And now I'm going to tell you exactly how to get onto The Price Is Right.
On Aug. 24, I booked a flight to San Diego, ostensibly to visit my sister. Non-ostensibly, the purpose was to drive 100 miles north to L.A. to win a fabulous array of cash and prizes from Drew Carey. When you're home from school, faking a fever so you can watch daytime game shows, Plinko and the Showcase Showdown seem to emanate from some impossibly distant universe. But I am here to tell you that you can get inside your television set and be part of them, in person.
This past summer, I resolved to engage in a highly scientific process to get myself onto contestants' row, because I was the kid who enjoyed doing lab reports in high school, even though I was totally cool and I kissed girls at dances, for real. To get the necessary raw data, I ritualistically sacrificed every other TV show from my DVR (even Castle!) so I could get a month of Price Is Right episodes Saved Until Manually Erased.
From there, I devised a six-phase plan of conquest:
PHASE 1: While watching that month of episodes, record the general appearance, estimated age, enthusiasm level, and custom-shirt-having-ness of every called-down contestant to A) generate demographic breakdowns in an effort to build a predictive model, and B) figure out if the producers have some obvious bias against giant beards, which would mean I'd had to shave.
PHASE 2: Make spreadsheets documenting the price of every single item and showcase for that month, plus what every contestant bid on them.
PHASE 3: Convince my brother-in-law in San Diego, who knows actually how to make spreadsheets, to make those spreadsheets.
PHASE 4: Get custom T-shirts designed and made, and pay the designer with a six pack of those cool Guinness bottles with the nitro-widgets.
PHASE 5: Track down anyone who's ever been on contestants' row, especially those who have won prizes, and extract all possible knowledge from their uniquely excitable brains.
PHASE 6: Get to contestants' row, then proceed to win a new car, a six-night trip to Morocco, a pair of Jet Skis, a 70-inch 3D TV, $61,000 in cash, and a panini press.
Fast forward one month. With free tickets in hand, acquired from the show's website, my girlfriend and I arrive at my sister's house in North County, San Diego. We eat carnitas chimichangas, drink local 14 percent ABV barleywines before noon, and re-review some 10 episodes together. I phone no less than five former contestants, one of whom won a showcase and tells me she has the hot tub to prove it.
The veterans briefed us on the procedures: You show up early (though not as early as you had to in the Bob Barker days), you sit around, and you get interviewed in a group of about 15 or 20. That interview is the lone means producers have of selecting the nine contestants who'll be called out of the audience of 300. The goal is to toe the line between enthusiasm and transparent, annoying fakeness. Nobody knew if I should shave my beard or not.
The hot-tub showcase winner, the last one I consult, has the most compelling advice. She offers hugely valuable trip-pricing info—domestic or Caribbean trips run $6-7K, Euro ones more like $11K—and she wildly contradicts the others on the question of enthusiasm. Go completely bonkers, she tells us, and as long as we're as young and good-looking as I've claimed, one person from our group of four will get on. This excites me to no end, till I remember that she's an actor and therefore able to hoot and holler convincingly. My only stage experience was as a Nazi guard in my fourth-grade class's production of The Sound of Music. (I had one line: "They're gone," and my mother told me I was very convincing, which is an odd thing for a parent to say about a child playing a Nazi.)
Still, her point is that most people clam up during the interview, and at least half don't even really want to get on—they just want to be in the audience, away from their boring lives, watching other people win designer clutches. I realize we do have a pretty fantastic shot: If ambivalence wipes out half of the audience, we're down from 300 to 150. Not a bad start.
My demographic breakdown of the shows tells me that among the nine contestants each time, there are three to five Young People slots. These can be partially eaten up by young people who belong to other attractive categories: brides, grooms, birthday boys or girls, military, people pretending to be any of these. Still, on a weekday during the school year, less than a third of the audience is going to be suitably youthful. So now I figure we're competing with 50 people, give or take. And there are four of us.
There's also an undeniable tendency for at least two—and possibly four—of the Young People to be attractive girls. I like to think my girlfriend qualifies, and it's unseemly to have an opinion about my sister, but it's safe to say she doesn't look like me. This could really happen.
We leave San Diego for Los Angeles at 5:30 a.m., aiming to arrive an hour before the 8:30 cutoff. Then we discover that the traffic that L.A. people are always talking about on reality shows is real. We've used up almost our entire margin of error when a seam opens up on the 101 and we get off onto side streets in West Hollywood. My brother runs a red light. At 8:29, circling the studio lot, I spot a Price Is Right sign and jump from the moving car, waving my arms, shouting that I have tickets and please please my party is just finding a parking spot please! In retrospect, this was a pretty good way to make a first impression as the very screaming lunatic they're looking for. The producer lets us in.
We wait, holding cards with sequential numbers on them to certify that we're at the tail end of the 300. There are dugout-style benches for the line as it snakes through metal railings. A CBS page checks our IDs and makes us sign paperwork to certify that we haven't won prizes on a game show in the last 10 years and that we won't run for political office in the next one.
Governorships signed away, we get our famous yellow nametags. This may be the day's biggest revelation: Someone actually writes the names on those things! A person! Her only duty is to have perfect Price Is Right penmanship. There's a little discard pile of the ones that ran long. And no matter how you try to charm her by praising her handwriting, you're only ever getting your exact legal name on that thing. For the first time since the first day of high school, my sister Megan can't avoid the fact that her first name is actually Georgiena.
