Anyone who’s watched The Price Is Right for even thirty
seconds and has heard the announcer say “COME ON DOWN!”
knows the contestants are colorfully dressed and have wild
personalities that fill the television screen. The show makes it seem
like the contestants are randomly selected from the audience—but at
around 4:00 a.m., as I’d Googled “how to get on The Price Is Right,”
I discovered it was far from random. A producer interviews each
audience member and picks the wildest ones. If the producer likes
you, he puts your name on a list that’s given to an undercover
producer who observes you from afar. If the undercover producer
puts a checkmark by your name, you’re called on stage. It wasn’t
luck: there was a system.
The next morning, I swung open my closet and threw on my
brightest red shirt, a big puffy jacket, and neon-yellow sunglasses. I
pretty much looked like a chubby toucan. Perfect. After driving to the
CBS studio, I pulled into the parking lot and approached the check-in
table. Because I couldn’t tell who the undercover producer was, I
assumed it could be anyone. I hugged security guards, danced with
janitors, flirted with old ladies—I break-danced, and I don’t know
how to break-dance.
I got in line with the other audience members in a maze of railings
outside the studio doors. The line moved forward, until finally, it was
almost my turn to be interviewed. There’s my guy. I’d spent hours
researching him the night before. His name was Stan and he was the
producer in charge of casting contestants. I knew where he was from,
where he went to school—and that he relied on a clipboard, but it
was never in his hands. His assistant, who sat in a chair behind him,
held it. When Stan selected a contestant, he would turn to her, wink,
and she’d write the name down.
An usher motioned for ten of us to step forward. Stan stood ten
feet away, walking from one person to the next. “What’s your name?
Where are you from? What do you do?” There was a rhythm to his
moves. Officially, Stan was a producer; but in my eyes, he was the
bouncer. If I didn’t get my name on his clipboard, I wouldn’t get on
the show. And now the bouncer was right in front of me.
“Hey, my name’s Alex, I’m from LA and I’m a premed at USC!”
“Premed? You’re probably always studying. How do you have time
to watch The Price Is Right?”
“The…what? Oh! Is that where I am?”
He didn’t even give a pity laugh.
I needed to redeem myself. In one of the business books I’d read,
the author said that physical contact speeds up a relationship. I had
I had to touch Stan.
“Stan, Stan, come over here! I want to make a secret handshake
He rolled his eyes.
“Stan! Come on!”
He stepped forward and we slapped hands. “Dude, you’re doing it
all wrong,” I said. “How old are you?”
Stan chuckled and I showed him how to pound it and blow it up.
He laughed some more, wished me luck, and walked away. He didn’t
wink to his assistant. She didn’t write anything on the clipboard. Just
like that, it was over.
This was one of those moments when you see your dream in front
of you, you can almost touch it, and then just like that, it’s gone,
slipping through your fingers like sand. And the worst part is you
know you could’ve seized it if you just had another chance. I don’t
know what got into me, but I started shouting, at the top of my lungs.
The entire audience whipped their heads around.
“STAAAAAAAAAN! Come back!”
Stan ran over and nodded slowly, giving me that “all right, kid,
what now?” look.
I scanned him up and down: he was wearing a black turtleneck,
jeans, and a plain red scarf. I didn’t know what to say.
“Uh……uh……….. YOUR SCARF!”
He squinted. Now I really didn’t know what to say.
I took a big breath, looked at him with every bit of intensity I could
muster, and said, “STAN, I’M AN AVID SCARF COLLECTOR, I
HAVE 362 OF THEM IN MY DORM ROOM, AND I’M MISSING
THAT ONE! WHERE DID YOU GET IT?”
The tension shattered and Stan burst into laughter. It was as if he
knew what I was really doing, and he was laughing less at what I said
than why I said it.
“Oh, in that case, you can have my scarf!” he joked, taking it off
and offering it to me.
“No, no, no,” I said. “I just wanted to know where you got it!”
He flashed a smile and turned to his assistant. She scribbled
something on the clipboard.
I stood outside the studio doors and waited for them to open. A
young woman walked by and I noticed she was looking around,
staring at people’s nametags. A laminated badge peeked out of her
back pocket. She had to be the undercover producer.
