LOS ANGELES — On a sunny Southern California morning, 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,’ ” the guide said.
That’s about 28 percent of the United States. If anything, it sounded light.
During three days in March, I attended tapings of three of our most venerable institutions: “The Price Is Right,” “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.” Crowds were large and enthusiastic. There were few, if any, empty seats.
Tapings were all free and lasted only slightly longer than the shows that would eventually air on television. Pauses were included for commercial breaks, and what happened during those breaks varied by show – from a dance party (“The Price Is Right”) to a sobering discussion of mortality (“Jeopardy!”). Sitting in those audiences also helped explain why game shows have thrived through the generations. As a dapper, gray-suited Trebek said during a break, the shows – and particularly his – are “the American dream.”
‘The Price Is Right’
Joy and tension hang over “The Price Is Right” in the hours before the 3 p.m. Tuesday taping in Los Angeles.
The joy is rooted in the mere truth 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 contestants, unlike in most game shows, are picked from the audience. Who will it be?
Most of the audience clearly hopes to be picked. In a line stretching around the hulking CBS Television City – where “The Young and The Restless” and “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” also are taped, among others – they wear homemade T-shirts reading “I love money,” “Baby needs a new car” (accompanied by an image of a fetus inside the wearer’s belly) and “All I want for my birthday is to play Plinko.” Birthday shirts are a common theme.
Stan Blits is too busy looking into each audience member’s eyes to look at the T-shirts. Blits, who started on “The Price Is Right” 35 years ago as a page, is a co-producer 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. Blits meets each show’s audience in groups of 20 as they’re herded along the red metal rails that wind around the building. He meets the crossroads of America there: salespeople, chefs, uniformed military, homemakers, teachers and students. So many students.
In rapid succession, he greets everyone by name, asks what they do, makes a joke off the response and then sees what they have. Behind him, two young women sit in director’s chairs, taking notes on yellow legal pads. As Blits finishes with each group, he says something along the lines of, “If you get on that stage, I want to see you go crazy!” Then the group goes crazy and moves on to continue waiting in line and to ponder, say, the cost of a new Jet Ski.
Then, after three or four hours of waiting, it is time. Stagehands lead the crowd into the studio, which is a bit like being ushered into the guts of a gumball machine. The walls are covered in orange, yellow and blue, adorned with twinkling lights and the occasional neon. Adults look like wide-eyed children entering this wonderland.
“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.
Whoever is called to “Come on down!” inevitably shrieks, puts his hands to his face or does a little dance, then runs to the stage, just as we’ve seen on television. Except this time, we are the ones high-fiving the contestant as he is summoned.
The “Price Is Right” spends hours herding its guests around the exterior of its studio; “Jeopardy!” ushers us into history at 11 a.m. in Culver City.
While “The Price Is Right” was 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 in the form of arcane knowledge. 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.
Looking well in brown slacks and a white satin “Jeopardy!” jacket, 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. (At “The Price Is Right,” we were castigated if we didn’t shout out answers.) Because we would be seeing three episodes taped, Trebek would be changing clothes between shows, Gilbert tells us. Winning contestants also would be changing between shows.
Taping starts about 11:15 a.m., with Gilbert’s legendary introduction. He stands to our left, gripping the edges of his lectern and speaking with his entire body. Trebek emerges, the big board comes to life, and the questions begin to fly, appearing for the audience both on the big board and screens flanking the stage. Questions and answers seem to come even faster than they do on television.
Six minutes later, we take a commercial break.
Three tapings and many 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 just inside the studio door. 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 to Los Angeles in case of a long run on the show. Instead, he was finished in 40 minutes.
‘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. It’s 3 p.m. Thursday in Culver City.
“I know – don’t we hate her?” replies Alex Cutler, also 17, though she means it as a compliment.
“And she’s not that young, I think,” Cook says. “How old is she?”
The girls, part of a high school group from Toronto, do some quick math before settling on mid-50s for the nation’s most iconic letter turner (which is about right). We push past the hall of “Wheel” memorabilia, which includes photos of foreign versions of the show (in Turkey, it’s “Carkifelek”) and missives from past winners about how their “Wheel of Fortune” fortune changed their lives.
As we take our seats in the 160-seat studio, contestants are already at the clacking, spinning 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).
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 saying that if we whisper answers too loudly, the puzzle will be thrown out.
We watch three tapings, which is a lot of spins of that big wheel. At “Jeopardy!” knowledge flies around with lightning quickness, and it is impressive. At “Wheel,” things move considerably slower. Inevitably, you will solve a puzzle that the contestants don’t, and it will drive you a little crazy.
That money could be yours!