Trekking through game-show heaven
LOS ANGELES - Game shows occupy a unique corner of the American brain. Who can't place that immortal shout, "Survey says!"? Do the words double jeopardy actually invoke the law for that many people?
On a sunny Wednesday morning in Southern California, as I crossed the Sony Pictures Studios lot with 150 fellow tourists toward a towering image of an avuncular Alex Trebek, our guide offered a fact as sobering as it was absurd:
"More than 90 million people have never known the world without Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune."
That's about 28 percent of the U.S. population. If anything, it sounded light.
Pat Sajak has hosted Wheel of Fortune for 32 years. Vanna White has presided over its letters for 31. Trebek began hosting Jeopardy! during Ronald Reagan's first term. The Price Is Right has been in our living rooms for 42 years. Game shows aren't just entertainment; they're distant relatives.
Judging by the crowds I met on my game-show vacation, they're also as entrenched in the American psyche as ever.
Yes, a game-show vacation.
Tuesday, 3 p.m.: 'The Price Is Right'
Joy and tension hang over The Price Is Right in the hours before a taping.
The joy is rooted in the mere fact of being here: After watching dozens or hundreds of episodes, 283 people from any and every state will finally see the show in all its bright, frenetic glory. The tension comes from the fact that, unlike most game shows, this one picks contestants from the audience. Who will it be?
Most clearly hope to be chosen. In a line stretching around the hulking CBS Television City - where The Young and The Restless and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, among others, also are taped - they wear homemade T-shirts reading "I love money," and "All I want for my birthday is to play Plinko." Birthday shirts are a common theme.
Stan Blits, who started as a page 35 years ago on The Price Is Right, is a coproducer who decides which audience members will be part of the game.
"You can tell in three seconds if they have it," Blits says.
"It" is not just energy and excitement - it is sustained energy and excitement. He wants the people who won't wilt beneath the bright lights, and who are likely to offer show host Drew Carey a humorous moment onstage.
And then, after hours of waiting, it is time. Stagehands lead the crowd into the studio. The walls are covered in orange, yellow, and blue, adorned with twinkling lights and neon. Adults look like wide-eyed children.
The Price Is Right is an exhausting, cacophonous affair. We stand and sit, stand and sit, clap, clap more, clap louder and, of course, shout prices at the stage, because no one knows the cost of that laundry detergent better than we do. The studio gets so loud that when a contestant is summoned to "Come on down!" a stagehand also reveals the name on a white poster board; otherwise, we probably wouldn't hear it.
During commercial breaks, The Price Is Right keeps the party going with Carey's jokes and boogie music from the speakers above. We would see contestants win two cars, a home gym, and vacations to Cancun and Colorado. One woman who joined Carey onstage was so overwhelmed that she cried - before she even played her game.
Wednesday, 11 a.m.: 'Jeopardy!'
The Price Is Right spends hours herding its guests around the exterior of the CBS studio, but Jeopardy! ushers us into history.
"You are literally on the Yellow Brick Road," our guide says as we walk in two tight lines.
He explained: The Wizard of Oz was filmed at Sony Pictures Studios back when it was MGM. The Yellow Brick Road was painted on the lot where we walked.
Where The Price Is Right is a colorful swirl of movement and frenzy, the Jeopardy! studio, which seats 125 people, is a stately room of grays and blues. Before us is that legendary setup: 30 screens (six categories with five incremental dollar values), Trebek's podium, and, across the stage, the three lecterns where conquest and defeat would unfold. At the lip of the stage - out of sight of cameras and home viewers - a long table of telephones, dictionaries, and TV screens awaits judges, producers, and researchers.
Johnny Gilbert - the 89-year-old voice behind the show's "This . . . is . . . JEOPARDY!" opening, steps out for a briefing. Don't shout out answers, even if it's what we do at home, he says. Because we would be seeing three episodes taped, Trebek would be changing clothes between shows, Gilbert tells us. Winning contestants also would be changing.
Taping starts about 11:15 a.m., with Gilbert's introduction. Trebek emerges, the big board comes to life, and the questions begin to fly, appearing for the audience both on the big board and on screens flanking the stage. Questions and answers seem to come even faster than they do on television. I realize I probably would be crushed as a contestant.
Six minutes later, we take a commercial break. There is no music and no dancing, just the stately Trebek. He asks how many of us are from out of state. Ninety percent of the audience raise their hands. Then he takes questions: "What book most influenced you?" (The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.) "Do you watch the show at home?" (Not until recently; now that he's in his mid-70s, he occasionally tunes in to be sure he's not "losing it.")
Three tapings and many more questions and answers later, we are finished. On the way out, a woman asks me to take a photo of her and two others behind a mock "Jeopardy!" set. I realize that one of the people I am photographing had just been on an episode. He had lost badly and carried the extra clothes he brought in case of a long run on the show.
Thursday, 3 p.m.: 'Wheel of Fortune'
"Isn't she pretty?" Tasha Cook, 17, asks as we pass a cutout of Vanna White on our way into the studio.
"I know - don't we hate her?" replies Alex Cutler, also 17, though she means it as a compliment.
The 160-seat studio also features a bit of The Wizard of Oz trivia - the tornado scene was filmed here. But more remarkable is what sits in the studio today: that clacking, spinning wheel and emerald board. As we take our seats, contestants are already at the wheel, getting tutored by a producer on the proper method of spinning, applauding after a spin, and shouting out their letters ("Louder!" they are told repeatedly). Beside me sits a man from Oregon who is in the midst of fulfilling his gray-haired mother's dream. "She has been watching this show for over 30 years, every single night," he whispers to me. "She's excited."
It's difficult not to be excited, or at least a little impressed, the first time Sajak and White stride out, arm in arm, looking vaguely like the president and first lady of the People's Republic of Game Shows. Unlike the other shows, however, they don't have much to say to the audience and offer no insights into themselves or the show, beyond Sajak's saying that if we whisper answers too loudly, the puzzle will be thrown out.
As at Jeopardy!, we watch three tapings, which is a lot of spins of that big wheel. (I'd laugh at the woman who tries solving a movie title as "Amuse House," but if sitting in three game-show audiences has taught me anything, it's that I'm not sure I'd fare much better.)
I met someone at the Jeopardy! taping who described the experience as "cheesy-awesome." If true, then watching Wheel of Fortune unfold is cheesier-awesome. At Jeopardy!, knowledge flies around with lightning quickness, and it is impressive.
At Wheel, things move considerably more slowly. Inevitably, you will solve a puzzle that the contestants don't, and it will drive you a little crazy - that money could be yours!
The remarkable thing about a game-show taping is how quaint it all seems. The years of history, the massive viewership, the synergy with the American consciousness - none of that seems possible. But occasionally, there's a reminder.
Like when a woman solves a Wheel puzzle despite having earned no money that round; enough letters have been revealed to make the answer clear, and she doesn't want someone else to solve it.
"You don't have to justify it to me," Sajak says. "Just America."
"The Price Is Right" tapes 95 days a year. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/pricetickets or by calling 855-447-7423. Note that with a "priority" ticket, admission is guaranteed. A "general" ticket is worth a voucher for first-come, first-served admission. The show recommends arriving at least 30 minutes before the entry time on the ticket to guarantee admission.
"Jeopardy!" tapes 10 shows about every other week from July through April. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/jeopardytickets.
"Wheel of Fortune" tapes 12 shows every other week from July through March. Each taping includes three shows. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/wheeltickets.