I whisk myself in through the raised arm of the security booth at CBS Television City, Studio 33, and the attendant grins at my top-down ruby-red Bentley Continental GT. It flickers across his eyes; I must be someone he doesn’t recognize, a cardinal sin in L.A. Maybe a fill-in on “Ellen”? A warm body for one of the “NCIS” shows?
I’m actually just a guy having my own personal dream car week, and it’s about to get better.
The parking spot has my name on it. A ribbon of super-excited people hoots and hollers as it funnels through the studio’s main entrance. I step instead through the glass doors of the star’s entrance named for Carol Burnett and fight being star-struck. I forcibly pull my hand down from an instinctive clutch at invisible pearls.
Inside Studio 33, the commotion bears down with its own air pressure. Mic-ed up men and women whirl around a narrow hallway like second-hand sweeps on chronometers, pivoting in 270-degree spins around cars parked mirror-to-mirror and dormant game-show contests waiting to be wheeled on stage. An electronic audience of monitors and cameras ignores my every move, thank goodness, because I proceed to knock over a potted plant on a platform with a prize package worth thousands of dollars. I almost run right into a woman wrapped in a kelly green bathrobe and flawless makeup. A half-second later I realize I almost took out the reigning queen of spokesmodels, Rachel Reynolds.
Before I do any more damage, I slip into a room off stage, tucked behind a studio between those belonging to “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless.” Across the table are people who love to give away dreams every weekday. They’ll tell me how they do it—and then I’ll be seated in the audience for the best car show on TV: “The Price Is Right.”
“The Price is Right” may shower contestants with everything from ramen noodles to round-the-world cruises, but under the veneer of the longest-running, most popular game show in history lurks a great car show. Who doesn’t respond to its bright lights, shocking colors, happy loud voices, and free new stuff—especially the big-ticket items like cars? And if that car’s a 4-speed Dodge Journey, well, so what?
“The Price Is Right” has genuine enthusiasm for new cars that doesn’t bury itself in caliper sizes or model-year post-ups or the smoky burnouts that make most car television look like hormonal teenagers given too much budget and too much leeway.
Most car shows revolve around egos and superegos. “The Price is Right” is the id.
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week
It premiered in 1956, but “The Price is Right” went dark until CBS rebooted it in 1972. It’s been on the air ever since, from the same studio on the CBS lot in Los Angeles: Bob Barker Studios, named for its long-time host and “Happy Gilmore” scene-stealer. Classic mid-morning couch-potato fare, the show has about five million viewers a day. They tune in from everywhere: doctor’s waiting rooms, car-repair centers, college campuses, and home offices. It’s not just a game show, it’s our cultural wallpaper.
The show has given away millions and millions of dollars worth of merchandise, the largest one-day payout being more than $260,000 in October 2019, to contestant Mike Stouber. (An evening edition of the show netted a contestant more than $1.15 million.) In its nearly 30,000-square-foot warehouse on the CBS lot, the show hoards millions of dollars in prizes to give away, including about three dozen cars at any given moment.
The show’s complex choreography looks simple on screen. Show producers select contestants from the audience before taping; the lucky ones hear the shriek of a lifetime—“COME ON DOWN!”—and take a place in Contestant Row to bid on prizes. If they bid closest to the prize’s actual retail value without going over, they play for a Showcase prize. Win or lose, they get to spin the wheel in their half of the show during the Showcase Showdown. At the wheel, the highest spin amount without going over $1 goes to the Showcase, where two contestants bid. Again, the one who bids closer to actual retail prize value without going over wins. If the bid falls within $250 of the actual retail price, they win both showcases.
The show’s longevity means some games have become iconic: the wheel itself, the Check Game, the yodeling cry of Cliff Hangers. The show has been the subject of a documentary “Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much.” In 2008, Terry Kniess bid the exact amount for his showcases: $23,743, and the show stopped production for nearly an hour while producers tried to figure out whether the show had been cheated. Kniess said he’d studied prices for weeks before attending. Producers changed games and prizes to eliminate the prospect of another moneyballer fouling the good-natured fun.
