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.
Whoever is called 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 comes on down.
During commercial breaks, "The Price Is Right" keeps the party going with Carey's jokes and boogie music from the speakers above. At one break, the show cranks up "Let's Groove," by Earth Wind & Fire, then turns it down for Carey to do some shtick. Sensing that everyone just wants to dance, he instructs the hidden powers to turn the music back on. Sure enough, everyone stands and gets their groove on once more.
We would see contestants win two cars, a home gym and vacations to Cancun and Colorado. One woman who joined Carey onstage was so overwhelmed that she cried — and this was before she even played her game. Cameras whipped around, and the models were forever fixing their hair and moving into place beside that new car. Ninety-five percent of the room wasn't summoned to be on the show, but no one much minded. We were at "The Price Is Right."
Wednesday: "Jeopardy!" (11 a.m., Culver City)
The "Price Is Right" spends hours herding its guests around the exterior of the CBS studio, but "Jeopardy!" ushers us into history.
"You are literally on the yellow brick road," our guide says as we walk in two tight lines, passing tall warehouses with massive sliding doors — "elephant doors" they're called — while staying clear of golf carts jammed with tools and wardrobe.
He explained: "The Wizard of Oz" was filmed at Sony Pictures Studios back when it was called MGM Studios. The yellow brick road was painted on the lot where we walked. This time, however, we were headed for a wizard named Trebek.
Whereas "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. It makes me realize I probably would be crushed as a contestant.
Six minutes later we take a commercial break. There is no Earth, Wind & Fire and no dancing, just the stately Trebek. He asks how many of us are from out of state. Ninety percent of the audience raises their hands. Then he takes questions: "What book most influenced you?" ("The Moonstone," by Wilkie Collins.) "Will you regrow your mustache?" (It must be a common query, because a stagehand slips him a fake mustache to wear for the answer.) "Do you watch the show at home?" (Not until recently; now that he's in his mid-70s, he occasionally tunes in to be sure he's not "losing it.") Trebek also is remarkably confessional, saying he has had nearly 20 surgeries for various ailments and that "a glass of wine relaxes me and gets my mind off the pain."
Three tapings and many more 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, after five years of preparing to be on "Jeopardy!" he was finished in 40 minutes.
"It is incredibly intimidating," he says. "I did theater in high school, and it didn't prepare me for the razzmatazz at all. Being that close to Alex Trebek after watching 'Jeopardy!' for 20 years — wow!"
Thursday: "Wheel of Fortune" (3 p.m., Culver City)
"Isn't she pretty?" Tasha Cook, 17, asks as we pass a cutout of Vanna White on our way into the studio.
"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.
The 160-seat studio also features a bit of "The Wizard of Oz" trivia — the tornado scene was filmed here. But more remarkable is what sits in the studio today: that clacking, spinning wheel and emerald board. As we take our seats, contestants are already at the 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). Beside me sits a man from Oregon who is in the midst of fulfilling his gray-haired mother's dream. "She has been watching this show for over 30 years, every single night," he whispers to me. "She's excited."
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.
Like at "Jeopardy!" we watch three tapings, which is a lot of spins of that big wheel. It also is a lot of puzzles featuring the same categories familiar to anyone who has seen an episode or two: "Fun and Games," "Before and After" and "Movie Titles." (I'd laugh at the woman who tries solving a movie title as "Amuse House," but if sitting in three game show audiences has taught me anything, it's that I'm not sure I'd fare much better.)
I met someone at the "Jeopardy!" taping who described the experience as "cheesy-awesome." If true, then watching "Wheel of Fortune" unfold is cheesier-awesome. 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! Also inevitable is that the person sitting next to you will whisper an answer in your ear with great satisfaction even though 95 percent of the letters have been revealed and the answer is clear to us all.
Between shows, I chat with those high school girls from Toronto. They also had been at the previous day's "Jeopardy!" taping. Though they watch "Jeopardy!" at home, they found the taping a bit slow. They prefer the incessant applause and energy of "Wheel."
"In that case," I say, "you really should have been at 'The Price Is Right' a couple days ago."
The remarkable thing about a game show taping is how quaint it all seems. The years of history, the massive viewership, the synergy with the American consciousness — none of that seems possible in a studio of fewer than 300 people. But occasionally there's a reminder.
Like when a woman takes the unusual step of solving a "Wheel" puzzle despite the fact she has earned no money that round; enough letters have been revealed to make the answer clear, and she doesn't want someone else to solve it.
"You don't have to justify it to me," Sajak tells her. "Just America."
After so many decades in your living room, the game shows never forget: America is watching.
"The Price Is Right" tapes 95 days a year. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/pricetickets or by calling 855-447-7423. Note that with a "priority" ticket, admission is guaranteed. A "general" ticket is worth a voucher for first-come, first-served admission. The show recommends arriving at least 30 minutes before the entry time on the ticket to guarantee admission.
"Jeopardy!" tapes 10 shows approximately every other week from July into April. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/jeopardytickets.
"Wheel of Fortune" tapes 12 shows every other week from July through March. Each taping includes three shows. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/wheeltickets.