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Perspective | Bob Barker gave us the grand prize of feeling a little bit better

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This summer, CBS’s seemingly eternal weekday game show “The Price Is Right” left its longtime home at the Los Angeles compound known as Television City, where it shot episodes on a soundstage named for its legendary former host, Bob Barker, and relocated to a large but nondescript warehouse in Glendale, Calif., where episodes of the 52nd season are underway.

Everything else about “The Price Is Right” remains remarkably unchanged, thank God, including its relative performance in old-school TV ratings, in an era of constant reinvention and disruption that likes to mess with just about anything you’ve ever loved. “The Price Is Right” is right where you left it, in a spiritual and cultural sense, including the show’s respectfully maintained adoration of Barker, who died Saturday at 99.

Obituary: Bob Barker, unflappable ‘Price Is Right’ emcee, dies at 99

Barker retired from “The Price Is Right” 16 years ago, after a 35-year run that endeared him to successive generations: He was on the TV every midmorning in your nana’s house, on in your auntie’s house. He was on in the hospital waiting lounge, he was on in the barbershop, he was on in the dorm rooms.

For so many people of a certain age, he’s the thing they remember most about running a fever and getting to stay home from school for a day, situated on the family-room couch: 7UP, plain toast and Bob Barker. Somewhere between “The Price Is Right” and “The Young and the Restless,” you started to feel better, and here we must in part attribute that to the healing power of Saint Bob, reaching out with that long, thin microphone.

At the time, it seemed unthinkable that the show could be the same without him. I visited Television City in 2007 to interview him backstage about his carefully considered departure (proudly wearing my big, yellow “Price Is Right” name tag and having thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon’s typical taping of an episode with its typically rapturous audience). Meeting Barker was like meeting American royalty: an octogenarian duke, standing ramrod straight, in a crisp suit and perfectly knotted tie, tanned even under the heavy tan makeup he wore on-air, with cloud-white hair ordered into place. He was kind and talkative but never casual.

By then, Barker had enjoyed what we in the pop culture biz would now term a Barkaissance: A memorable scene in the 1996 comedy film “Happy Gilmore” — in which Barker, playing himself, kicks the crap out of Adam Sandler’s title character at a celebrity golf tournament — tilted the view, endearing him to yet another generation with the perception that the mild-mannered game-show host was a secret thug.

A new wave of college-aged contestants spent their semester breaks trying to get on the show, where they vied for a position against busloads of older fans, and, if called up to Contestants’ Row, would bid $420, no matter the item, with a stoner chuckle.

People would show Barker the tattoos they’d gotten of his smiling face. They would win the bid and he would welcome them up to the stage, where they couldn’t believe it was happening, where they trembled with glee and struggled to breathe as prizes were proffered and they had to figure out the exact retail price of lemon-scented furniture polish, resealable freezer bags and low-cholesterol margarine.

From the archives: Host With the Most: The Cult of Bob Barker

As anyone might expect, Barker was flummoxed by his elevated cult status. He would have been happy to share the secret of his success — bottle it and sell it, he suggested — but its exact recipe eluded him. He loved the jokes about him already being dead, operated by strings, or that he was an immortal vampire. Betty White, a fellow traveler, also resisted solving this puzzle, when asked. Why did she get more famous as she got older and older? Longevity is not the only X-factor; it’s something else — the raunchiness, the imagined coolness — that the audience provides all on its own. (Best not to interrogate it.)

Barker’s job was to go out there for an hour and put on a perfect show, to keep the contestants and the audience in the theater excited. It was also his job to be the calming presence and make viewers feel good — and, as a personal crusade, remind them to spay and neuter their pets.

It had not escaped him that the majority of his fans never made it to Television City and that among them were the elderly, the lonely, the chronically unemployed, the infirm. “The Price Is Right” is still on because something about it remains resolutely populist, in the best sense of the word. It is a show that rewards you for being ordinary, hard-working and knowing the going price of necessary groceries and household items. It is understood that some of the biggest prizes (a new Chrysler, five nights in Cozumel, matching jet skis) are not luxury, one-percenter extravaganzas. They are fantasies just out of reach, which makes them all the more tantalizing.

Barker could have afforded any and all of it, many times over, but he never came across that way; he was just as happy as anyone that you won the motorboat, the five-piece dinette, the deluxe propane grill. He was just as disappointed if your spin on the Showcase Showdown wheel went over a dollar, efficiently placing his consoling hand on the small of your back or on your shoulder, gently pushing you away from the stage, into “Price Is Right” oblivion.

When I interviewed him, he still had several weeks of episodes to tape, including CBS’s celebratory send-off. Although he was an executive producer of “The Price Is Right,” he told me that he had not been asked for any input, yet, on who would replace him as host. The potential names were all over the map. It wound up being Drew Carey, the comedian and sitcom actor, who at the time was 49. As anyone who finds themselves at home and idle on a weekday morning can tell you, Carey has turned out to be an authentic and worthy steward, growing older and shaggier in the job, well aware that he is carrying on the work of a legend.

Fans and hopeful contestants who used to line up on along busy Fairfax Avenue and wait for hours to get into the show now come to Glendale with that same hope and anticipation that they will be called to “Come on down,” although the new digs reportedly accommodate about half as many audience members as the old location did, and they now wait at a neighboring church, which seems entirely appropriate to the devotion they exhibit. “The Price Is Right” is still there because people still need a friend like Bob Barker.



POST AUTHOR: Hank Stuever

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