Game shows occupy a unique corner of the American brain. Who can't name Vanna White's chosen profession? Who can't place that immortal shout of "Survey says!"? Do the words "double jeopardy" actually invoke the law for anyone? Even if we haven't seen any game shows in years, we are quite familiar with their existence.
And no one is more familiar with the symbiotic relationship between America and its game shows than game shows themselves.
On a sunny Southern California Wednesday 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.
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. 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."
"We provide an opportunity for people to succeed based on their skills," he said. "We're a meritocracy. I like that."
Apparently so do we, Alex.
Tuesday: "The Price Is Right" (3 p.m., Los Angeles)
Joy and tension hang over "The Price Is Right" in the hours before a taping.
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.
And 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 gum-ball 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. 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.