Bob Barker Has Died, Fittingly, with a 99 at the End

Gentlemanly game show host was the last of a dying breed

Bob Barker has died at 99. He was an exceptionally decent man, a consummate Hollywood professional, funny and smart, universally liked, and immaculately groomed. He was also my friend.

I have been obsessed with The Price Is Right since it debuted when I was about 5. If I was home from school with chickenpox or whatever, my mother would wheel the black and white TV into my bedroom on a little tray. There, amid the Plinko and Cliff Hangers games, I learned a ton about math and pricing, but much deeper lessons about human psychology that served me well in financial journalism and in personal investing.

Jeopardy undoubtedly has higher IQ contestants, and Wheel of Fortune much flashier prizes. But no show in history reveals more about how real people think about money, and the illogical, sometimes funny ways they reveal themselves to practice all the classics of behavioral finance—sunk-cost fallacy, confirmation bias, loss aversion, and more.

I would sometimes muse about these lessons in my column, Green, which I wrote for Esquire magazine. And I would credit Barker for his uncanny ability to see people make ridiculous guesses—like in Contestants’ Row, where somebody would guess that a watch was $890 right after someone else had guessed $895. How could Bob not sneer at these ignoramuses who had given themselves only a five-dollar window?

I eventually learned that it was because he genuinely liked people and appreciated how nervous and human the contestants were when they finally made it onto his stage after years of watching on television.

Barker read one of my mentions of him in Esquire, and sent me a handwritten note, all class all the way. We spoke on the phone and he asked me for a donation to his DJ&T Foundation. Would I like to come to the studio and see the game filmed the next time I was in LA? Would I? My wife and best friend and I showed up at the CBS studio in January, 1998, after we watched the Broncos beat the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.

Kevin Sanders, Ken Kurson, Rebecca Kurson visit The Price Is Right, Jan 1998.

Bob greeted us like visiting dignitaries. He had our names beautifully printed on those corny price tags, and then he showed us all the games, each of which was about half the size that I pictured after decades of watching the show. The giant wheel the contestants spin is some sort of optical illusion because it was about my height, even though the contestants look like they’re standing next to a Ferris Wheel.

I joked to Bob that if he wanted to arrange for me to be a contestant on the show, I would never betray the secret of us knowing each other. The model of propriety, Barker said he would never think of doing that — he had been around during the quiz show scandals of the 50s and prided himself on his show’s integrity. But then, when we sat down and the show began, Rod Roddy called out the first three contestants and then said, “and Rebecca Kurson come on down.” Me and Kevin and Becky all had our eyes pop out of our head until Roddy said to the audience he was just kidding, and then announced the real fourth contestant.

When Bob retired from The Price Is Right in 2007, after 35 years, I wrote a nice sendoff for the Los Angeles Times. Again, a gentleman from a different era, Bob sent me a lovely note thanking me for it.

I remember doing Neil Conan’s national call-in show Talk of the Nation on NPR to discuss my LA Times piece, and Bob told me he heard that too. A lifelong passionate animal rights activist who integrated his beliefs into his goodbye message at the end of every TPIR episode, Barker remembered that I was a vegetarian and asked me if I was keeping it up. Small talk. How quaint.

Nice note from Bob Barker, years after handwritten notes were a thing. (Courtesy the author)

Years later, I dated a woman who was a producer for the Game Show Network. That is the greatest job one could ever have, obviously. I peppered her with questions about how and why game shows worked and failed, and she explained that the British were generally much better than Americans at conceiving these shows and understanding how waiting to hear the answers was a huge part of the magic. She wasn’t surprised at all when British import Who Wants to be a Millionaire became such a sensation in America. It’s very much like the scene in the movie Quiz Show — watching the person struggle to think of the answer is a huge part of the joy, as opposed to Jeopardy, where 61 questions are fired at the contestants in just 22 minutes.

Barker understood that. He really valued the rhythm and pace of the show and would personally intervene with games to make sure they weren’t too frenetic.

Barker’s successor on The Price Is Right, Drew Carey, has proven worthy of the show’s weird thin microphone. As I contemplate Barker’s long and well-lived life, it occurs to me there’s a reason Drew Carey so effortlessly slid into that role — compared to the massive miscues of other game show host transitions, such as the drama in replacing Alex Trebek, the failure of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s version of Celebrity Apprentice, and what I predict will be the difficulty of finding a substitute for Pat Sajak. Drew Carey is a very different performer— a standup comic who starred in his own sitcom versus a quintessential stay out of the limelight host. But what makes Drew a success is not just his talent as a performer, which is undeniable. It’s that for as corny and old-fashioned as Barker and the whole idea of The Price Is Right could be—and really, the whole premise of the show is that women do the shopping for the family — is that Drew respects old ways, and old customs, and old people. Including Bob Barker.

We say goodbye to a fellow who represents a dying breed. A dead breed, really. A guy who probably wore his suit jacket to the breakfast table. A guy who probably slept on a neck pillow designed not to mess his hair. Barker was aware of how anachronistic his style had become by the end of his run. That’s why his classic scenes in Happy Gilmore work so well — he represented an era when a gentleman wore a pressed Bill Blass suit, so his fisticuffs with a ruffian like Adam Sandler’s hockey-golf hybrid were funny. He got it. But the fact that he didn’t ever try to be cooler than he was made him much cooler than anything else could have.

Goodbye to Bob Barker and to the Village Green and to a time when Ore-Ida potatoes cost $.69 at the market.

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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