gest­ing prices – let’s be hon­est: yelling prices – and com­pe­ti­tion among con­tes­tants evap­o­rates. In the sher­bet-on-hal­lu­cino­gens stu­dio, stalled some­where in the early 1970s, the au­di­ence howls com­pet­ing prices so em­phat­i­cally that Ya­niak, 41, can’t fig­ure out what price to sug­gest. “What? Say, what?”

She is on­stage at the Bob Barker Stu­dio, named for the snowtressed for­mer host of 35 years (who’s now 95), be­cause she dreamed that this would hap­pen, but also be­cause she ex­hales ex­cla­ma­tion marks, the ideal tem­per­a­ment for a con­tes­tant.

Who knew such joy could be de­rived from guess­ing the price of a can of Pro­gresso chicken noo­dle soup? ($2.69) For more than five mil­lion daily view­ers, The Price Is Right is their happy hour. The show’s suc­cess is an­chored on de­liv­er­ing two Amer­i­can dreams si­mul­ta­ne­ously: face time on na­tional tele­vi­sion and scor­ing gobs of stuff for do­ing next to noth­ing. Whether it’s through episodes (of­ten recorded for evening view­ing) or on­line fo­rums, in line for a tap­ing or at the live tour­ing show, ar­dent fans rel­ish the fan­tasy that know­ing the price of or­di­nary goods can de­liver wealth and un­told splen­dour.

“We are in­grained in the Amer­i­can cul­ture,” says Rachel Reynolds, the doyenne of the show’s five mod­els, cel­e­brat­ing her 16th year of sport­ing skimpy at­tire while ges­tur­ing to­ward cars and out­door fur­ni­ture sets. “It has got­ten so many peo­ple through a rough time.”

Con­tes­tant Ky­land Young, 27, a Los An­ge­les mar­ket­ing man­ager, watches be­cause his grand­mother watches. It’s an heir­loom pro­gram, passed down through gen­er­a­tions.

“Ev­ery time you were home from school, it was on,” Young says. “It was on all the time.”

It’s on all the time in plenty of places. Home­grown ver­sions air in 42 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries, in­clud­ing Mo­rocco, Nige­ria and Pak­istan.

I know a non-profit di­rec­tor with two master’s de­grees who watches it to un­wind nightly. He loves the show be­cause it’s pre­dictable in its for­mat (nine con­tes­tants, three acts) yet un­pre­dictable in its out­come, be­cause prizes can be mas­sive, the largest pay­out be­ing $213,876 dur­ing Big Money Week in 2016. (Con­tes­tants can ac­cept the cash equiv­a­lent of all win­nings, but pay taxes no mat­ter what.)

Change is tec­tonic on The Price Is Right. Asked what’s dif­fer­ent since she joined the show, Reynolds pauses.

“We used to give away grand­fa­ther clocks.”

Now, for an au­di­ence flu­ent in the Esperanto of de­signer flash, the show high­lights Louboutins, Jimmy Choos and, dur­ing Dream Car Week, a Maserati.

Sure, there are 77 dif­fer­ent games, spe­cial weeks and fresh mod­els (the lat­est, for­mer Ravens wide re­ceiver Devin Goda, spends this episode largely shirt­less in the freez­ing the­atre). But so many other fea­tures are legacy: the theme song, sort of an­o­dyne Herb Al­bert; the manila price-tag name stick­ers; the tagline “Come on down!” ex­horted by dap­per an­nouncer Ge­orge Gray, the show’s fourth.

“It’s the com­fort food of tele­vi­sion. It’s mashed po­ta­toes,” di­rec­tor Adam San­dler says. (Not that one, al­though that San­dler mem­o­rably cast Barker in Happy Gil­more.) “No mat­ter your walk of life, you know the price of things.”

Or, in Ya­niak’s case, maybe not.

Oh my word, it’s the Wheel! Right past the craps ta­bles and slots at MGM Na­tional Har­bor out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is a stove­size ver­sion of the show’s iconic Big Wheel (which weighs close to a ton and is a doozy to spin) and at­tracts far more at­ten­tion than the cock­tail wait­resses in bodices sliced to their navels.

In 2004, the fran­chise spawned The Price Is Right Live! a wholly sep­a­rate, tour­ing road ver­sion of­fer­ing 150 per­for­mances a year and, with a sep­a­rate host, em­cee and model, zero chance of meet­ing Carey.