Locking eyes with her, I made funny faces and blew her some
kisses. She started to laugh. Then I did the 1980s sprinkler dance
move and she laughed more. She looked at my nametag, slipped a
sheet of paper out of her pocket, and made a note.
I should’ve felt on top of the world, but that’s when I realized I’d
spent my all-nighter figuring out how to get on the show—I still
didn’t know how to play. I took out my phone and Googled “how to
play The Price Is Right.” Thirty seconds later, a security guard
snatched my phone from my hand.
I looked around and saw security was taking everyone’s phone
away. After passing through metal detectors, I plopped down on a
bench. Without my phone, I felt unarmed. An old, gray-haired
woman sitting beside me asked what was wrong.
“I know this sounds crazy,” I told her, “but I had this idea to come
here and win some money to fund my dream, but I’ve never seen a
full episode of the show before, and now they’ve taken my phone, so I
don’t have a way to figure out how the show works, and—”
“Oh, honey,” she said, pinching my cheek. “I’ve been watching this
show for forty years.”
I asked for advice.
“Sweetie, you remind me of my grandson.”
She leaned in and whispered, “Always underbid.” She explained
that if you overbid by even a dollar, you lose. If you underbid by
$10,000, you still have a chance. As she continued, I felt like I was
downloading decades of experience into my head. That’s when the
light bulb went off.
I thanked her, turned to the guy on my left, and said, “Hey, my
name is Alex, I’m eighteen, and I’ve never seen a full episode of the
show before. Do you have any advice?” Then I turned to another
person. Then to a group of people. I jumped throughout the crowd
and spoke to almost half the audience, crowdsourcing their wisdom.
The doors to the set finally swung open. I stepped in and the place
smelled like the 1970s. Turquoise and yellow drapes flowed down the
walls. Gold and green flashing light bulbs danced between them.
Psychedelic flowers were painted on the back wall. All that was
missing was a disco ball.
Theme music began to play and I took my seat. I stuffed my jacket
and yellow sunglasses under the chair. To hell with the toucan—it
was game time.
If there was ever a time to pray, it was now. I dropped my head,
closed my eyes, and put a hand over my face. Then I heard a deep,
rumbling voice from above. Every syllable was elongated. The voice
got louder and louder. But this wasn’t God. It was TV God.
“HERRRRE IT COMES, FROM THE BOB BARKER
STUDIO AT CBS IN HOLLYWOOD, IT’S THE PRICE IS
RIGHT!…AND NOWWWWW, HERE’S YOUR HOST, DREW
TV God called down the first four contestants. I wasn’t the first,
second, or third, but for the fourth, I felt it coming. I inched forward
in my chair, and…it wasn’t me.
The four contestants stood at flashing podiums. A woman wearing
mom jeans won the opening round. She advanced to a bonus round.
Four minutes into the show, a fifth contestant was called to fill Mom
Jeans’ vacant podium.
“ALEX BANAYAN, COME ON DOWN!”
I leapt out of my seat and the crowd exploded along with me. As I
flew down the stairs slapping high fives, it felt like the audience was
my extended family and all my cousins were in on the joke—they
knew I had no idea what I was doing and they were loving every
second of it. I got to my podium without a second to breathe and
Drew Carey said, “Next prize, please.”
“A CONTEMPORARY LEATHER CHAIR AND
“Go ahead, Alex.”
The audience laughed and the other contestants bid next. The
actual retail price: $1,661. The winner was a young woman who
jumped up and hollered. Nearly everyone who’s been to a bar on a
college campus has seen someone like her: the Woo Girl. She’s the
one slamming back tequila shots and shouting “WOOOOOOO!” after
Woo Girl played her bonus game and then it was time for the next
“A BILLIARDS TABLE!”
My cousins have a pool table. How expensive could it be?
“Eight hundred dollars!” I said.
The other contestants bid higher and higher. Drew revealed the
retail price: $1,100. The other contestants had all overbid.
“Alex!” Drew said. “Come on up here!”
I raced up to the stage. Drew glanced at the USC logo on my red
shirt. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “You go to USC? What do you
“Business administration,” I said without thought. It was half true:
I was also studying business administration. But why did I choose
not to mention premed when put on the spot on national television?
