Today is one of those “milestone birthdays” for a legendary figure from daytime television. Bob Barker, former host of The Price is Right, turns 85 today.
Barker retired as host of the show two seasons ago, after 35 years on the show and 50 years on national television, beginning with Ralph Edwards’ Truth or Consequences in 1956.
Barker, it has been said, ruled with an iron fist on the show the last half of his tenure there, when he doubled as host and executive producer. Many of the changes that were made over those years — actually, it is probably more accurate to say many of the changes that were not made — were because of what Barker did or didn’t want on his show. And it made for a curious hour on daytime television: a show that still managed to attract a good following, filled with audience members of all shapes, sizes and ages, and yet seemed a throwback to decades earlier.
There were even subtle things, like credits — back when television shows still tolled credits on the air — that were electronically keyed from an old-fashioned crawl drum, with the names on a long roll of black paper rather than on a computer that most other shows had switched to years earlier.
And in the two years since Barker retired, one might remark, “My how things have changed.
Comedian Drew Carey now hosts the show. He’s now in his second season as host, and the show is now in its 37th on the air. Carey is no Barker; Barker said he told Carey to do the show “Drew’s way,” not in a way that would be what Carey thought Barker might do. And Carey has certainly followed that advice. For some long-time fans, Carey has followed that advice a little too strongly.
At the end of last season, longtime producer Roger Dobkowitz, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person and talking to occasionally by phone since a visit to the set in 1997, was dismissed by the show’s production company, which explained the change as their wanting to take the show in a new direction.
As if there had ever been anything wrong with the old direction.
The current show seems, at times, a far cry from the familiar old friend many of us grew up with. The set is updated but updated to look more retro. And that little conundrum explains a lot for those of us who miss the small things from a few seasons back. There’s also a lot more campy silliness, particularly in the showcases, the show’s famous endgame. If Carey himself has taken on additional writing on the show, then it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Carey may be more than a little to blame for what’s new and different.
It may also explain why, at the end of the presentation of the showcases, he is occasionally the only one who is laughing at the jokes that have just been paraded across the screen.
Barker, meanwhile, seems to be enjoying his retirement. He has continued his work for animals, funding spay and neuter clinics and speaking out about animal rights issues. It was Barker, after all, who ended each episode of ‘Price’ with a reminder for viewers to have their pets spayed or neutered. Carey, to his credit, approached Barker right after he was chosen by CBS to be the next host, to ask for permission to continue the practice, which he still does.
Asked recently if he watches the show, he told one of those tabloid entertainment shows that it’s a different show now. Barker retired at a time when I think he felt he was on the verge of slipping. He had suffered a few mild “senior moments” over the last few seasons, but it was still clear that he was quite sharp and very much in control of the proceedings. Still, it’s a tribute to his success that he was able to still step down while his show was still at the top of the daytime ratings.
One can only hope things will stay that way, whether ‘Price’ returns to its old, familiar ways or continues to “evolve” towards something increasingly unfamiliar.
There are times when I wish Barker would give us the present and come back to Stage 33.