The show’s been on for so long, it’s been witness to the range of human behavior. Contestants have lost their clothes, have taken spills, or have even fainted. Models have revealed prices and accidentally given away free cars, have knocked over flat-screen TVs, and have dented cars during giveaways. It’s all very human; if the host or models make a pricing mistake on camera, the scene must be reshot. Other mistakes aren’t manicured out. The show’s imperfections are one reason for its longevity.
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week
There’s another reason for the show’s longevity: the show’s synchronizers, director Adam Sandler and musical and talent director Stan Blits. Adam has been with the show for 25 years; Stan, for more than 41 years. The show runs as smoothly as an electric vehicle because of them.
“I don't think there's a single person in America who can't relate to cars in one way or the other,” Adam tells me from one of the only quiet, calm, and dimly lit niches in all of Studio 33. “It’s aspirational, it’s fun. People come from far and wide to see this show. People make it a part of their travel plans.”
While Adam—no relation to the comedian-actor Adam Sandler—conducts the symphony of cameras and prizes, Stan interviews all the contestants who line the sidewalk at Studio 33, in groups of a couple dozen, to choose who will be brought to contestant’s row. He talks to more than 50,000 people a year and chooses people who can carry their excitement through the pre-show hours, without pandering. Costumes are right out; cheer and cheering are right in. Pure enthusiasm wins him over, and can win a spot in Contestant Row.
Stan casts the people, and as the show’s car strategist, he casts vehicles, too—a car in the show’s first three contests, then one in the second three, then usually one or two in the finale. On any given day, “The Price Is Right” might not give away any cars—or it might give away four or five.
It’s part science, part art. Stan pairs giveaway cars with games in a formula only he knows. He has a book filled with spreadsheets of car specs and prices—the show’s data bible—and quotes chapter and verse to spread them out for maximum effect. He decides when to play simpler games and include less expensive cars, and how to keep the rumba line of hot wheels in motion. He won’t put two SUVs in one show, or two hatchbacks, or two vehicles from the same brand if he can avoid it.
He casts the cars as characters in the drama. “You can't just stick any car into any game,” he says. “We'll look at a Porsche 911 and say, will a 98-year-old woman really want to win that? Some people don't even know what a Maserati is.”
It all comes from his spreadsheets, and how he processes all their information. He likens it to a Rubik’s Cube. He’s a part of the matrix. Stan is the algorithm.
The steady stream of new cars on the CBS lot means the show has a side hustle. It operates the equivalent of a new-car auction. The team works with local dealers to snare cars for giveaways, and schedule them for games that may be played within a week—or within a few months. Dealers retain the right to sell the cars before they’re given away, which can cause last-minute rejiggerings of the game plan but the relationships run smoothly, Stan says. “They don't hate that we buy 17 cars a month from them.”
Most of the cars cost less than $25,000, which allows him to give away a lot of new cars and to stick to a budget. It’s become much harder to give away some vehicles now that the average paid price of a new car nears $40,000.
They give away fewer trucks now than in the past. “Trucks are expensive,” Stan says. “Trucks used to be our go-to like 10, 15 years ago. They were like skateboards with lawn mower engines and they were like $8,000. Now, they’re like $30,000, $40,000. They’re not cheap anymore.”
The cars have skewed toward economy models, but “The Price Is Right” has ventured deeply into exotic cars, usually during its annual Dream Car Week. In 2013, schoolteacher Sheree Heil won an Audi R8 V-8 Spyder worth $157,300. The show tried to give away a $285,716 Ferrari 458 Spider in April 2013; the contestant lost playing 3 Strikes. The show also gave away a classic 1964 Bentley S3 in April 2010 in the Hole in One game, and it will be giving away more vintage iron soon.
That kind of variety keeps the show fresh, Adam says. “This show's been on for 48 seasons, and 9,000 episodes. You don't get there without giving them variety. When you watch it, it's still that same old great ‘Price Is Right,’ but it’s something different everyday.
“I spoke to a college class a couple weeks ago,” he says, leaning back in a nondescript office chair at the end of a very long day; he reminds me so strongly of Anthony Edwards on “ER” that I expect to see a stethoscope around his neck. “I was explaining to them that ‘The Price Is Right’ is such a happy place that even when you lose, it's still a win.”
