Woe to Drew Carey, new host of “The Price is Right.” Here’s what he’s up against: The first memories I have of this show are of the fact that when the Showcase Showdown was over, it was time to go to afternoon kindergarten. By the time original host Bob Barker stepped down, my sister’s first child was in my arms yelling “Come on down!” and I knew from filling out my bridal registry that a bid of $57 was way, way too high for a cake stand. “The Price Is Right” isn’t a game show — it’s one giant Plinko game marking the stages of life.
“I realize what a big responsibility this is,” Carey, with absolutely zero irony, recently told The Associated Press. This is no Presidential oath of office he’s taken. It’s more demanding, longer. More difficult. Way more RV-intensive. With its egalitarian Contestant’s Row, blaring trumpets, and endless focus on dinette sets, “The Price Is Right” is America.
Barker, whose cool elegance seemed to demand a smoking jacket and a brandy snifter rather than the occasional shiny suit, could carry this off. The man had the hair, the microphone, the timing. No one could announce to contestants that “I bet you would like to win this!” quite like Bob; you know, you just knew, there was A NEW CAR!! on the rotating stage horizon. He said “spay or neuter” every single day of his working life, and you sat nodding seriously, for America’s Grandpa had spoken. Drew Carey, America’s Bowling Partner, comes at you with a “spay or neuter”? You cross your legs.
Carey originally proved his hosting prowess while directing the improvisational traffic in the American version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, adding a few select ad-libs while skillfully avoiding interrupting the flow of his more extemporaneously gifted co-stars. But hurling a gigantic piece of foam at Wayne Brady and stepping aside is one thing; managing the flow from a deflated, Pontiac-losing contestant to the glitter and drama of the Enormous Wheel SpinOff is quite another.
The passing of the skinny microphone from Professional Host to Professional Comedian continues a retro trend marked by Jeff Foxworthy’s helming of “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” and Bob Saget’s assignment to “1 vs. 100.” The early days of television game shows were littered with the likes of Groucho Marx and Johnny Carson; when Barker was hired in 1972, network game shows were in the midst of a slow walk away from a funnyman behind the podium. Like Alex Trebek, Wink Martindale and Monty Hall, Barker was of an entirely new TV career breed: Professional Genial Game Show Host.
By anointing Carey, CBS forces the viewer’s mind onto an entirely different plane — one located at a corner bar rather than a martini lunch. There’s no comparing the two, so we won’t.
After Carey’s appointment was announced, for instance, a New York Times reporter interviewed him in a Cracker Barrel. One imagines that Bob Barker couldn’t find his nearest Cracker Barrel with both hands and a NASA Earth-mapping engineer, whereas Carey probably has his own, nameplated booth. The blue collar, beer-swilling, everyman image Carey fostered on his self-titled sitcom and later with his R-rated Vegas standup has now catapulted him to the vaunted side of The Check Game (which no one, with the possible exception of Barker and Bill Gates, ever seemed to understand.)
Having made a bigger deal about being from Cleveland than perhaps anyone else in history, Carey literally is Mr. Middle America. Rosie O’Donnell was too controversial; ESPN’s Dan Patrick, too fresh from the locker room. Drew? Just right. You would watch the Super Bowl with Drew. But not expect him to analyze it, or break into an anti-Bush rant in the middle of the second quarter.
Generally likable with an aura of safety that’s juuuuust enough on this side of edgy to keep him from bland local TV news anchor territory, Carey is also helped by his comfortable lodging somewhere in the back of America’s consciousness, a vastly desirable perch for a daytime game show host with sponsors seeking a wide audience swath. We know who he is, but not to the point of national Hasselhoff-style eye rolling. “Oh, him!” my husband said when I informed him of Carey’s new post. “Is he going to have Mimi modeling the cars?”
I’ve read that Drew Carey originally never needed his signature thick black eyeglasses; he wore them only as a trademark. But now, he says, as he nears 50 and his sitcom quietly flows toward its first decade of syndication, he requires bifocals. We shall see if he will stay on the “Price” stage long enough to pass into the world of trifocals as Plinko, that great national equalizer, measures time behind him.
Freelance writer Mary Beth Ellis recently published her first book, “Drink to the Lasses.” She runs BlondeChampage.com from the Washington, D.C., area and recommends that you always pass on the first Showcase Showdown.