On YouTube, fans have posted multiple compilations of contestants summoned to come on down to the podiums of “The Price Is Right.” They are screaming, they are hyperventilating, they are fully freaking out. All this before they have even bid on a luggage set, a roll-top desk, a home stereo system.
Bob Barker, the show’s longtime host, who died Saturday, was the still point in this delirious world. He joined the show in 1972 — an original version had run from 1956 to 1965 — and stayed on its Television City stage for 35 years. Eventually the stage was named for him. Over the decades, his ties narrowed, his collars shortened. His tan remained the finest that the sun or, just possibly, the aestheticians of Burbank, Calif., could provide, even as his hair went from brown to gray to white. His eyebrows were twin carets, inserting pleasure or gentle mockery into a scene. He had the gift, which great hosts have, of making inane, repetitive games feel risky, exciting. Each new contestant, tens of thousands of them during his tenure, seemed to delight him.
I watched “The Price Is Right” like a lot of us probably did: at home, sick, when nothing else was on and I couldn’t convince my mom to drive to a video store. I associate the show with the scents and flavors of those days — mentholated cough drops, chicken Cup O’ Noodles, children’s Robitussin. Woozy on phenylephrine, I followed games like Plinko, Bullseye, Cliff Hangers, in which bids sent a yodeling mountain climber up a cardboard slope. I could have sworn I’d hallucinated that last one. I had not.
Reliable, consistent, even courtly, Barker smiled through it all. And at the end of every episode, he reminded us to spay and neuter our pets. He wanted us to choose responsibly, to bid judiciously. He saw us through inflation, recession, bubble and boom and bust. He was America’s dad. Then its granddad. Had a sexual harassment suit by Dian Parkinson, one of “Barker’s Beauties,” gone forward, he might also have been seen as America’s lechy uncle. (The suit was eventually dropped, though other women received payments after suing the show for sexual harassment, racial discrimination and wrongful termination.)