When contestants do lose, it’s usually because they underbid and don’t realize how expensive a car is, Stan explains. “If it's all wins then it’s not fun anymore. A loss makes great television.”
Cars remain a staple of the show, in part, because Stan and Adam and even its host are car fans, too. Stan is a regular fixture at the Los Angeles Auto Show, on public days.
“The car show is a religious experience for me over here,” he says. “I had to bargain with family members. They wanted to go with me and I said ‘no, I need to touch them, rub up against them. Hold them, caress them, kiss them, and I don't want you there when I'm doing it.’”
Both Adam and Stan drive electric cars. Both have owned Chevy Volts; its 50-mile-plus electric range was perfect for Adam’s daily commute, and the CBS lot has convenient electric-car charging. “I was actually able to go an entire year on one tank of gas,” Adam says. “The original tank of gas that I got.”
Stan considers his first- and second-generation Volts his favorite cars. His husband drives a Lexus hybrid, while Stan drives a Fiat 500e on a bargain lease deal so cheap, “I said, ‘dear God, it’s like buying a Vespa.’ I get back into the Lexus after two weeks of driving the Fiat, and I say, ‘oh my God, it’s like a Bentley in here.’”
Adam pilots a Tesla Model 3 when he isn’t letting its Autopilot do the dirty work. “The thing drives me home,” he says. “The car’s smarter than I am. It really is a piece of the future.” He rides a motorcycle, too, having been turned on to two wheels by his show’s host Drew Carey.
Carey, now in his 13th season as the host, has bikes as well as a fleet of cars, including his own privately commissioned art car. He has his own dream-car story to tell.
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week
Part 2: Drew Carey on Bentleys, BMWs, and the best job he’s ever had
Drew Carey grabs a seat in the conference room next to his dressing room and immediately fills it with his signature brush cut and soul patch, and the staccato braps of his cornet laugh. It isn’t until he sits down that I realize there’s a huge Plinko chip, framed, right over his head.
He’s the world’s greatest new-car salesman, in a way. Drew Carey wants to put you in this new car, today, just tell him a price you can live with. How about floor mats and a radio? He can make you get excited over a $16,000 Hyundai Accent with a stick shift and four wheels. He learned timing on the stage of comedy clubs in basements across the country, but these days it’s his smiling deadpan that outshines the megawatt lighting of “The Price Is Right” stage.
He came to the hosting job long after his edgy stand-up career morphed into a hit ABC comedy under his name, then into the genius of his stint on “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?“ When Bob Barker retired from “The Price Is Right,” producers pegged Drew as their dream replacement. They came to him with an offer to host the daytime staple—and he took it. Set for life with his previous shows, Drew now has a soccer team, a pocket lined with $500 bills to give to contestants that manage to hit prices exactly right, and the reward of changing people’s lives every day he threads his BMW 650 scooter from home through L.A. traffic to Studio 33.
“I just hate the traffic,” he sighs. The 650 lets him split lanes and get home in the hills quickly, but he’s used it to strike out and escape L.A., too. With his first 650, he bungeed a bag on it and drove from LA to Seattle and back, “a long trip on a bike that size,” he shakes his head. Now when he wants to take a longer trip on two wheels, he takes his BMW K 1600.
I’m a little shocked his show contract lets him ride bikes or scooters at all. Carey’s tenure at the show has kept it one of TV’s most valuable properties—and while he’s the star, Carey’s not the owner, and his name isn’t in the title. “I'm not the boss here,” he says. “I'm just working for a big company when it comes down to it.”
His mini-fleet of cars name-checks the usual L.A. standards—and the unusual. “I really like the R8, the Iron Man car,” he says. So he rented that for a week, then a Bentley, then a Rolls-Royce; he didn’t like any of them enough for the price. In Cleveland, he rented a BMW 7-Series and thought, “this is great, it’s got everything I need.” He bought one, then switched to a 6-Series Convertible for a year, then back to a 7-Series with rear executive seats.