Know what? Fans don’t care! The four Novem­ber per­for­mances at Na­tional Har­bor’s 3,000-seat the­atre, with tick­ets from $40 to $167, ba­si­cally sell out. When they roll out the Plinko board – a grid where con­tes­tants drop chips that land on printed dol­lar amounts that range from zip to holy moly – the au­di­ence re­acts as though Lady Gaga has taken the stage.

At­ten­dees have a slim chance of win­ning the lot­tery to be­come a con­tes­tant, al­though the VIP pack­age in­cludes meet­ing em­cee Todd New­ton and a chance to spin that smaller Wheel.

“For a lot of peo­ple, that’s like shak­ing the hand of Elvis,” New­ton says.

Kristie and Mark Casey, with friends Teresa and Ryan Malisko, both of sub­ur­ban Vir­ginia, at­tend a show to cel­e­brate their an­niver­saries.

“Any­one can win, and you can win a car. Even if you don’t get picked, you’re par­tic­i­pat­ing in the game,” Teresa says. (Spoiler alert: They don’t get picked.)

“It’s so sim­ple, ev­ery­one can do it,” Kristie says. “It’s not Jeop­ardy! And it’s so much bet­ter than Wheel of For­tune.”

At the tele­vi­sion show, tick­ets are free, and all 300 au­di­ence mem­bers get in­ter­viewed as po­ten­tial con­tes­tants. Many line up at dawn, al­most six hours be­fore tap­ing at CBS Tele­vi­sion City in L.A.’s Fair­fax neigh­bour­hood. In a cov­ered porch­like area out­side the stu­dio with benches (and heat lamps for cool morn­ings) are hope­fuls from across the na­tion and sev­eral coun­tries, rang­ing in age from 18 to great-grand­par­ent, in­clud­ing more peo­ple of colour than will be seen on other pro­grams dur­ing an en­tire sea­son.

If Jeop­ardy projects a stu­dious mien, draw­ing con­tes­tants who aced stan­dard­ized tests and dress for court ap­pear­ances, The Price Is Right is its op­po­site. Con­tes­tants are ex­tro­verts, denizens of com­mu­nity the­atre, folks who ap­pear lit while sober. They’re at­tired in Price Is Right Ca­sual – be­daz­zled T-shirts, jeans, sneak­ers. Ev­ery show is a late-sum­mer bar­be­cue. These peo­ple come to play.

The first time CBS brass asked Carey to re­place Barker, he said no. His mon­ster sit­com had ended af­ter nine sea­sons. He was “kind of re­tired,” pur­su­ing act­ing les­sons, hop­ing for small movie roles.

CBS asked again. “What’s your favourite thing to do?” an ex­ec­u­tive in­quired. “I re­ally like leav­ing big tips for peo­ple,” he said – $100 for a bot­tle of wa­ter, more for a pricey meal.

On this show, the suit said, “you get to do that ev­ery day by giv­ing away prizes.”

The thought oc­curred to Carey, “This is a chance to make soc­certeam money.” As in buy­ing-asoc­cer-team money. His ini­tial salary, Va­ri­ety re­ported, was high seven fig­ures. That was 12 years of show­cases ago. Carey, 60, is now a mi­nor­ity owner of the Seat­tle Sounders.

In many ways, Carey is an odd fit. A self-pro­fessed loner, he ap­pears be­wil­dered when hugged by con­tes­tants, which is all the time. He gar­nishes con­ver­sa­tions with men­tions of Freud’s Jokes and Their Re­la­tion to the Un­con­scious, Jung, his ther­a­pist and ob­ser­va­tions like, “It’s all one mass hal­lu­ci­na­tion we’re hav­ing.”

He’s not a suit guy, the tie seems like a vise, and the job re­quires him to play straight man, when he’s a re­cov­er­ing stand-up co­me­dian. His hu­mour is not al­ways the au­di­ence’s hu­mour. At a re­cent tap­ing, he makes fre­quent jokes about con­tes­tants be­ing high that are largely ig­nored.

But Carey’s also ami­able and loose. He wears his Cleve­land street cred on his sleeve, so­lid­i­fy­ing the show’s al­lure that any schmo can be a win­ner. He’s in­cred­u­lous to learn that Paul Mc­Cart­ney is a fan. The for­mer Bea­tle ser­e­naded him at a con­cert last year, ad-lib­bing “Come on down!” in the mid­dle of Back in the U.S.S.R. (The host bawled.)

