Among game shows, “The Price is Right” reigns supreme.
The modern version of the show has aired for 46 years, making a sizable impression on pop culture in the process. Right now, you’ve probably got the theme music running through your head—or, if you’re having a bad day, the infamous “losing horns.”
You know that hosts Bob Barker and Drew Carey will always implore you to spay and neuter your pets, and that, if you’re completely lost, the safest bet is “$1.”
We wondered: What’s it like to actually walk on down and play the games on The Price is Right? Are the prizes as good as they look on TV? Most importantly, is Drew Carey harboring any deep, dark secrets?
To find out, we spoke with three former contestants—and learned a few surprising facts. For instance…
The casting process is different from other game shows.
Typical game shows carefully assess potential contestants, sometimes subjecting them to extensive interviews. At The Price is Right, the process is different; the show’s producers interview the entire audience.
“You stand in line forever,” says Jenny Hill, who appeared on The Price Is Right in 2009. “You’re there for hours and hours. The production team takes you in groups of 10-12 people at a time, asking really surface-level questions; what’s your favorite thing to watch on TV, what do you do for fun, things like that. That’s how they select contestants.”
Former contestant Cathy Herard says that in her case, producers moved through the entire line of audience members fairly quickly.
“[They’d say,] ‘Tell us about yourself,'” she tells Urbo. “I still mostly remember my reply, because I remember thinking how silly I probably sounded. … I pretty much told them that I’d been watching the show since I was a kid, and that I had just recently moved to California. Our apartment literally had no furniture, so winning some on the show would be awesome.”
Producers look for people with charisma and enthusiasm, but there’s no ideal contestant, per se. “I think they know that the fun of the show is the randomness,” Hill says.
With that said, there are a few ways to improve your chances.
“If you go to the studio in a large group, producers like that,” Hill says. “I’ve heard rumors that it’s a basic guarantee; if you’re in a group, someone from your group will get chosen.”
They’re looking for people with high energy, people who will come out of their shells and be excited.
Hill says she knew, without a doubt, that one of her coworkers would get the call. She was wrong.
“There was this one guy in our group that seriously looked like Drew Carey’s doppelganger, and he was also really active, really outgoing,” Hill says. “We thought for sure it’d be that guy.” Instead, Hill ended up getting the nod. Why?
“We were leaving the interview area as a group, and I did this little jump thing as we were leaving. I was so excited! At that moment, I made eye contact with [one of the producers], and I saw him jot something down.”
“I’m convinced that it was that little exchange that got me on the show,” she says. “They’re looking for people with high energy, people who will come out of their shells and be excited.”
Herard was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt during the pre-screening, which was apparently a problem. Producers told her she’d have a better chance of getting on air if she had a different shirt.
“We had a friend with us who happened to have an extra shirt that she let me borrow,” Herard says. The shirt in question was covered with glitter. “It wasn’t necessarily something I’d want in my wardrobe, but if wearing it increased my chances of being called down as a contestant—along with my lively personality—it was a fashion risk I was willing to take.”
When your name is called, it’s actually a surprise.
“You have no idea. You’re not told beforehand that you’re going to ‘come on down,'” Hill says. “It’s actually a surprise … I could not even fathom it.”
There’s nothing quite like hearing your name called—if you hear it at all.
“They explained to us that the first four contestants would not hear their names due to all the cheering that happens at the beginning of the show,” Herard says. “We were supposed to watch on stage for a woman holding huge cue cards with the names printed on them … Well, I saw my name, and I was so stunned I didn’t actually move.”
“On the show, there’s a pause after you hear my name because I was frozen while my husband nudged and pushed me. It was a truly surreal moment,” she says. “I kind of wish I had asked for that cue card as a souvenir.”
Okay, okay, we hear you. About those prizes…
Whe prizes are pretty much what you see on TV…when you can get them.
81-year-old Allison McKay became a minor viral sensation in 2015 when she spoke with The New York Times about her nightmarish experience with The Price is Right. While she’d won the Showcase portion of the show, she says she didn’t receive any of the promised prizes for over a year. Those prizes, by the way, included several Michael Kors handbags, furniture, a car, and a trip to South America.
