When Drew Carey was announced as the man who would replace Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right" in July, he was thwacked on the back with a hearty “Good luck with that! Ask John Adams how fun it is to follow everybody's favorite guy on the job.”
After a bumpy start in which Carey referred to several prizes as “the thing,” he has ... not sucked. Media Life reports that viewership is down 9 percent overall, with a noticeable chunk missing from the college female demographic, but the Plinko board still stands, and the nation has managed to avoid devolving into utter anarchy.
CBS is confident enough in Carey that the network put him in a tux and ordered six prime-time specials of “The Price Is Right,” the first of which aired on Feb. 22.
Carey was likely tapped precisely because he is so un-Barker. The impossibility of comparing the two removes the issue of Carey hopelessly reaching for non-Bob standards; the hosts invite only contrast.
While Carey may not have had the foresight to turn down “Geppetto,” he's smart enough to not attempt a Barker impression. So for better or for worse, he's been all Drew: The members of Contestants Row are “you guys,” and a player who bleats the names of every single person he has ever met into Carey's outstretched microphone is gently eased back into the game with “That's a good shout-out.” “Forty cents would be sweet,” he says to a contestant as he reaches up to have a-go at the show's Big Wheel.
I defy you to picture Barker dropping a “shout-out” or a “you guys,” much less an “It's OK. You still get to spin the wheel” after a loss. (Bob wouldn't do that! Bob would say “Oh, I'm terribly sorry,” and glide into “these commercial messages!”)
The contrast is striking, which is why the switch to Carey, while jarring, isn't the nose-wrinkling debacle some feared it might have been.
Although Carey brings his barstool casualness to sometimes dangerously non-PC levels — female audience members who take their time threading their way to the stage are told, "Come over here, baby!” — it's somehow easier to accept from a man who confessed a predilection for strip clubs in his first book, “Dirty Jokes and Beer.” Carey is a man who takes advantage of the expectations he has created for himself.
Which is why he falls flat only when he attempts the occasional Official Game Show Host Flourish: grandly extending a hand in the general direction of a new car! makes him look like a man timidly attempting to hail a cab, for example. One wonders if he goes home at night and says to the mirror, “Today, I actually said to another human being in a non-satiric context, ‘The ointment, or the pain reliever’” (It could have been worse. He could have used the product name, Midol, which had already been discussed in uncomfortable detail by the announcer.)
On the first prime-time special, Carey left a contestant hanging, failing to notice the winner of a Big Wheel spin-off had extended his hand. Then again, the man had just jumped from his knees in prayer over another contestant's downfall, in which case, perhaps, Carey may be excused.
Carey's laid-back, hands-off approach, however, juxtaposes well with the Generic Voice-Over Guy slickness of announcer Rich Fields, who has retained all the prop-er en-un-ci-a-tion and smooth showmanship of the Barker era. Carey might not be your first pick to be running the bidding on the $3,000 men's watch that just dropped from the ceiling, but Fields manages to make the “men's” a three-syllable word, and you go “Ooooooh!” despite yourself.
He describes a toaster oven as part of “bold décor” and a basketball phone as if both of these aren't objects one might find in the bottle-strewn apartment of a toolish young man on the make. Out of Carey's mouth, the lines are ludicrous, and he knows it — so it is actually Fields who carries Barker's elegant torch, splendidly pronouncing a motorcycle as “exciting.”
While CBS has taken a new direction with its host, it wisely retained the polyester feel of the 35-year-old design that has kept us company in the late mornings for generations, whether due to nostalgia, a taste for camp, or genuine interest in what a catamaran is going for these days. The set has largely retained its original “It's a Small World” palate, the bulbs around the stage door still blink, the models still wear gowns last seen on my “Glamour Gals” dolls in 1982, and the Showcase Showdown podiums are metallic, wider, and only 1 percent less hilarious.
With his famously gritty background, Carey has been where some of these contestants may be at the moment — living paycheck to paycheck, battling cockroaches, not even contemplating a day when they can leave $100 tips — and so he adheres to what he has described in several interviews as the “Zen of ‘Price Is Right,’” a conscious effort to root for others, even total strangers, to succeed.
It's a far cry from “Control the pet population,” a bit of pop philosophy for a daytime game show, which is exactly the point.
The host might change, but he can't break the show. It is built on a bedrock of normal people having a few moments on national television, hitting the studio floor in delighted shock when there's a double Showcase Showdown win.
Whether the T-shirts of audience members read “The Bob Squad” or “I (heart) Drew,” you're still going to see a grandmother of eight stumbling down the aisle, clutching her chest as she comes on down, and a roomful of people getting way too excited over a prize consisting of an assortment of robes. In an split pre-election nation, perhaps we need a little “Price Is Right” Zen every now and then.
Mary Beth Ellis' first book, "Drink to the Lasses," is currently available at drinktothelasses.com. She writes several online columns from Washington, D.C., where she also runs BlondeChampagne.com.