It was Los Angeles, the summer of 1995. My best friend Dottie and I were bumming around our parents’ houses in the San Fernando Valley after half-hearted efforts at city and state college. We had nothing to do, no money, no jobs, and our primary form of transport was my teal blue 1977 Volkswagen Bug.
On a day like any other day where we had scraped together enough change for coffee at the diner, Dottie said, “We should go on The Price is Right.”
A quick aside here: when we were still in high school, our drama teacher funded our competitions by forcing all her classes to go to TV tapings. For pilots and new shows that weren’t yet popular, studios would pay for warm bodies in bulk. By the time I was 18, I had seen more failed family sitcoms live than any one person should.
“Game shows won’t pay you to be in the audience, will they?”
“No, but my friend won 10,000 dollars in the Showcase Showdown,” Dottie told me. “Well, she actually won 20,000, but you have to pay half for taxes. But all she had to do was spin the wheel.”
“I want to go.” Paul said. While casting a grim eye around my zombified literature class at city college, a guy with leopard print hair turned around and waved at me. It was like the whole room was black and white and Paul was technicolor. He worked at Urban Outfitters and the three of us had become a triad, going to raves and scouring the thrift stores together.
“We have to get in line super early in the morning,” Dottie was now planning our get-rich-quick scheme. “We should start watching the show and go next week.”
This sounded so much better than getting a job. So we went to work watching TV, tuning in every morning to CBS and calling each other after to analyze.
“We should probably dress really conservatively,” I think both of us said this really pointedly to Paul, indicating to him that he should try to act less gay, a truth I am totally ashamed of today. But at the time it was true; the people who got onto The Price is Right stage were types. There was usually one person of color, that would be Dottie, one young Christian lady (I was hoping to pass for that) and a blue-blooded American male (Paul?). We had already decided that if any of us won anything, we’d split it three ways.
It was 3:30 am when I rolled out of bed, put on my brown dress and saddle shoes (I cannot believe now that this is the outfit I decided on) and picked up Dottie. We scooped up Paul and arrived at the CBS studio parking lot at 4:30am.
“Remember, we have to be enthusiastic,” Dottie coached.
“It’s my dream to be on The Price is Right!” Paul chanted with balled fists. If memory serves, we were actually legitimately pumped up when we first got there even though on an obvious level, we knew it was ridiculous.
A line was already forming down one side of the building, and despite having studied the show for the last four days, we were shocked. The parking lot was filled with RVs that had plates from the Midwest and the South. Women with big gold crosses around their necks and storm cloud hairdos had homemade tee-shirts that said, “In Bob We Trust,” and “Come on Down!”
The Price is Right taped two shows per day, and so the studio handed out tickets in two batches, one am and one pm. We missed the am tickets completely, and so we would have to wait until the 1:30 taping. It was now 5:15am.
So we walked down the street to Canter’s and spent the last of our money on coffee with infinite refills and latkes. Hours went by. The inane stream of late 80’s hits filtering over us was the torment of the dentist office. When Hootie and the Blowfish came on, Dottie started making up alternate lyrics in a perfect imitation of the lead singer’s self-conscious growl.
“Got up so early this morning, thought I was gonna be on TV
Guess I was wrong, girl, because it wasn’t that easy.
Sitting here in the deli, drinking coffee and waitin’ around.
maybe I’ll meet Bob Barker, the next time around.
Whoa-oh. Maybe I’ll meet him, the next time around.”
Paul and I were craughing (laughing so hard you cry), drawing the ire of the waiters. We finally got the sense we were about to get kicked out of Canter’s, so we paid and kept walking, wandering into the antique shops on La Brea where the cheapest thing for sale was $100.
We found a thrift store with a long couch and took a nap. Another 80s song by Suzie Q came on and it was Paul’s turn to reinvent the lyrics:
“Two of Hearts,
Two Hearts that Eat for One,
I need food, I need food!”
