Kyle Johnson
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Dispatches from Dream Car Week: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Wednesday’s The Price is Right

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Drew Carey Look Behind You

There is, I believe, a special place in hell reserved for someone who would willingly subject themselves to a live Jeff Foxworthy performance and then boast about it after the fact.

I have this revelation over breakfast—specifically, and with great pleasure, six eggs over easy, a small mountain of bacon, white toast with jam, a ham and egg sandwich with the egg also over easy, two sides of fried potatoes, a pot of very strong coffee, a glass of orange juice, two ginger beers, and two tall glasses of the white ale that the house has on draft from out of San Diego—in The Hart and The Hunter restaurant of the Palihotel on Melrose.

The accommodations are quite nice, if not a bit too kitsch for our respective needs or preferences. They’re also a bit on the pricier side, almost more than I would ever be willing to pay, so I’m also glad to not be paying for it out of pocket—these sorts of things are no way for a Red-Blooded American and Doctor of Journalism to spend his hard-earned dollar. Our employer has paid for a twin room, which looks out over a private courtyard and comes with a fully-stocked mini bar that we have already cleaned out four times over. We’re hoping that will be covered by some suit’s dollar as well, along with any significant damages we have or will inevitably cause to the room proper.

The restaurant is an open-floor layout, so despite having found myself one of the two small tables nestled in a corner, it feels like everyone else and their meals are pressing in on me like Blood-Starved Beasts signaling the one another their latest catch-and-kill. Nobody is looking at me, at least they are not looking at me when I look up from my papers to look at them, but I nonetheless feel like a drunken chimp trapped behind zoo-cage bars.

But even a zoo cage would at least provide the comfort of separation, and I have no such sense as I feel the hot, stinking breath of The Thing across the room slamming against my face like a fist as he speaks through his food to tell his accomplice—a wife or a sister or a classmate or a complete stranger or a crazed hitchhiker he picked up and delivered to the hotel—about the time he saw Jeff Foxworthy.

For him, I think, the Third Circle of Dante’s Hell would do. Appropriate in that he is likely both a glutton and—given his fondness for perhaps the Worst Brand of American Comedy, certainly not Divine in any sense—a glutton for punishment. There, he will writhe forever in the cold slush of eternally-overflowing ICEE machines, all Turd-Flavored.

He will be forever monitored by the three-headed beast Cerberus—now with the heads of Ron White, Larry the Cable Guy, and Bill Engvall, all endlessly h’yucking at one another and spewing obnoxious catchphrases. And after the mighty sentencing, he will lie forever still as the heads snarl at one another about ‘tater salad and getting-‘er-done and the presence of signs. A more perfect punishment has never been meted out to a bastard soul.

The fool doesn’t even realize how close to him that reality has crept. The tendrils of Inferno are rising up from out of the hexagonal tiles on the floor, whipping maddeningly against the air and latching onto chair legs, threatening to tip everything over at once and turn this whole damned place upside down. I don’t have the right shoes for this, at least not on me—the right pair is up in the room with, I assume, Gonzo’s bloating corpse, but there is nothing on this Earth or any other that could make me move from where I sit. Except, maybe, a refill on the coffee.

Am I damned as well? Almost certainly. Would mine be the Third Circle? The Fifth? The Eighth? Would I be given a thru-pass that grants me access to every layer from the False-Heaven Outer Layer of Purgatory to the four concentric ice zones of Treachery? Could I use my journalistic expertise to pen the story of Nimrod and Antaeus in the Ninth Ring? Are the names of the four rounds in Treachery available for lease? Certainly, I could recommend wholeheartedly that Ptolomea be now and forever known as Trumpea. That’s a message worth spending cash on, cold-hard.

A thumb in a shirt walks over with a telephone on a silver platter, tells me that it’s for me. I begin to comb the sandy strands of memory to figure out who might possibly be aware of my presence here, but my hand is already angrily grasping the receiver and my mouth is already gibbering at the thumb to get lost and my ear is already receiving the guttural voice of Yorba Linda from Studio 33 at CBS Television City.

“Mr. Duke, good morning.”

Is it morning? Why would I possibly be awake at such a hideous time of day?

“It’s my understanding that there was an incident yesterday,” she says, and I comb over the paper hurriedly, finding several Incidents of Importance but none that implicate me or my conspicuously-absent attorney directly. As if she reads my silent panic, she clarifies after a few beats, “with security. At the studio.”