When I ask him what his dream car is, he whips out his phone and dials up Instagram: “I’m driving it,” he smiles as he hunts down the photo of the Mini Cooper painted just for him with psychedelic art. “The Mini Cooper, to be honest, is such a good car for L.A., for practical reasons. It’s easy to park,” he explains as I pull up the ‘Gram quickly from favorites. “That's like my sixth Mini Cooper, that I've had. I've had them forever, since they first came out. I love them.”
Why an art car—something that needs protection from, well, everything? “I just thought it would be fun to do. I went to a friend of mine, who was an artist and said I have this great idea for a car, I want it to be like a Janis Joplin, John Lennon thing. So he went to another artist and she designed it, and then they went to a painter. It took them more than 500 hours to paint it. It's really insanely beautiful,” he says. “Every time I see a Rolls-Royce or something like a car that's way more expensive I think, well, you can't buy taste.
Drew doesn’t fear parking it in public—like at the grocery store. He takes it to Ralph’s. “I should be terrified of parking it at Ralph’s.” He parks it where nobody can ding it.
Only in L.A. could the host of the best game show ever opt into that level of anonymity.
“It's great,” he says. “Honestly, (it’s the) best job I ever had.”
Better than the show with your name on it?
“Well, it’s not as many hours. 'The Drew Carey Show' was great and I made most of my money on that.” But on that show, Drew took on not just the title role, but every role, everything from writing to blocking to HR to tiffs with network censors. “If we wanted to get away with saying 'damn' three times, we'd put in 12 'damns' and the guy would say, ‘can you cut them in half?’” And I'd go, ‘even better, we'll cut it down to three,’” he smirks. “Oldest trick in the book.”
“That was an easy 60 hour a week, every week, with gusts up to 70,” he remembers. “It's the show and all the interviews and all the promo and stuff that you have to do. When summer would come I would just disappear. I couldn't wait to get away.”
One summer, Warner Brothers sent him a gift before contract negotiations started. “I showed up one day and there was this car waiting for me, with a big red bow on it.” It was a Porsche 911 Carrera. Carey leapt at the chance to get away for the next three weeks, when the producers needed him in New York for the annual ad-sales upfronts. He left L.A. and headed generally east, without direction, without a looming deadline.
“I went north, up to Montana and made a right,” he recalls, when Montana’s speed limit was written only as reasonable and prudent.
“I drove like a maniac the whole way through,” he confesses. “I got the car up to 160 mph. The whole time, when my clothes got dirty I just mailed them back and I'd stop at GAP Outlet store or whatever and I would just buy new underwear and socks and T-shirts and shorts. I wasn't in a rush to get somewhere. I wasn't constantly looking at the map. I was just driving.”
audi r8 spyder the price is right
audi r8 spyder the price is right
Road trips give him time away from the machine he works in. I tell him I can already see how the lights and sound and happy chaos around him would be overwhelming. I’m not even on stage, and I sense it’s like a Disney ride, where they put you in a box and throw on the lights and shake the box. It’s a pinball machine.
In his cars, he’s surrounded only by isolation and quiet, I offer.
He looks me right in the eye. “Yep.”
Nothing in the pinball machine?
“Yep,” he stays locked, and then I know we’ve been to the same places.
So has another friend of his. When he made it to New York in his new 911, Carey appeared on “The David Letterman Show.” He knew Letterman to be a big Porsche fan; Letterman would tell stories about speeding in Connecticut to his own studio. Drew told him about his trip, and how he got it up to 120 mph with the top down, then put the top up and drove to 160 mph until he got scared.
“Oh, Montana?” Letterman asked him.
After upfronts, Carey picked up a paper and saw a news blurb posted from Darby, Montana. Letterman had flown to Montana, where he received a $50 ticket for going 38 in a 25-mph zone.
Before we part ways, I ask Drew about what he’d like to see on the show. “I would love to get a million-dollar Bugatti or something,” and professes his love of the classic Bugattis he’s seen at L.A.’s Petersen Museum.
