Playing hooky with The Price is Right

The A.V. Club Hosted By John Teti is about to go on hiatus for a month, so at the production office, we’ve been treating this week’s episode—episode 20!—as our “midseason finale.” To send us into the break with a bang, we headed to CBS Television City in Hollywood, where we spent a day behind the scenes of the long-running game show The Price Is Right. We got such incredible access to the show, and the talented people who make it, that we’re dedicating the whole half-hour this week to our experience.

I’ve loved The Price Is Right for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of curling up on the couch with my mom to watch Bob Barker stride through those big doors, or to take solace in a rousing game of Plinko when I was home sick from school. As a kid, I loved the colors, the motion, the exciting games, the fabulous prizes—and I still do. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate The Price Is Right in deeper ways, as silly as that might sound. It is a broadcast tradition unlike any other.

That little picture I just painted of myself, watching Price during a sick day? Whenever I talk to somebody about Price, my interlocutor reliably conjures the same image. When you’re taking the day off, you watch Price, the official show of playing hooky. It’s a carefree party that takes place in the middle of the day, and everybody with a TV is invited. Watching the show is a tacit admission that you’re not getting anything important done that day, but the key is that you’re not the only one. When you watch Price, you’re united in that moment with a whole country of students, late-shifters, stay-at-home moms, and countless others who just want to have some fun. I’ve talked about it on the show before, but I live for those moments of pop-cultural unity. They may seem frivolous, but they’re essential to the emotional health of our culture and to an overall sense of togetherness.

I’ve also come to appreciate Price as a fascinating case study in the art of TV production. Look, there’s not much substance to the games on the show. All of the 70-odd pricing games are elaborate variations on the question, “How much does this can of corn cost?” Yet Price manages to offer variety and liveliness for an hour of broadcast television. Why does it work? Production—the art of using the TV frame to make action come alive for the home viewer.

I mentioned Plinko earlier because it’s most people’s favorite game. On paper, though, Plinko is barely even a game. The player guesses a few prices and then drops chips into what is essentially a cash-prize randomizer. But on the screen, Plinko is irresistible. The seemingly massive scale of the board (it’s not so imposing in person—camera angles work magic here) places the contestant in lofty, rarefied air. The erratic motion of the chip provides an unpredictable visual drama. And the plink-plank-plunk sound that chip makes as it careers through the pegboard is a tactile soundtrack that tickles the serotonin emitters in your brain. (The sound is so important to Plinko’s charm that it serves as the game’s namesake.) All of that is pure production—the alchemical practice of somehow creating entertainment from the spectacle of people guessing numbers on TV.

But none of this works without a capable host, and my love of that odd creature, the TV host, might be the biggest reason for my lifelong obsession with this show. On Price, the host has to balance the chaos of the contestants and the unpredictable games with the order of the larger production. The lineup of games in each episode provides a sort of maze for the contestants to run through in each show, but nobody knows how they’re going to run through it. The host interprets and shapes that story in real time for the audience, and no two hosts do it quite the same way.

Impressively, Price has managed to find a strong rhythm with two hosts—the erstwhile emcee Bob Barker and the current holder of the long microphone, Drew Carey—whose styles could hardly be more different. Barker was a true master of ceremonies, commanding the stage and taming the proceedings with warmth and wit. Carey is more improvisational, happy to be a stabilizing hub at the center of the madness rather than the ringmaster directing it. I have loved watching him develop his approach.

That’s why The Price Is Right matters to me, but really, that’s why all of pop culture excites me. The togetherness of mass media, the obscure art of shaping an audience’s reaction to what they see and hear, and the peculiar talents that artists must develop to hold a nationwide (or bigger) stage—my fascination with these ideas informs every episode of The A.V. Club.

That said, this is indeed a particularly special installment of the show. That’s why we’re calling it a “special,” after all. This week, we’ll show you an amazing behind-the-scenes glimpse of the show. I talked to Drew Carey about the art of hosting. I talked to executive producer Mike Richards about how he keeps a 46-year-old game show relevant in 2017 without upsetting fans who want to see the same show they grew up with. The announcer, the models, the guy who chooses the contestants—we talked to all of them as we took in the frenetic backstage spectacle of a live taping. So I hope you’ll “come on down”—forgive me—to The A.V. Club Hosted By John Teti this Thursday night at 9/8 Central for a deeper look at The Price Is Right. Even a goofy daytime game show contains layers of hidden genius right below the surface.

Join us for The A.V. Club Aftershow on Facebook Live this Friday at 1pm EST / 12pm Central.