Drew Carey is not out to reinvent the big wheel, though he is having fun tinkering with it. With an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude, the 49-year-old funny guy assumes Bob Barker's hosting duties at The Price Is Right next week, when fresh episodes of CBS' long-running game show begin.
On this particular afternoon, Carey is biding time in Barker's old dressing room before a taping. There will be about 30 shows in the can before Monday's premiere, a day Barker is dreading because, he kids, "My reruns end, and I'll be another old man out of work with no income."
Finishing touches are being made on a brand-new dressing room that will be Carey's alone. (Barker shared his with The Young and the Restless actresses and political talk-show host Bill Maher.)
There also are changes to the set, though it would take a most loyal viewer to identify them: a slightly altered color scheme, pastel curtains, a recarpeted turntable. Only the imposing Showcase Showdown wheel has been spared any retouching.
Carey isn't wearing his signature black specs, and though he appears more youthful without them, he slips them on as soon as he is called to the stage. He had Lasik eye surgery years ago but says he still needs bifocals to read product prices: "It really does get blurry."
The power of Drew
There was no blurriness in the eyes of executive producer Syd Vinnedge when it came time to find Barker's successor. "Drew is someone we had on our list for a long time, and we kept getting no's: He just wasn't interested," Vinnedge says. But after Carey proved a hit on CBS' prime-time game show Power of 10, the network pursued him more aggressively.
Without auditioning, Carey beat out such other hopefuls as Mario Lopez ("We realized this kid was a matinee idol and wouldn't stay," Vinnedge says); George Hamilton, perhaps too close to Barker; and Rosie O'Donnell, who insisted the Los Angeles-based show move to New York. "She would have done a really good job," Vinnedge says, "but I don't think it's easy to move this show."
Carey has had no choice but to commute between Hollywood and New York, where Power of 10 shoots. "I've learned to take earlier flights because the earlier flights don't get delayed," he says with a sigh. "I've had a three-hour delay and five-hour delay …"
The demanding flight schedule has left Carey battling a head cold, and he's chugging his second dose of TheraFlu. The flight headaches also might explain a playful outburst directed at one audience member who reveals herself as an employee at one of the offending airlines. "Where's my luggage, mother (expletive)?" Carey screams.
While the audience laughs, some crewmembers seem mortified to hear the f-bomb on Barker's squeaky-clean stage.
"Oh, no," Barker responds upon hearing of the incident. "I don't think I'll comment on that."
The edgy Carey emerges mostly during commercial breaks, and TV viewers will likely never see them. But some believe the change in tone will seep through. UCLA student Josephine Oldan, 18, who was called to "come on down" and ended up winning trips to Canada and Mexico, says Carey "was hilarious. When Bob was there, it was more traditional. It seems like the spirit of the show is lighter now and more fun."
Carey can be flirtatious, and sometimes naughty, with his audience.
Carey tells one attractive young woman "Your boyfriend must be the happiest guy" after she reveals her occupation: portraying Disney princesses with costumes she gets to take home.
When another young woman offers to take Carey with her on a trip to Montreal, he kids, "Now, why would I want to go to Montreal with a freshman in college?"
And when one of the prize models, Lanisha Cole, walks by wearing pigtails and denim cutoffs, Carey looks up at her and says with a smile, "Nice outfit."
"Why, thanks," Cole answers with a giggle.
"Get out of my head!" he shouts back with a wicked chuckle.
No longer Barker's Beauties, what will be these lovely ladies now be called?
Suggestions arrive every day in the form of female fans in self-designed T-shirts: "Drew's Dolls" and "Carey's Cuties" being the most popular. But Carey wants none of this. He believes the cutesy model monikers have grown "a little old-fashioned."
"If they wish to discontinue that, that's fine, because they're not Barker's Beauties anymore," Barker concedes with a touch of sadness, even though some of them have brought sexual-harassment lawsuits against him and the show. (Barker had no comment on allegations of unfair treatment and racial discrimination on the show that surfaced last week in a lawsuit by a former employee.)
Asked what the models will be called, Carey answers matter-of-factly: "By their names. I'd love for people to (recognize) Gwendolyn (Osborne) or Brandi (Sherwood). I'd hope they could use this as a springboard to get famous for other things."