It was getting too hot to be outside, but this was long before the days of Starbucks and there was nowhere to sit and chill except the restaurants.
We were all yawning when we decided that we’d go back to the studio early. Then we stood in line for another hour. Finally, the doors opened and the studio people started shuttling us through. It was stop-start-stop-start and we were all given a number to wear on our chests.
Someone explained to us that we were going to “meet the director and tell him a little about ourselves.” Slowly, the line snaked through a room where a large man with a bushy mustache and dark sunglasses sat in a director’s chair. He asked each person their name, where they were from, and why they wanted to be on The Price is Right. As each person answered, the director would lean over and whisper something in an assistant’s ear. She would write something down on a clipboard.
It was Paul’s turn and he recited the line he’d be practicing, “It’s my dream to be on The Price is Right!”
“I like the way you dream,” said the director and mumbled to his assistant. He said it in a way that suggested: “keep dreaming.”
From there, we were finally led into the soundstage. The set, which looks like a traveling carnival even on TV, appeared even more propped up and barely hanging together.
The audience was geared up though, and so were we. Having studied the insert ads in the newspaper for the last week, we were super confident we knew what a new dryer costed. All we needed was for our name to be called.
A warm-up guy came out and ginned up the audience, talking about Bob Barker like we were about to meet the crown prince of an important country.
“Are you ready to meet Bob?” the guy squawked.
“Yeah!” the audience screamed.
And then there he was, the man himself, hair and teeth as white a cloud, tan skin, a tailored suit and the long, skinny microphone. He gave everyone a good look at him and then immediately, Bob set to work openly mocking his audience.
“You’ve come from all over, you sir, where are you from?”
“Oklahoma,” the thrilled guy in the front said.
“And what are you hoping to win today?”
“A new boat,” the guy said.
“I tell you, if I had a nickel for every guy I meet who lives in a landlocked state and wants a new boat,” the audience roared as Bob continued, “I’d be a rich man, I mean, I am a rich man.”
I remember wincing and Dottie saying under her breath, “don’t make a face, the camera might see you.” Bob continued to coax people’s dreams of dollars and name brands out of them, only to make cutting jokes at their expense. No one seemed to notice.
Every episode of The Price is Right had a car or some sort of vehicle as the big prize. But what a lot of people don’t know is that when you win a luxury automobile, you instantly owe taxes on the full value of your “prize.” Many people have to surrender it.
The shoot took over two hours, the music repeating over and over, obese guys in overalls jumping out of their seats and wobbling down to the stage. Every time someone’s name was called, we had to bash our hands and grin like organ grinder monkeys with cymbals.
When the last round of callouts happened and it was clear no one else was going to get picked, an older man in the back raised his hand and Barker jabbed a finger at him.
“Bob, can I ‘come on down’ and shake your hand?” Bob conceded and the audience clapped.
I don’t remember anyone winning. As we left the soundstage, staff handed us postcards with Bob’s picture in the classic pose with his arms folded over his chest.
“My hands hurt from all that clapping,” Paul noted.
“That sucked,” Dottie exclaimed brightly. We were so tired and had to battle rush hour but we laughed anyway.
“We’re desperate,” Dottie confessed, “we’re all so desperate. Those people save their vacation time and drive out here so they can see Bob Fucking Barker in person. That guy who asked to shake Barker’s hand? It was like he couldn’t leave without having some story to tell.”
It was easier to laugh at all those people since we only had a 30-minute drive. We lost nothing but a quarter tank of gas and an afternoon among endless summer afternoons.
But I remember also feeling hung over the way that miners must have felt during the gold rush when they realized that reports of gold lying all over the ground had been greatly exaggerated.
It made us feel moderately better to pretend to be monkeys bidding on appliances all the way home.
Miranda Culp is a freelance author, writer, and editor in Sacramento, CA. Her short story collection The Brunt is available on Amazon.