Carey likes shar­ing con­tes­tants’ “Cin­derella mo­ments,” mak­ing them happy. “Where else can you go in Amer­ica, and be in a big crowd like this, and have a bunch of strangers root­ing for an­other stranger to do well?”

Plus, he be­lieves some­thing big­ger is at play.

“It’s a Joseph Camp­bell (hero’s) jour­ney. It’s some­body plucked from ob­scu­rity – just work­ing-class peo­ple, mostly – and they have to over­come a small ob­sta­cle,” Carey says. “Then they over­come a big­ger ob­sta­cle. Then they have to have a lit­tle bit of chance and luck be on their side.”

Also, a swell gig: “My job is to show up in a good mood ev­ery day, and ex­plain some games.”

There is one cen­tral mys­tery to The Price Is Right: How are con­tes­tants se­lected? The man re­spon­si­ble is co-pro­ducer Stan Bl­its, ar­guably the show’s most im­por­tant em­ployee. On staff for four decades, Bl­its is the mu­si­cal di­rec­tor (yes, there is one), “car strate­gist” and, with an as­so­ciate pro­ducer, the in­ter­viewer of an es­ti­mated 53,000 po­ten­tial con­tes­tants ev­ery year.

Many as­pi­rants ar­rive in eye­catch­ing T-shirts. (You Drew Me to You!) Nice touch. Doesn’t mat­ter.

While the show tapes weeks in ad­vance, it per­forms like live tele­vi­sion. There are breaks, but con­tes­tants don’t get do-overs. Con­tes­tants need to be the life of the party, to bring a level of stage pres­ence that matches or ex­ceeds that of the au­di­ence.

Be­fore each tap­ing, out­side the stu­dio, Bl­its lines up a group of 25 would-be con­tes­tants at a time, and then in­ter­views each one for a minute or less, while perched in a di­rec­tor’s chair.

“Per­form­ing is the worst thing you can do for me,” he says. He asks a few ques­tions, noth­ing tax­ing. Where are you from? What’s your fa­vorite game? Plinko, so much Plinko. There are no wrong an­swers.

OK, this one: “I don’t watch the show.”

For each episode, nine will make it, re­flect­ing a di­ver­sity of age, race and gen­der, but all hu­man Ro­man can­dles, able to an­i­mate the show. What Bl­its fears, and “keeps me in knots dur­ing the whole tap­ing of the show, the worst thing is to un­der­re­act to some­thing spec­tac­u­lar, like the chance to win a car.”

Af­ter he fin­ishes with ques­tions, the in­ter­view isn’t over. Bl­its glances back at po­ten­tial con­tes­tants to see if they “can sus­tain the ex­cite­ment” when he moves down the line. He’s look­ing for some­one like Ya­niak, the ta­ble­side gua­camole maker. She catches his at­ten­tion im­me­di­ately – and ev­ery time he looks back at her, she mimes mash­ing those av­o­ca­dos.

“Stop? Stop? Stop?” Ya­niak asks 300 strangers where she should stop the gauge dur­ing the Range Game so that it lands within $150 of the list price.

“I’m pray­ing and hop­ing that some­one has a car deal­er­ship and tells me the price,” Ya­niak says. “Here? Now?”

Well, it’s $23,250 – and she wins that chili-red Mini Cooper. Plus a 65-inch tele­vi­sion and a Blu-ray player, which the show hands out like na­chos.

But she’s not done. Ya­niak ad­vances to the show­case, where two con­tes­tants bid on sep­a­rate prize pack­ages. Hers in­cludes five days in New York, Dior shoes, a neck­lace, a wal­let, a pair of sun­glasses, a clutch.

Oh, and an­other car: A tooth­paste-green Ford Fi­esta. Again, Ya­niak hasn’t a clue. “Thirty-seven thou­sand! No, $34,000!” the au­di­ence yells. She stands on­stage squint­ing, strain­ing, hop­ing to hear her mother’s sug­ges­tion. Fi­nally, she hears her: “Thirty-three thou­sand!”

Ya­niak wins the $36,513 show­case. Her to­tal haul for a few spir­ited min­utes on­stage: $62,263.14.

PHOTO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST BY JENNA SCHOENEFELD

Amie Ya­niak of En­cino, Calif., re­acts to get­ting one of two spots in the Show­case Show­down dur­ing a tap­ing of The Price Is Right.

PHOTO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST BY JENNA SCHOENEFELD

Cue cards are checked dur­ing a tap­ing of the show.

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