Perhaps I knew myself more deeply than I wanted to admit. But I
didn’t have time to notice, because TV God was already revealing the
prize for my bonus round.
“A NEW SPA!”
It was a hot tub with LED lights, a waterfall, and lounge seating for
six. For a college freshman, this was gold. How it would fit in my
dorm room? I had no idea.
I was shown eight prices. If I picked correctly, the hot tub was
mine. I guessed $4,912. The actual retail price…$9,878.
“Alex, at least you’ve got a pool table,” Drew said. He looked into
the camera. “Don’t go away. We’re going to spin the Wheel!”
The show cut to commercial break. Production assistants carted a
fifteen-foot wheel onto the stage, which looked like a giant slot
machine covered with glitter and flashing lights.
“Uh, excuse me,” I said, turning to one of the assistants. “Sorry,
quick question. Who spins the Wheel?”
“Who spins? You spin.”
He explained that the three of us who’d won opening rounds
would spin the Wheel. There were twenty numbers on it: every
multiple of five, up to one hundred. Whoever landed the highest
number would move on to the final round. If someone spun a perfect
one hundred, he or she would win an extra cash prize.
The theme music started and I ran to my position between Mom
Jeans and Woo Girl. Drew Carey stepped over and lifted his
Mom Jeans went first. She stepped forward, grabbed the Wheel,
and…TICK, TICK, TICK…eighty. The audience let out a cheer and
even I knew that was an unbelievable spin.
I inched forward, gripped the handle of the Wheel, and pulled
down…TICK, TICK, TICK, TICK…eighty-five! The crowd erupted and
the commotion was so loud it might as well have shaken the ceiling.
Woo Girl stepped forward, spun, and…fifty-five. I was about to
celebrate but I noticed the audience was quiet. Drew Carey was
giving her another chance to spin. I learned that this was like
blackjack. She could hit again, and if her numbers added up to a
higher total than mine, without going over one hundred, she would
win. She spun once more and…another fifty-five.
“Alex!” Drew exclaimed. “You’re on your way to the Showcase!
More Price Is Right is coming up.”
I was ushered to the side of the stage as a new batch of contestants
battled to determine who’d go against me in the final round. Twenty
minutes later, I found out. Her name was Tanisha and she had
demolished the competition as if she’d spent her whole life walking
through Costco studying price tags. She’d won a thousand-dollar
luggage set, a ten-thousand-dollar trip to Japan, and on the Wheel,
she’d spun a perfect one hundred. Going up against Tanisha felt like
David facing Goliath, except David forgot his slingshot.
During the commercial break before the final round, I realized I’d
never watched this far into the show. And on top of that, no one in
the audience had given me advice on this part because no one
thought I’d get this far.
Tanisha walked by. I reached out my arm to shake her hand.
“Good luck,” I said.
She looked me up and down. “Yeah, you’ll need it.”
She was right. I needed help fast, so I stepped over to Drew Carey
and threw my arms up. “Drew! I loved you on Whose Line Is It
Anyway!” I gave him a hug and he pulled back, giving me an
awkward one-armed pat.
“Drew, any way you could explain to me how the Show-Room
“First of all,” he said, “it’s the Showcase Showdown.”
He explained it in a way someone would talk to a kindergartner,
and before I knew it, the theme music started again. I dashed to my
podium. Six machine gun–sized cameras aimed at my face. Blinding
white lights shot down from above. To my left, Tanisha was dancing.
Shit, I still have to go to the library and study tonight. To my right,
Drew Carey stepped forward and adjusted his tie. Oh my God, Mom
is going to kill me. The music grew louder. I spotted the old lady
who’d pinched my cheek. Focus, Alex, focus.
“Welcome back!” Drew said. “I’m here with Alex and Tanisha.
Here we go! Good luck.”
“YOU’RE IN FOR A ROLLER-COASTER RIDE OF ACTION
AND ADVENTURE! FIRST UP, A TRIP TO MAGIC
MOUNTAIN IN CALIFORNIA!”
With all the stimulation, I didn’t hear the rest of the details. How
expensive could a theme park ticket be? Fifty bucks? What I hadn’t
heard was that it was a VIP package, with a limousine, front-of-theline
passes, and all meals included—for two.