I have leverage, I’m sure, so I tear right back into her. I tell her that you are right, damned right, there was an incident. Your goons manhandled me, tossed myself and my esteemed colleague out like bad bathwater for having the temerity to smoke. To smoke! Men and women have died fighting for lesser Freedoms, and here I am, a Doctor of Journalism for chrissakes, being heaved out of a taping of The Price is Right for having the gall to exercise my American Right to have a cigarette.

“Smoking is expressly forbidden in Studio 33 or in any of the studios in CBS Television City, Mr. Gonzo. Our intentions are only to protect the welfare of our audience-members and to provide good, wholesome family entertainment to millions of viewers around the country.”

It’s so rehearsed, so false, such jargon. Everything she says is a snatch of a script that she was made to swallow when she was conscripted into the service of The Great God Television. She is a Weasel in the truest sense—General Weasel, demanding adherence and giving nothing in the great fight against Evil but lip service.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Duke?”

Have I been speaking aloud this whole time? Oh, oh Christ, where is my attorney when I need the man?

“Your…attorney…is here, Mr. Duke. He’s been asleep on the sidewalk since yesterday afternoon. Whenever anyone went to remove him from the premises, he lashed out like some sort of wounded animal, so we just let him be until you came to collect him.”

“So then that means I’m invited back today?”

She sighs. “Yes. You’ll be restricted to the green room for today, but you are allowed in the building so long as you refrain from smoking, drinking, or engaging in any other activities prohibited on CBS premises or illegal in the state of California. If you…behave yourself…then you might be permitted to be among the audience tomorrow. Perhaps we can even find a way to put you on the show.”

“Good, then I will see you in one hour.” I slam the phone back into the cradle loud enough that the eyes of the room are back on me again. Had they ever not been?


What is this even

Meet Kristi. She is wearing a pink shirt that reads “YOU HAD ME AT…COME ON DOWN,” only her yellow nametag covers up the first verb, so it reads “YOU KRISTI ME…”

She is on stage with host Drew Carey, who guides her through the rules of their game. Kristi is tasked with correctly guessing whether the actual prices of a juicer, air humidifier, burrito maker, and a wine chiller are higher or lower than what is listed on the gaudy, loud board.

Bonus Game warped

Should she achieve, she will win a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where she will be shuttled into a car for a road trip down to Sonoma and Big Sur. The idea that anyone might possibly want to spend so much effort tunneling through the guts of this state is a mystery to me. Try though I have, my blood has never thinned enough for California to not reject me like a bad piercing from unwilling flesh.

But this isn’t all, Carey informs us all, informs me directly. Should Kristi guess correctly for all four items and then correctly guess the location of a bonus tag, she will win…a Mitsubishi Lancer.

This is Dream Car Week, a name that suggests fantastic automotive treasures being offered up to regular Joes and Jills and J’s for the taking, and I am facing down the reality that a contestant should be excited at the possibility of winning a Mitsubishi sedan. There is lunacy—frenzied, stark-raving lunacy—and then there is the cruel paradox of suggesting that this hunk of cheap junk before me is the stuff of dreams.

To be completely fair, I have seen Mitsubishis in sleep; they tear screaming through the undulating landscape of nightmares, eyes burning white hot and alive, seats as uncomfortable as any rock or gutter I have ever felt firsthand. They emerge from the blackest plumes of smoke, wrapped in shimmering insect scales and leaving trails of viscous red liquid in their wake. They tell me that they are beautiful and natural things, but I know better. I am not a fool, conscious or un.

Kristi correctly guesses the over or under of each item, winning the road trip. She does not, however, guess the location of the bonus tile, failing to win the Mitsubishi. All is well that ends well.

The first Showcase Showdown gets underway, and it dawns on me that I must have missed the first 20 minutes or so of the show to being patted down by the Musclescum at the door. Yorba Linda was there surveying the whole time, and when she was satisfied, she disappeared behind her door.

Because I was searched so vigorously, I was unable to bring in anything that would help stimulate my experience, leaving me at grave risk of losing what I spent the entire morning and evening before and evening before building up beneath me. The coffee here is weak, though, so its cutting power is thankfully minimal.

Sabrina, one of the earlier contestants, weakly spins the wheel and thanks everyone she has ever known as it limps along toward some numbered tile or other. Presented with the possibility of staying or spinning again, Sabrina takes half of a century to mull her options before deciding to roll the dice, miffing it by overshooting $1, and traipsing off toward infinity.

Kristi is back, but she overbids, allowing a shlubby guy named Christian to backdoor his way into the Showcase. It is my understanding that Christian would later win the Showcase despite grossly underestimating the price of his prize package by virtue of the other contestant slightly overshooting with her guess. This—a completely average man achieving great reward with no risk involved and despite being further away from the mark than someone else—is just one of the many twisted faces of The American Dream.