He knows cars are the heart of the appeal of the show, even when the cars aren’t expensive. “I can't believe they’re still selling cars for $16,000 and $15,000 and $18,000. Basic cars right now are so good, we're kind of in a golden age of cars. Before, when I was growing up, there were cars that you just didn't get. Crappy cars, like a Yugo. Just don't buy one. If anybody bought one, you'd be like, ‘What are you thinking?’ There's no cars out there like that out there anymore.”
That’s why the cars still function as the show’s engine. Even when they win the most prosaic set of new wheels, people still react like their lives have been changed.
“Because many times,” he points out, “they have.”
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week 2020
Jennie Haskett’s Dream Truck Week
“The Price Is Right” has lived since 1972 in Studio 33, a jewel box of a stage ringed by chaos. Behind the TV walls, around its perimeter, Studio 33 is a traffic jam of roll-away pricing contests, cars, barbecue pits, skis—all of it transported on slim pallets through a bottleneck of a doorway that leads to the stage—and cameras and computer screens and what seems like miles of cables and cords to knit it all together on screen. It’s a little like the Nostromo from “Aliens,” if the alien had hired Rip Taylor to decorate its boudoir in a Circus Circus vibe.
Men and women swarm all around me while I’m guided toward my seat. I catch a foot on a pallet and knock over a plant, and put it back upright before they notice, or care. Their choreography is amazing: They move in sync, like a live Broadway show produced twice a day, sometimes three times.
“I'm really surprised more people don't hit each other and bump into each other and fall off the stage,” Drew told me. And they do. Rather famously, “Brady Bunch” mom Florence Henderson failed to apply the brakes during a car giveaway once and dinged a giveaway car. Spokesmodel Rachel Reynolds ran a car into the door. I worry for the black Porsche 911 Cabriolet, today’s Dream Car Week giveaway, as it’s put on a sled so it can be pushed on stage, engine off, only the brakes to keep it on track.
Without breaking any more displays, I’m led to the side door into the studio audience and get my own name tag. The price tag stuck to my chest triggers an unexpected flood of memories of the hour-long escape the show offered from being nine, fat, smart, and gay. Until I hit my teens, “The Price Is Right '' let me dream about winning, about going somewhere else, maybe California. About cars. About being free.
I’m directed to a VIP seat in a studio that already hums with excitement. I turn to meet Jennie Heskett, and then we’re cued to applaud. It never really stops for the next hour and a half. Announcer George Gray warms up the crowd with a run-through of the show, then patters with the crowd and singles out a few people—including Jennie. “You’re going to be on camera a lot today,”he tells her.
Cameras swoop in like velociraptors to the pumped-up volume of the show’s signature riff. An insane energy erupts from the crowd and bounces off every wall of the candy-color pachinko machine that is the studio. I can’t imagine it gets more intense—and then, Drew rolls on stage in a black Porsche 911 Cabriolet, today’s Dream Car Week lust object.
Within moments, contestants begin to throw out bids, and I can’t even hear how they get them right or get them wrong. I cheer the winners out of Contestant Row, clapping ferociously for Melvin Austin from Charlotte, North Carolina, when he takes the stage...along with the black Porsche 911 Cabriolet, worth more than $123,000. Melvin loves the Porsche; he pirouettes through disbelief, while the audience chants for him: Melvin, Melvin Melvin! Sadly he plays the Golden Road game, one of the most difficult contests. He has to get correct prices for a series of prizes. He wins a 49-cent burrito, and an electric bike for $960. He guesses wrong on an $8,615 Can-Am three-wheeler—and ends his quest for the Porsche. The studio barely sags once we’ve applauded him on toward his spin of the big wheel.
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week
Behind me, Tina had already grabbed Jennie’s hand and told her, “‘I think you’re going to be called up next.’” She really doesn’t remember much after that, she laughs.
“I didn’t believe it,” she says, until she saw the last three letters of her maiden name on the cue card. Her friend only knew her as Jennie Heskett; she’d signed up for tickets under Jennie Baunberger. She looked up, saw a PA holding the cue cards and jumping up and down. “Oh, my God, that’s me,” she thought. Like thousands before her in TPIR history, she promptly freaked out and ran to Contestant Row.
