[Ed. note: This column was originally published in 2005 in the Sunday magazine of The Kansas City Star.]
Bob Barker is the devil.
You know it’s true. You’ve watched him on television your entire life. He never goes away. He’s always there, smiling, intoning, seducing, inviting us into a world of naked materialism.
Maybe this seems self-evident, but my conclusion was not reached lightly. It began when I drove my wife to the emergency room. There was no way we could know it at the time, but that was the prelude to our passage into cancer world.
Hospital waiting rooms and oncology clinics are never very happy places, of course. Patients and their loved ones gathered there devote their psychic energy to a set of basic goals: Don’t bolt from your chair and flee. Don’t scream. Don’t cry. Don’t do that thing you see people do in movies where hysterical laughter morphs into inconsolable sobbing and only a slap to the face can return them to their senses.
They gather every morning in clinics and hospitals across America, sitting beneath flourescent lights in rooms often lined with dreary wood paneling, terrified of what the doctors may find but trying not to show it.
Some people thumb through magazines. Some stare into the distance. Others watch television.
There’s always a television. And it’s always on. And in the mornings it’s always tuned to the station that carries The Price Is Right.
This is why I will always link the image of Bob Barker, the 81-year-old host of the longest-running game show on television, with my wife’s cancer.
When I sat in a waiting room at Baptist Medical Center during her surgery, Bob Barker was there. When I accompanied her to chemotherapy at her oncologist’s office on Prospect, Bob Barker was there. Not long ago I drove her to a sonogram at St. Joseph Health Center, and there was Bob Barker—the silver-haired, silver-tongued Dark Lord of Greed.
Here’s a memory: My wife is seated in a recliner as a plastic tube pumps chemicals into her system through a port imbedded in her chest. From a television across the room emanates the screams and antiseptic music of “The Price Is Right.” I’m in a room full of women facing their own mortality, and there on the screen are screaming, jumping contestants focused on one thing only: Taking home a Cracker Jack prize.
My wife and I had fallen into the living hell of cancer—there’s no better word for it—and Bob Barker was our master of ceremonies. This is how I came to view him as El Diablo.
Look at his face and tell me I’m wrong. Study the glint in his eye as he builds the expectations of contestants who moments later walk away empty-handed. Listen to that effortless tone of empathetic disappointment when a contestant loses or the calculated elation in his voice when somebody wins a coveted piece of merchandise.
Oh, Barker’s good. He has been performing before television cameras for most of his adult life. In the ’50s he starred on Truth or Consequences, a game show that featured, among other things, a chimpanzee named Beulah the Buzzer.
But for most television viewers below a certain age, Barker is the face of The Price Is Right, a show that never goes away. It began in 1956 with a different host, but Barker’s involvement goes back 32 years—longer than many of his viewers have been alive.
Recently I made a point of watching several episodes of The Price Is Right. The experience simply confirmed my belief: Bob Barker is the Prince of Darkness, a leering, malevolent presence in doctor’s offices across America.
With a soothing tone, suave bearing and calm authority he appeals to the worst instincts in all of us. The show celebrates our lust for possessions and our need to be anesthetized against the horrors, big and small, of daily existence. Crucial to its popularity is the implied promise that you can get something for nothing.
That’s untrue, of course. There’s always a price. Those who fill the Bob Barker Studio at CBS in Hollywood each day agree to humiliate themselves for a chance to spin the Big Wheel or to play Bonkers or Pick a Pair or Switcheroo. They greet Bob with a frenzy usually reserved for football games and rock concerts.
They cheer. They shout. They scream. They high-five each other. They exchange hugs. It all has the aroma of a tent revival, with Bob Barker playing the role of preacher. It is, in fact, a form of worship—the worship of stuff.
Barker put it rather eloquently at the conclusion of one episode. A contestant named Kathleen had won the “Showcase Showdown” and rushed off camera to be with her new possessions.
“And there she goes,” Bob Barker said, “to look at her motorcycle and her boat and all that stuff.”
Bob likes people to win. He doesn’t much care what they win as long as they win something. Cars, living room furniture, cappuccino machines, sailboats, motorcycles, gas grills, luggage—the list is infinite. The unseen Rich Fields—successor to legendary announcers Johnny Olson and Rod Roddy—trumpets the unveiling of each product with a high-decibel carnival barker’s pitch: “It’s a new C-A-A-A-R-R!” or “It’s an exciting P-O-O-O-L table!”
Barker is beloved by his contestants, and they seem to love him all the more when he mocks them in his cool, detached way.
One day a contestant named Alisa played a game called 3 Strikes, shoving her hand into a canvas bag designed to look like a big baseball in the hopes of pulling out the correct token to win a new Lincoln LS. With each unsuccessful try she screamed bloody murder.
“That scream may sound loud at home but I’m telling you when you’re no more than 36 inches away from it, I will never hear out of this ear again,” Barker said.
The camera never gets too close to Bob on The Price Is Right. You usually see him from the waist up and sometimes in head-to-foot shots. That way you can see Bob’s masterful body language and the cut of his suits.
A few years ago, however, Bob made a cameo appearance on the long-running daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful. Bob appeared as himself, accompanied by a couple of his “beauties,” the models who with fluid hand gestures and frozen smiles “present” the refrigerators and ranges and motorcycles and new cars.
But The Bold and the Beautiful showed Barker in disturbing close-ups. The unnatural tan had a sort of radioactive glow, and there was something about the thick white hair that wasn’t right. He looked like an animatronic theme-park character.
This is why it’s so easy to imagine Bob as a demonic presence. He seems “natural” only on the set of The Price Is Right. Remove him from his universe of cardboard sets and garish lighting and it just seems wrong—even when you insert him into the phony world of a daytime soap.
For many The Price Is Right is nothing more than addictive entertainment. And Bob is widely admired for his devotion to animal rights. The former Springfield, Mo. resident projects an unassuming Midwestern manner, often greeting his guests with “Howdy.”
Oh, there were some unpleasant lawsuits from former staffers and models a few years ago. They accused Barker of behavior that was unbecoming to a beloved celebrity.
But Bob has never been distracted from his overriding goal—dragging Americans into a vortex of consumerism. Picture yourself, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, caught in the eye of a tornado, with patio furniture, vacuum cleaners and skate boards spinning all around you.
That’s where Bob wants you to be.
But the funny thing about products is that they really don’t mean much to people dealing with cancer. People on chemo just can’t get excited about new kitchen gadgets or curio cabinets.
What they see on Bob’s show is an endless river of disposable junk—cars that will rust, vacuum cleaners whose belts will break, furniture that will someday be scarred and pitted. All the shiny new products destined to reside in landfills simply remind us that our bodies will eventually fail and that life must come to an end, no matter how diligently we try to forestall the inevitable.
But Barker keeps on keeping on, his place in the Television Hall of Fame secure. Five days a week he torments his guests with condescending charm as they struggle to guess the price of a stereo or a sofa or a ping-pong table.
Maybe you have your own notions of the Dark One. Maybe you believe he really exists. Maybe you just see him as a metaphor for the human animal’s capacity to inflict evil on his own kind.
Regardless, history and literature offer plenty of stand-ins for His Satanic Majesty: Vlad the Impaler, Richard III, Jerry Springer, Hannibal Lecter. It’s a long list. And somewhere near the bottom is my personal Mephistopheles: Bob Barker.
And what an impoverished figure he is. At the end of the day he’s just a huckster with a cane and megaphone promising unimagined pleasures if only we’ll step inside the tent.