Now it's time to wait some more. Convinced that everyone in sight is a TPIR plant gathering intel on enthusiastic people, I alternate between humming and whistling the theme song, occasionally dancing about. Next to us is a family—father, mother, and son—celebrating someone's 60th birthday with coordinated T-shirts. Mom, a nurse, has one that reads "60 Shades of Grey"; the son's says "I Got Spayed and Neutered To Get on This Show." Behind us is a woman who won a trip on the show 25 years ago and who's now back for more, seemingly by herself. A couple from Atlanta in front of us say they did two tapings the day before, and are back for more sitting on metal benches. "Just tryin' to get lucky, man," the guy says.
Finally, it's interview time. These go down right in the open, so we get a good listen while the group ahead of us goes. The interviewer is a goateed producer, who has clearly had years to perfect his gratuitously cheesy banter. Contestant: "I'm an engineer." Goateed Producer (pretending to pull a train whistle): "Oh, like 'Wooo-woooo'? Do you shovel a lot of coal?" Shtick aside, he's asking civilization's three most basic questions: What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Most people just answer, then wait for him to move on.
And this—this, dear combination washer-dryer seekers, is the key. As promised, here's how you get called up on The Price Is Right: You hijack the interview. Goateed Producer's questions are boring. Don't answer his boring questions—well, do, but go beyond them. Way beyond. So when Goateed Producer reaches our spot in line, I heed the words of the hot-tub winner, and I go ballistic:
"Hey, my name's Ben Robinson, and I'm from New York City, and me and my girlfriend JUST red-eyed into L.A. this morning [untrue] and we JUST made it to the studio with a minute to spare [very true] and I can't believe this is even happening and we're completely out of our minds [possibly true] and this is just crazy, CRAZY, oh my God this is GREAT!!!!"
Goateed Producer notes my beard and tells me I have a little mountain-man thing going on. I tell him I like to think of it as having a little Cliffhangers thing going on. See, dude, I know the show and the games played on it! I care!!! I'M KNOWLEDGEABLE AND FUCKING PSYCHED. My girlfriend, sister, and brother-in-law all follow suit. Excitement, banter, youth—we nail it. One of us absolutely is getting on this goddamn show.
The Price Is Right studio is at once much smaller and much larger than you imagine it. The stage is completely familiar but tiny—as if it's been squeezed in a giant vise, reducing it to half-width. But the seats extend much, much farther back than I'd ever thought, with a gentler slope. On TV, the contestants seem to fall down the aisles, propelled by gravity as much as greed. The set also looks newer than it does on TV, the colors starker, the lights brighter. It's an unreal afterlife, for people whose eternal reward is a 2013 Hyundai Accent GLS.
We're trailing in at the end of the line, so I turn toward those seats in the distance. "No, no, sir," a voice says. "Right this way." We're guided down the aisle, closer and closer to the stage. A page grins and pulls tape off of some seats in the absolute middle of the front, directly behind the seats for the contestants.
This can't be real. We're basically already on stage, before anyone's even been called. Drew Carey comes out and says hi. A few producers work the place into a torrid frenzy, and four hours of waiting are washed away by sheer mass hysteria. The room is so loud, you can't hear anything but the loudness—not the people making bids, not Drew, and definitely not George Gray, the replacement for the legendary Rod Roddy, shouting out a name and "... come on down!!" There's a gawky intern who has to hold up giant posterboard cue cards with the contestants' names on them.
As the first four contestants' names get flashed, I'm already planning how I'm going to bound over the empty chairs in front of me to get to contestants' row. Maybe I'll throw in an intentional fall. Maybe I'll do the Robot.
I'm not called. Worse, after the first pricing game, they call the girl directly to my right. Even worse, I spring up and attempt to give her a hug, for some added camera time, but she completely rebuffs me. I'm very much looking forward to seeing this on TV.
There's no way they're calling someone else from the same five consecutive seats. While screaming and clapping and trying to hug other people just to assure myself that someone cares about me, I ponder where we went wrong. Did I go too far in the interview? Did they not notice the subtle brilliance of our shirts, on which my girlfriend rendered the show's name as "The Price is Wright," like her last name? Or, considering that they'd already called a bride, a groom, and a birthday girl—Young People, all—had we simply been outgunned by a bunch of special-occasion scene-stealers?
Defeated, I stop feeling the need to puke into my sweatshirt every time a new cue card came out. I figure the move is to hoot and holler and make weird faces and scream "ONE DOLLAR" in any and all instances and just have some fun. The next card reads "Adrienne Wright." I bet that chick doesn't even have a clever Price Is Wright shirt like my girlfriend does. Wait. That is my girlfriend. OH MY GOD THAT'S HER!! IT WORKED!!!!!!
I spring up like Spud Webb on speed and turn to hug her. In the chaos, she adds herself to the list of Price Is Right contestants who refuse to hug me. Thanks, babe. I'm very much not looking forward to seeing this on TV. Next thing I know she's nailed her first bid—two designer handbags: $975; actual retail price: $980—and has been rushed onstage.
I keep looking at my sister and bro-in-law for some kind of confirmation we're not actually dead and in some blessed day-glo afterlife. And then I hear what sounds like:
How about your brand new car.
OK, so her spin of the big wheel didn't go so great. And two boring old dudes with goatees overbid by more than $12,500 each on the showcases. But looking back on things now—weeks after my girlfriend came trickling off the stage with those handbags, two camcorders, an iPad, an acrylic box full of $2,444 in cash, and a dishwasher that's perfect for New York City rental apartments (she passed on the car)—I can say without hesitation that none of it matters. We weren't there to win a small sailboat, some boogie boards, and a trip to Barbados. We were there to be there. We'd already made it to our dream destination. We'd come on down.
Ben Robinson is co-founder of college hoops blog TheKingsburyFactor.com, executive editor at Thrillist, and Evil Mastermind of BatchSlap.com. He still wants to go to Space Camp. Follow him to limited freedom at @benjorobinson.