It’s a party in the hands of host Drew Carey, even as the concept hasn’t changed through the years — make the best guess on how much that new car, entertainment center or trip to Paris costs and you just may win it. On Monday, the game show’s 8,000th episode since its CBS debut in 1972 aired. Nearly 70,000 people have “come on down.”
The game has a blue collar sensibility that the Cleveland-bred Carey reflects. That car or patio set, just the chance someone will take it home, creates a palpable excitement.
“All through my 20s I was broke,” Carey said backstage before a recent taping. “I didn’t start making money until I was in my 30s doing stand-up. I really don’t take money for granted. I have a lot of empathy for people on the show, that’s what I mean. I know what it must mean for them to win $5,000, which doesn’t seem like a lot of money to give away on a game show nowadays. But it’s a lot of money.”
As he approaches his seventh year on “The Price Is Right,” Carey has made the show his own. That wasn’t always the case, since he had the daunting task of replacing 35-year host Bob Barker.
“At the time, nobody could conceive of the show without Bob Barker,” said executive producer Mike Richards, “including me.”
Richards unsuccessfully auditioned to replace Barker. A year into Carey’s tenure, he was brought in as producer with a mandate: change it from Carey doing Barker’s show to Carey doing Carey’s show.
Carey wasn’t trying to imitate. But it was a little like moving into someone else’s house, with all the furniture left behind. Under Richards’ direction, the set and prizes gradually changed. While Barker looked natural offering a grandfather’s clock as a prize, it seemed silly for Carey. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Barker mustering enthusiasm for a smartphone or iPod. The show now uses video to introduce a trip instead of static set pieces. Carey also seems comfortable with contestants who are excessive in their enthusiasm. Loud music keeps the energy up during breaks, when Carey isn’t telling jokes or talking to audience members.
“Everyone was worried when Bob left,” Carey said. “A lot of people on the show thought they were going to lose their jobs and the show was going to be off the air. They had trouble finding a host. He was ‘The Price Is Right.’
“What they found out, I think, was that ‘The Price Is Right’ is bigger than whoever is hosting the show. The host is an important part of the show, don’t get that mistaken,” he said, laughing. “But you’ve got a whole group of people who put together the show.”
Carey, who is 55, isn’t under the impression he has a lifetime appointment.
“I have to constantly think of new things to keep the show fresh,” he said. “I have to constantly be witty and funny with the audience. I have to consistently be on. ... What I have to do is I have to make sure the way I do the job is they can’t imagine anybody else coming in here and doing it better — not without having a couple of years to do better.”
He is doing well by television’s traditional report card. The show is up 14 percent in viewers over last season, and its average of 5.54 million viewers each day compares favorably to 5.42 million during Barker’s final season. “Drew has exceeded expectations,” said Angelica McDaniel, the CBS executive in charge of daytime programming.
“The brilliant thing with picking Drew is that Drew is Drew,” Richards said. “There is a reason Drew Carey is so successful. He is him all the time.”
Game-show hosting can be a sweet gig: three-day workweeks, one week off a month and two months in the summer. He is happy to keep his commitment to the show open-ended. Carey uses his downtime now to write comedy and revive his stand-up act. After spending years on TV, people forget his roots: It was a sobering moment when he booked time at a comedy club and people called the manager wondering what Carey would be doing.
That would be telling jokes, thank you.
He said he found the job more rewarding than he anticipated.
“You have stewardship over an American institution,” he said. “You get to keep it afloat and kind of reshape it a little bit. I could never have seen the things I would have liked about it when I first got the job. I knew it was going to be good, but you can’t know when you first start how great it’s going to be.”
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