“I called many, many times, and I never got any answers,” McKay tells Urbo. “I got referred to people who weren’t there anymore.”
Eventually, a columnist with The New York Times stepped in, ensuring that McKay received her prizes. Still, McKay says that she never received an apology—and some of the prizes weren’t so spectacular.
“[A representative of The Price is Right] said, ‘Well, we’re going to start sending you this stuff,’ and we got a big box in the mail,” she says. “We got these Michael Kors handbags … One was ripped down the side, and they all had gaffer’s tape on the bottom because they were used. They were the same five that were on the table [during the appearance]!”
“I asked my contact, ‘Did they send these from the prop department?’ But he did the best he could.”
McKay, an actress who has decades of television experience, says that she received a check from the show to make up for the damaged products. While the money didn’t sufficiently cover the total cost of the bags, she says, she’s not too offended by that part of her experience.
“We got a lot of laughs out of it,” she says. “It’s show business to me, and I’ve been in show business.”
The show was also unable to deliver the promised trip to South America, but they referred her to a travel agent who offered to set up a trip to anywhere in the world. She chose the Galapagos Islands and says that she enjoyed the experience. Nonetheless, she was annoyed at the runaround she’d received from the show’s production staff.
“There never was really an apology,” she says, “just a dumb ear—if that’s even an expression … But that’s life, and I’m alive, and still have two legs that still work! Well, they kind of hurt around the knees.”
Hill says that her experience was much smoother. She won several international trips, which came with a few caveats.”They had blackout dates, where you couldn’t travel during popular times,” she says. “[But] they definitely make good on everything they promise you. It was completely free. They even included an excursion in each trip—the only thing we had to pay for was our meals.”
Drew Carey actually is that nice of a guy.
Hill has been on several game shows, but she says that Carey stands out as a host. During commercial breaks, he’d entertain the audience or speak with the contestants.
“He’ll tell jokes and interact with the audience,” she says. “He was really warm and nice and funny. Just a very nice person—really lovely.”
Carey also constantly talks with the show’s producers, which is how Hill found out ahead of time that she’d won.
“After I bid, we went to a commercial,” she says. “Drew Carey went to talk to the producer: ‘Okay, so the girl in the yellow is going to be the winner.’ I had an inkling that it was going to be me—but you don’t really know until they say your name.”
You have to pay taxes on all of those prizes.
After the show ends, winning contestants have to sign a ton of paperwork. They can choose to accept or decline prizes, but when you decline a prize, you don’t get anything in return.
So, why would someone decline a free gift? The taxes can get pretty expensive. After a show airs, most contestants receive a “tax letter,” which explains their obligations.
Hill, who’d been tipped off about the tax obligations by other gameshow contestants, worked with a talented accountant to manage her tax debt. She’d won a refrigerator, several Sony PSP video game systems, and a showcase that included trips to Stockholm and the Dominican Republic. In total, she owed $1,200 in taxes.
“[My accountant and I] were able to get the taxes down,” she says. “However, they weren’t able to furnish the PSP systems, so they sent me a check in lieu of prizes. That ended up covering all of the taxes.”
McKay says that, while she had no problem paying her taxes, she initially paid in two states: California, where The Price is Right is filmed, and in Pennsylvania, her home state.
“I really don’t know if they ever give anything away,” she says. “The first thing they say is, ‘You have to pay the state income taxes on it before we give you anything.’ Well, I got my checkbook out, and I wrote a check for almost $3,000. You know, you see the young people who do this show, they have these dirty t-shirts, and some of them are barefoot, and I wonder how many of them [pay the money]?”
Cue the losing horns. According to The New York Times, no contestant in the show’s history has ever outwardly refused all prizes.
“I think the people that [complain] about the taxes—you know, you’re lucky enough to get up there and do it,” Hill says. “Just sell them! I sold the refrigerator I won. “It had two doors, like a refrigerator-freezer, but both sides were just refrigerated. I was living in a tiny apartment outside of Santa Monica, so I sold that [thing] on Craigslist for $200.”