"He really is very respectful of them," Vinnedge says. "As far as I've noticed over the past months, Drew's not a playboy. He's not a drinker, not a carouser."
Carey, in fact, has a live-in girlfriend who often visits the show but whom he'd rather not name. "He's very affectionate toward her," reports Vinnedge, who has had the couple over for dinner.
The father of a 17-year-old son, Vinnedge believes he has found in Carey someone with universal appeal who will not alienate older viewers and will strike a chord with the college set.
"Bob is a meticulous guy who minded his p's and q's," Vinnedge notes. "Drew's much more contemporary. And (while) Bob graduated from college summa cum laude, Drew got kicked out of college not once, but twice."
Of his days at Ohio's Kent State, Carey likes to tell his audience, "0.5 was my first grade-point average."
Even so, Vinnedge signed Carey to a five-year contract, and the new host says he can easily see himself at Price for at least 10 years, if not the 35 clocked in by Barker.
Barker, 83, gave Carey his blessing over dinner at the popular old-time Hollywood hangout Musso & Frank Grill.
How did it go? Barker reports, "The food was relatively good. I had the Caesar salad with no anchovies, and Drew had a bowl of soup and a club sandwich but didn't finish his sandwich."
Careful with the 'old' jokes
Barker, who says he's weighing a book deal, will most certainly tune into Carey's premiere week, with his loyal dog Jessie at his side.
As a tribute to Barker, Carey is keeping the animal-rights activist's signoff, advising viewers to get their pets spayed or neutered. The studio is identified at the top of each show as The Bob Barker Studio. "And we still have Barker's Bargain Bin," Carey says of one popular game. "His name's all over."
No more so than in the minds of the audience, which boos Carey just once, when he ties Barker into a quip about "old people."
"What was that all about?" Carey later asks. "I can't say 'old'? Why is that bad all of a sudden? Geez. Whatever … "
But Barker gets it. While joking that he believes a lot of his fans will "go into rest homes" now that he's off the air, he says the show deliberately nurtured seniors, even though networks usually demand "contestants between 20 and 40 who are physically attractive. Everybody identifies with this show. When you turn it on, you see people just like yourself -- whether you're tall, short, fat, thin, old, young. Whether you're from New York City or a farm in the West."
Vinnedge and Barker scoff at one rumor that had Barker demanding $1 million to appear in Carey's first show to hand off his microphone to his successor. "They didn't even ask me to come," clarifies Barker, who does not feel slighted in the least.
Bob "already said his goodbye and went out on a really high note," Carey says. "Anything else would be a downer after that. You can't go home again."
Every so often, Carey can't disguise how absurd he sometimes finds the Wonderland-like world in which he has landed. When one of the models unveils a humidifier in the shape of an "adorable pig" (according to announcer Rich Fields), Carey chuckles and says, "Just what everyone needs."
He also pokes fun at the unusual pairings of prizes -- like sleeping pills and a new sofa, or video games and V-8 juice. Conventions that long ago became routine with Barker suddenly seem bizarre all over again.
"Birdseed, laxative, arthritis cream … " Carey lists. "Under the right circumstances it could all work out."
Carey has some changes of his own in mind. He has invited his former Drew Carey Show foil, Kathy Kinney, to reprise her colorful Mimi character as a one-day addition to the rotating roster of Price models. He also hopes to bring on CBS prime-time stars like Two and a Half Men's Charlie Sheen and invite the USA Women's National Soccer team to appear in a soccer-themed Showcase Showdown before the Olympics.
But perhaps the biggest undertaking will be Carey's plan to take The Price Is Right on the road, a move that stunned Barker.
Carey recalls Barker telling him: "You're going to what? Well, good luck."
Barker took the show on the road only once, to Las Vegas, and likens the "enormous undertaking" to the Normandy invasion. "Everything is more difficult."
Vinnedge is conceptualizing a new soccer-themed game for sports enthusiast Carey to join the 70 or so classic Price games, of which Carey has so far mastered 30. "They're all kind of the same," shrugs Carey, who sometimes comes in on weekends to practice. "Punch a Buck is like Plinko, but instead of punching a thing, you get to drop down a chip.
"It's prize after prize after prize," he says, beaming. "Power of 10 can be edgy and political, where here, it's all fun, fun, fun!"