For my second prize, all I heard was “Blah, blah, blah, a trip to
Florida!” I’d never purchased a plane ticket before. What is it? Like a
hundred bucks? No…a couple hundred? Again, I’d missed that it also
included a rental car and a five-night stay in a first-class hotel.
“PLUS, YOU’LL FLOAT WEIGHTLESSLY AT THE ZEROG
It sounded like a carnival ride. How much could that cost?
Another hundred? I later found out this is how NASA trains
astronauts. Fifteen minutes in zero gravity costs five thousand
“AND FINALLY…THERE’S ADVENTURE ON THE HIGH
SEAS, THANKS TO THIS STUNNING NEW SAILBOAT!”
The doors slid open, a supermodel waved her arms, and there it
was: a glowing, pearl white sailboat. When I finally calmed down and
looked closer, the boat seemed relatively small. Four, no, five
thousand dollars—tops? Once again, what I hadn’t heard was that it
was an eighteen-foot Catalina Mark II boat with a trailer and a cabin
“WIN THIS SHOWCASE AND THERE’LL NEVER BE A
DULL MOMENT WITH THE TRIP TO MAGIC MOUNTAIN,
THE VACATION IN FLORIDA, AND THE NEW SAILBOAT.
AND THEY’LL ALL BE YOURS IF THE PRICE IS RIGHT!”
The audience’s cheers echoed off the studio walls. The cameras
swung back and forth. As I tallied the total, one number came to
mind, and it just felt right. I leaned forward, grabbed the
microphone, and with all the confidence I could summon, said, “Six
thousand dollars, Drew!”
I stood there, for what felt like minutes, not understanding why
the audience had gone quiet. Then I realized Drew Carey hadn’t
locked in my answer. I turned to him and he had a baffled, almost
dumbfounded look on his face. I finally got the hint. I hunched my
shoulders, reached for the microphone, and sheepishly said, “Just…
The audience erupted into applause. Drew sprang back to life and
asked for my real answer. Well, that was my real answer. I looked at
the sailboat, then back to the audience. “Guys, you’ve got to help me
Their shouts blended into a roar.
“Alex, we need an answer,” Drew pressed.
The audience slowly began to chant one number over and over, but
I could barely make it out. I heard a th sound.
“Alex, we need an answer.”
I grabbed the mic. “Drew, I’m going with the audience on this one.
Thirty hundred dollars!”
Drew immediately said, “You know there’s a difference between
thirty hundred dollars and thirty thousand dollars, right?”
“Uh…of course I know that! I was just messing with you.” I
pretended to think out loud. “I’m feeling $20,000. Higher than
The audience shouted YESSSSS!
YESSSSS SSSSS S!
“How about $29,000?”
“All right,” I said, looking at Drew. “The audience is saying
$30,000, so I’m saying $30,000.”
Drew Carey locked in the price.
“Tanisha,” he said. “Here’s your Showcase. Good luck.”
She was in the zone. Tanisha kept dancing; I kept sweating.
“A NEW ATV, AN OFF-ROADING VACATION IN
ARIZONA, PLUS A BRAND-NEW TRUCK, AND IT’S ALL
YOURS IF THE PRICE IS RIGHT!”
She bid, and then it was time to reveal the prices.
“Tanisha, we’ll start with you,” Drew said. “A trip to Phoenix,
Arizona, and a 2011 Dodge Ram. You bid $28,999. Retail price…
$30,332. A difference of $1,333!”
Tanisha leapt back and shot her hands to the ceiling.
Okay, I thought, I still have twenty-four hours until my first final.
If I drive from the studio straight to the library, that gives me six
hours to study for bio, three hours for…
Drew revealed my retail price and the audience cheered louder
than they had all day. The producers motioned for me to smile. I
leaned over to check the number on the front of my podium.
I’d guessed $30,000. Retail price…$31,188.
I had beaten Tanisha by $145.
My face went from day-before-finals dread to just-won-the-lottery
hysterical. I leapt from my podium, high-fived Drew, hugged the
supermodels, and ran to the sailboat.
Drew Carey spun around and looked back into the camera.
“Thanks for watching The Price Is Right. Bye-bye!”