I doze off briefly, reorient myself, find that Sandra is playing The Race Game. She has 45 seconds to correctly match price tags to a set of designer handbags, an ASUS laptop with an external hard drive, an enormous refrigerator, and an ATV with two-wheel drive. In the time allotted, she goes from guessing one price correctly to guessing two prices correctly to guessing zero prices correctly, running around confusedly like a bisected chicken or a reality television host attempting to lead a country. Another facet of Many-Headed Monster that has become The American Dream.

Before throwing to another commercial, Carey formally apologizes for the lack of dream cars. He swears that they’re coming. I am now holding him directly responsible if another bastard Mitsubishi shows up on this stage.

Another game is played. It’s simplistic; binary. Teresa must guess if a vacation to St. Marten costs $9,978 or $7,899. She wins in as much time as it takes me to lift my smokes from out of my pocket. Flip a coin and win a prize.

I am here for dream cars. I am here only for dream cars. I can practically hear the scorn in Drew Carey’s voice, aimed at himself or his producers or at some unknowable force driving the whole thing off the rails, when he throws to another commercial and informs the audience and everyone on the Planet Earth in front of God Himself that has been up to this point and henceforth remains Dream Car Week.

Our final contestant for the day is another Theresa, this time with an H, who lo and behold has the opportunity to win something at least approximate to the idea of a Dream Car: a 2017 Cadillac Escalade, Big and Bad and Beastly Black, powered by a 420-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission. According to our announcer, this gargantuan is equipped with the accoutrements of the Luxury trim, which adds enormous 22-inch dual seven-spoke premium painted wheels with chrome inserts and a whole heap of safety features like Rear Cross-Traffic Alert and Lane Keep Assist. With the size of this boat, you’d probably need all the help you can get.

The game is a sick exercise in taunting the viewer. There is the idea that our presenting model is a lunatic who operates a dealership that sells cars at rock-bottom prices. Incorrect guesses as to the price of the Escalade, which turns out to be somewhere around $79,000 at retail, jack the price up from a quarter to $1.50. Despite the obscenely low price, Theresa’s bad draws leave her well short of the necessary total to win the Escalade, sending her off to the second Showcase Showdown empty-handed with the somber notes of a mocking horn.

I open up my phone—surprised still that the Pigs didn’t ask me to open it up for them so that they could run through my contacts or check my browsing history—to tap into the pulse of the nation and its interest in the ongoing spectacle that is The Price is Right’s Dream Car Week. A search on Twitter for #DreamCarWeek nets me two tweets—one insubstantial direct response to @PriceIsRight and another criticizing Sandra’s performance in The Race Game (that this critique is levied by a fan of the Blue Jays, a baseball team that has done the sum total of nothing in the last quarter-century, is not lost on me).

A search for “Price is Right” offers some livelier conversation, including a few people noting the distinct lack of Dream Cars during Dream Car week of all things. But the prevailing sentiment at the moment seems to be people upset with the idea that a news bit is interrupting the feed. Something to do with the Orange Gibbon, no doubt flinging his own excrement all over some place or person or document. On the television before me, however, Teresa without the H thanks 100,000 different people while the wheel spins, covering everyone from the U.S. Marines to the Dallas Cowboys.

At this exact moment, when I begin to wonder why I am here in a cage and not out there taking the fight directly to these Monsters, the long-lost-and-presumed-dead Gonzo bursts in, sweating and stinking and swearing. He’s not making sense, and there are parts of his face that appear to have changed color and rearranged completely.

It’s like he’s being chased. Hunted. Pursued by something Savage and Strange that wants to rend the flesh from his bones. And then I remember Yorba Linda’s words, suddenly several shades more ominous, about finding some way to get me on the show tomorrow.

Deep Dream Void

He doesn’t have to say anything else, which is fortunate because I can barely understand a thing he’s saying in the first place. I know exactly what we have to do. I grab my belongings and rush out the door, fleeing from that studio, hopping into the Eldorado and making good our flight from CBS Television City.

Somewhere out there beneath the desert, perhaps in Nevada or perhaps in the Inner Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell where the blasphemers dwell on burning sand, lies the weakly-beating heart of the American Dream, badly battered but unbowed and unbroken by the promises left unfulfilled by the unfulfilling third day of The Price is Right’s Dream Car Week. Whether this will be my last Dispatch from Dream Car Week, I cannot say. But I can feel the steady rhythm of its pulse beyond the horizon, and I intend to find it.