LOS ANGELES, Dec. 13 - Game shows need no writers, and people attending game shows have no truck with striking writers. For those of us attending a recent taping of "The Price Is Right", the illusion of crossing the picket line at the Fairfax entrance to CBS's Television City complex was just that, an illusion, and any feelings of guilt or weirdness incurred were incidental. Sidestepping the noble protesters and showing my ID to a guard, I took one hard look back to the strikers and realized they appeared much happier than I did. I signed in with the head page. The page said, "You are aware that taping starts at four?" Their website listed taping at noon. I nodded in resignation.
That's how quickly the agents of Bottom Feeder Hollywood snare you. I've never won a battle with these people. Years ago, working as an extra on a nightmarish Australian pop music video, an enraged assistant gaffer ripped my shirt because he didn't like where I was standing. I stayed on the set because I'd already invested seven hours of my life there. Last month, registering with a casting agency for more extra work, I filled out the questionnaire provided in the waiting room, only to be told by the frosty receptionist, no, that's the wrong form. I didn't dump her trash can onto her desk because I'd driven an hour to Sherman Oaks, and it would have been more humiliating to just drive home empty handed. Similarly, I now accepted that I would be spending the afternoon in a sunless CBS holding area, waiting on cold bleacher benches and metal stanchions, simply because I didn't want the drive there to have been in vain.
Two hours in, a suspicious CBS page came by my seat, frowned, and asked me if my glasses were prescription. This was another thing I hadn't planned for. Alone in a throng of homemade shirts, I had arrived wearing a nice button-down and tie and my black frame glasses; I looked like a Drew Carey impersonator. Carey, the new host of "The Price Is Right", along with Buddy Holly, the deceased musician, has complicated my adult life by providing strangers with an easy celebrity comparison (on the set of the nightmarish Australian pop music video several years ago, the director took great delight in screeching, "hey, Drew Carey!"). I had only dressed professionally this afternoon because I hadn't showered and needed something to distract from my dandruff, and now I was being repaid for my class by hard looks from all sides. I couldn't have been more conspicuous if I'd arrived in fishnets and a clown wig. I assured the page that the glasses were real, but still he frowned. I think it was right around here that I did not make the cut for contestant.Eventually we were all issued gift-tag-shaped name stickers and ushered into Bob Barker Studio. Except for four laser-cannon-sized HD TV cameras, the room looked pretty much like it must have in the early 1970's. The rounded, pastel decor and vintage CBS stage curtains had, by 2007, seen thousands upon thousands of hours of blubbering, hysterical, gift-crazed humanity. I took my seat and realized I might actually be called to come on down. This would be bad. I hadn't seen this game show in at least a quarter century, and couldn't quite remember which one it was. From the lack of Easter Bunny and Marie Antoinette suits, I'd deduced this wasn't the one where audience members dress up. Was it the show with the three curtains? The little animated lederhosen man? Would any sort of electronic pyramid be used?
Our host emerged. A caricaturist would define Drew Carey by his smile, glasses, and blond flattop. In person the smile is the key, being at once disarming and impenetrable. Carey makes frequent fat jokes about himself, but his girth is all waist-up, lending him the full authority of a top-heavy guy in a nice suit. The bottom half of his body is surprisingly slender, and he bounds about with the spring of a much more compact man. Carey seems to have inherited most of the good will once directed to Bob Barker, the show's host for almost 35 years, if not Barker's passions for the show's blonde models, or animal rights (one woman's shirt, imploring viewers to "Carrey" [sic] on Bob Barker's dream - Spay And Neuter Your Pets! was quickly laughed off by Carey, who has based stand-up routines on mocking animal-huggers). The new host's humor is far raunchier than that of the old host; it's hard to imagine Bob Barker ending a between-segment joke by calling an audience member a "bitch".
Halfway in, the announcer called on a man named Jesse, who haltingly made his way down an aisle with the help of two crutches. Carey asked what he did for a living and Jesse said he was a marine, and then Carey asked, rather bluntly, what had happened and Jesse said simply that he had been in "an accident". Drew Carey is himself an ex-marine, and through whatever sly machinations the producers have available to them, the two veterans were soon standing side by side on stage, contemplating a shiny 2008 PT Cruiser. Carey joshed that, being 'crippled', Jesse would be able to park wherever he wanted. Jesse did not win the Cruiser. Later, during a break, Carey returned to the wounded soldier, who had been seated just offstage, and seemed to want to smooth over what may have been an awkward exchange. Carey explained that he'd been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center visiting disfigured servicemen and that he'd joked with the men that if anyone should ask what happened, they should say, "masturbation accident." A few people gasped but everyone laughed, mostly because everyone else was laughing. Jesse laughed too, but after Carey had sprung off he sat slumped, with an angry look on his face.
Audience members pleaded with Carey to acknowledge their lives, much the same way that peasants must have beseeched powerful men 2,000 years ago. A young guy announced that he was "the prince of Hollywood" and "Tom Cruise's cousin". Carey never dropped his smile. At a certain point, it became obvious he wasn't listening. A realization came; Carey and I were both going through the motions. I couldn't leave the studio because I'd invested an afternoon waiting, and he couldn't leave the studio because others had invested cash in him. He was much farther away than any of us could imagine, propelled through this one compartment of his life by a colossal sum of money and nothing more. Even Carey's glasses are false, being prop substitutes worn, post-lasik, to maintain character. I had arrived impersonating an impersonator, and would win no PT Cruiser.