“I had a very brief moment where I could remember sitting in my grandma's living room as a kid watching ‘The Price is Right,’” she says. “It was probably blizzarding outside, and she was babysitting me, and we were watching Bob Barker. She just had the biggest crush on him. And I thought, she'd be so proud of me now.”
It takes just two bids for Jennie to make it out of Contestant Row. Her first bid on fashion sunglasses goes wrong, but on her second try, she not only wins a GoPro—she gets the price exactly right at $600 and wins a $500 bonus.
She leaps on the stage with Drew for a simple contest in which contestants pick the three most expensive prizes. From a bundle that includes a rowing machine, a laptop, a massage chair, and small appliances, she picks all but the appliances and wins handily. After she’s ushered off stage to a front-row seat stage left, she’s ushered back on within minutes for a spin on the big wheel.
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week 2020
The Price Is Right Dream Car Week 2020
“I was thinking, finally, I'm going to get to know how heavy this wheel is,” she laughs, “because I think it's one of life's greatest mysteries. There's people that spin the crap out of it and there's other people who can't get it around once. That thing’s heavy!” She tugs on the wheel twice to beat another contestant’s 90-cent spins, and crests to 95 cents. It doesn’t register as she looks ahead at the camera, until Drew tells her she’s headed to the Showcase Showdown. “I was like, what? What the heck? Wow. I just won again!”
Jennie has to take down Melvin to be the winner of the Showcase Showdown, and passes on a trip to Belgium and a Mazda 3 sedan in the process. “Maybe it’s just human curiosity,” she says. “I’ve just got to know what's behind door No. 2.”
Her showcase starts with a record player, then moves on to an outdoor kitchen, and she strains to read the crowd for help on a bid. Then the curtains sweep back—to reveal a new Ford F-150.
“Well, now I'm screwed. I have absolutely no idea what that costs,’” she says. “But yeah, there's value in looking at the audience. So I just looked at them and they were saying like $38,000, $35,000. So I just super underbid, just in case—I bid $32,000.”
Bids locked in, cameras repositioned, Jennie prepares for the worst—and the best. She looks to Drew for a hint.
"Hey Drew, do you know who won?" she asks.
"Yes, I do," he tells her, and doesn’t say any more.
When the cameras come back up, Drew recites Melvin’s bid of $25,000 and the actual price of $34,810. Then he moves to the next podium, and to Jennie’s bid of $32,000—against the actual price of $41,336. By the slimmest of margins, she’s the winner.
Jennie grew up driving a refurbed junkyard ‘94 Nissan Maxima when she was 14. She has a Lexus RX now, and dreams of a Tesla Model S—”make it red,” she says. From her day on “The Price Is Right,” she can now bring home a regular-cab F-150 and let her husband play cowboy all he wants: “He just wants to pretend he has stuff to haul around even though he doesn’t.”
Now, she says, she never has to wonder how she’ll break the ice with strangers in conversation. “Obviously now I’ll have the answer for that from here on out,” she beams.
On the way out
By the time the 90-minute taping is done, I’m spent. I swear I’ll never take off the name tag stuck to me, but I have to. You know “Oh, Mighty Sound Effects Lady”? Well, she’s brought me a card that I can use to keep my nametag for all time. She’s among the first and the last of the TPIR crew to make my visit something more than just another feature story.
It’s after sunset by the time I leave CBS’ studios. My hands are exhausted from clapping, and I’m too tired to do anything but send an audio file for transcription while I’m stalled in traffic. I drop the Bentley’s top and come to a complete stop on La Cienega, the Bermuda Triangle of LA transit, and try to figure out why “The Price Is Right” has endured for most of my life.
Is it possible it’s still here because it’s….nice? Other car shows and game shows go to extremes and live on a steady diet of strong opinions. “The Price Is Right” is a palate-cleanser for our brains before we jump back into the adrenaline hype of breaking news or into the angry, ugly social mediasphere. It’s a reminder that there's usually more happiness in the world than we have time to let in. It’s antivenin.
“The Price Is Right” is a feel-good story that happens to be true, day after day after day. It’s still one of the purest pop-culture confections—and that’s why it’s still the best car show on TV.