Bob Barker’s Weird Place in the Pantheon

bob-barker.jpgThe other day, I wrote what some readers must have thought was a very strange post comparing two famous octogenarians, Tony Bennett and Fidel Castro. The point was entirely personal. Here are two famous men who were part of my earliest memories, who still share this planet with me, and still do what they’ve been doing since I started paying attention to the world outside my sandbox.

If I’d thought of him, I might have added another: Bob Barker.

Bob Barker was my companion through the days and weeks of my youth in Illinois and Connecticut whenever I was too sick to go to school. I was healthy most of the time, but when I got sick, I got really sick. The way I remember it, both strep throat and pneumonia seemed to hit me at least once each winter, and put me in bed for a week or two. Actually in my parents’ bed, where it was easier for my mother to bring me juice and crackers, to make sure I took my medicine; and where I could watch TV.

Cartoons ended each day by 9. The Three Stooges and Soupy Sales wouldn’t come on until about 3. Soap operas, with their crescendoing organ accompaniment and long, meaningful looks, were a joke to me.

That left game shows: Allen Ludden hosting “Password.” Hugh Downs hosting “Concentration.” Art Fleming hosting “Jeopardy!” with Don Pardo as the off-screen announcer. Bill Cullen hosting “The Price is Right.” Gene Rayburn hosting “The Match Game,” in the innocent years before every question became a sexual double-entendre. Monty Hall hosting “Let’s Make a Deal,” with Carol Merrill massaging the air around the bedroom sets and convertible sofas they gave away as prizes.

Bob Barker hosted the strangest game show of the era, “Truth or Consequences.” Suave, Brylcreemed Bob would ask contestants an impossible question, and give them virtually no time to answer it. Then he would order them to participate in a humiliating stunt — cross-dressing was a typical theme, in an era when a man never wanted to be seen wearing an apron. But debonair Bob, he made it all seem okay. As a kid, I yearned to be that smooth.

Later, after I pretty much stopped watching game shows, Bob switched to “The Price is Right,” which is still on the air. (The only broadcaster to be on the air continually longer than Barker is the Dodgers’ Vin Scully.) Under Barker’s reign, “The Price is Right” became yet another show where Bob could be cool while the contestants embarassed themselves. A smart movie producer should have cast Bob Barker as the Marquis de Sade or Torquemada. Apparently, his act wasn’t universally admired, as he spent much of the 1990s battling lawsuits for sexual harassment and discrimination. However the litigation turned out, he is still on the air.

Barker turns 80 later this year. What prompted me to think about him was seeing the following video on YouTube; a clip from a recent episode of “The Price is Right” that, if you stay with it, will make you laugh. The title of the clip is “One of the Worst ‘The Price is Right’ Players in History.” So bad, that even the unflappable Barker has to take a seat.

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