Critic’s Appreciation: Bob Barker Was the Patron Saint of Sick Days

Bob Barker, who died today at 99, was the Patron Saint of Sick Days.

To hear Barker’s name is to be immediately transported.

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Maybe you aren’t taken any further than the boxy TV in your living room — the one that was normally off-limits during daytime hours, but which became an inanimate physician and endlessly enabling babysitter whenever your body’s temperature hit 100.

For me, Bob Barker’s name is the magical wardrobe that takes me to every student lounge at every college my parents ever taught at, where I would take a frayed, foamy chair that was normally reserved for undergrads and park myself for hours waiting for my fever to break. Students would peek in, see that a plausibly ill kid was monopolizing the TV, complain that this was the time they normally watched their favorite soap operas and leave. Unless what was on was The Price Is Right, in which case they’d take a seat in a different part of the lounge, far away in case I happened not to be faking, and watch for a segment or two.

It’s idiomatically common to call chicken soup “Jewish penicillin” and I don’t know if Barker and The Price Is Right claimed any such magical curative properties — but I do know that nothing approved by the FDA has ever made time pass under less-than-ideal circumstances (see also, “The Waiting Room at Your Mechanic”) more quickly than Bob Barker and The Price Is Right.

I was not a sickly child, so I think Barker and the show’s ubiquity extended to teacher in-service days, random lesser holidays and the occasional inconveniently-timed school vacation. Bob Barker and The Price Is Right were, it seemed, always there or always coming up next, if you just waited through a local morning news show. At this moment, I couldn’t tell you how long episodes of The Price Is Right actually are/were. An hour? 30 minutes? “All darned morning long”? There’s a reason why, when I was very young, at commercial breaks in weekend cartoons, I would wake my parents by standing at the base of the stairs and yelling, “Nona Fienberg [that’s my mom], come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price Is Right.” Annoying? Adorable? Who’s to say?

This is my deep and personal connection to Bob Barker and The Price Is Right, and nearly everybody whose age stretches across four or five decades can provide their own similar connection.

To understand Barker’s greatness, you must understand this: People were and still are fundamentally bad at The Price Is Right.

In a typical episode, at least half the contestants won’t understand the fundamentals of the One Bid game that starts each cycle of the show, plus — and this is the bedrock of the entire show — people don’t actually, as a rule, know how much anything costs. And that’s before you get to the show’s myriad individual competitions that range from “legitimately challenging” to “glorified exercises in gravity.”

You could say that, as the man tasked with explaining those games thousands upon thousands of times, Barker deserved some responsibility or even blame for any confusion. But that would be ignoring the other fundamental principle of The Price Is Right: ANYBODY could and can play. This is not and never has been American Ninja Warrior or Jeopardy. A 90-year-old grandmother from Topeka and a 21-year-old frat boy from Arizona State approach The Price Is Right with equal certainty of success and with equal comprehension of the strategy, or lack thereof, of Plinko or Hi Lo.

What Barker brought to The Price Is Right was, in many ways, similar to one of Alex Trebek’s great gifts on Jeopardy — namely a martyr’s patience, but not infinite patience. Barker could smile tolerantly at the contestant who earnestly believed that a box of Rice-A-Roni might cost 17 dollars or cheerfully ask that 90-year-old grandmother from Topeka what she would do if she actually won a jet-ski. He could calmly coach that hyperactive Arizona State sophomore not to get overly aggressive with the flimsy-looking game console that appeared to be constructed from plywood, glue and advertiser confidence.

But then he could snap, or at least theatrically run out of patience with a scofflaw or dunderhead who just refused to get the concept. He was never cruel. Well, maybe if you consider certain things you could say to people in 1983 that you wouldn’t say today, he could be a little cruel, but cruel in a wry, avuncular way that made his exasperation aspirational.

The primal desire — I believe Freud wrote multiple essays on the subject — to get encouraged by Bob Barker, to get chided by Bob Barker, to get eviscerated by Bob Barker is at the heart of his legendary cameo in Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore. You could watch The Price Is Right and be convinced that beyond the catch phrases and the perhaps-too-handsy on-camera affection (as much or more from his fans as from him), there was a polished sadism lurking underneath Barker’s professional personality and that it would be really fun to be there if it ever bubbled to the surface.

Let’s just say that Bob Barker was the Patron Saint of Sick Days, but also the Patron Saint of “Sick” Days; to watch The Price Is Right was to be sure that he knew if you were really sick or if you were faking it, just as surely as he knew which competitors were wildly overestimating the value of a showcase containing prizes that might come in handy on your one-week vacation in CINCINNATI!

See, when we were growing up — oy, I’m about to feel old here — and it became necessary to while away a day with insufficient activity and insufficient supervision, we didn’t have tablets and streaming services that let us watch whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. We took what the television gods gave us and, thank heavens, from 1972 to 2007, for 6,586 episodes, what the television gods gave us was Bob Barker and The Price Is Right.

Spay or neuter your pets, kids.

Spay or neuter your pets.

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