2017’s Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much is a documentary about a hero of sorts, a genial math whiz who over the course of three decades first mastered and then resoundingly beat the most iconic game show in television history…and who didn’t even get a prize for his efforts. And no, I’m not referring to Terry Kniess….
By Paul Mavis
In a documentary mood last night, and flipping the channels (“flipping”?), looking for something other than the ubiquitous true-crime offerings that crowd streaming services (if I see that creepy, blinking guy who pushed two wives down the stairs one more time…), I spotted Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much on Hulu’s line-up. Reading the synopsis, it brought back vague memories of the faux “cheating scandal” that rocked CBS’ The Price is Right in September, 2008, when a former weatherman named Terry Kniess somehow managed to win two showcases with an exact dollar-match bid.
That non-story (coming from a long line of chicken thieves and cattle rustlers, I always side with the cheaters) only registered with me because at the time, the media emphasis was on how new host Drew Carey had “botched” his subdued, head-down reaction to this milestone pop culture event. Growing up in the early 1970s, I was a big fan of the daytime version of The Price is Right, a never-fail go-to game show when I was home sick from school, or when I was bored out of my skull during summer vacation (…and that would be because you could see a Playboy-worthy model scampering around in a swimsuit on every single episode–a big deal back then in those chaste TV times).
As I got older—and since I wasn’t a housewife or an out-of-work bum—I didn’t have much opportunity (or desire, frankly) to watch The Price is Right. However, over the years and decades, it was somehow strangely reassuring, in that old-timey way that vintage network television used to endear itself to viewers, to see that the venerable game show would still keep showing up in the local TV guide, with handsome, smooth-talking, ever-so-faintly sinister Bob Barker coming back year-after-year to cheer on—or subtly put down—his frantic, spastic army of cheerfully greedy contestants (what in the world are they going to do with TPIR when the humorless millennial socialists take over?).
So, when Barker finally retired in 2007, and was succeeded with what has to be the most colossally bizarre replacement in game show history, The Price is Right permanently and irrevocably left my radar (“Can we get someone who isn’t witty, who doesn’t know the games, who is charmless when oafishly bantering with the contestants, and who visually reminds the audience of that shop teacher who tried to put his hands all over you in middle school?” “Um…Drew Carey’s show was finally canceled,” “Sign him up!”). When I read the stories about Carey blowing what sounded like the coolest moment in The Price is Right’s history, it didn’t surprise me one bit.
Apparently, I didn’t know the whole story (just to be clear: Carey still botched that moment, no matter what he assumed was going on). According to director/editor C.J.Wallis’ light, amusing, and even touching-at-times documentary, Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much, there was another man in that Carey/Kniess equation—and he was responsible for that exact-match bid: mathematician and “Loyal Friend and True” Theodore Slauson.
Using interview clips, including a central one with Slauson telling his version of the events, along with seemingly irrefutable video proof showing Slauson over the years helping The Price is Right contestants get perfect bids, Wallis briefly-yet-nimbly goes over Slauson’s background and introduction to the game, before detailing his exhaustive efforts to literally memorize all the prizes and their prices that were featured on TPIR, as well as Slauson’s subsequent visits to the show (37 in all), including his final, fateful appearance (in the audience) on September 22, 2008.
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What I enjoyed most about Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much, in addition to the behind-the-scenes detailing of how The Price is Right works (and how you used to be able to beat it), was its amused-but-respectful look at Ted Slauson and his fascination with TPIR. Not once does director Wallis suggest we should laugh at Ted, and rightly so. His 37 times in the audience (only once on stage, though, as a contestant) and his devotion to memorizing TPIR’s various games, and its thousands of prizes and their prices may appear obsessive…but then again, what devoted hobbyist doesn’t look that way to a non-believer (my obsession is even dumber than his: Rex Harrison’s Doctor Dolittle)?
It helps, too, that Slauson comes off as an agreeable, low-key smartass you wouldn’t mind talking to while waiting in a long line (a very profitable happenstance, it turned out, for the people that did just that in the TPIR line outside the studio). Slauson is a natural at telling his story, with a funny way around his deadpan deliveries that indicates he may be serious about his love of figuring out TPIR’s math…but that he doesn’t take any of this stuff too seriously (his repeated Flintstones Vitamins prompt to a contestant he helped—“$6.72, remember?”—aided by Wallis’ funny animation of the memory, was priceless). Even if there had been no faux-scandal involving Terry Kniess and the “perfect bid,” I would have been entertained listening to Slauson discuss his mathematical fascination with TPIR.
As for that “scandal,” Wallis doesn’t uncover a whole lot of new ground (Esquire magazine suggested a lot of this back in 2010, without drawing any conclusions), but he does emphatically agree with Slauson that Ted supplied Kniess with the winning bid. Wallis’ use of original unaired TPIR footage (I wish they would have explained how he got that) showing Kniess receiving info from Ted for his opening “Contestants Row” bid, as well as literally mouthing out that too-specific final bid that Kniess later claimed just came to him, should put to rest any doubts about who did what on September 22, 2008 on TPIR.
Faced with the flattering notion that an entire documentary was going to focus on him and his version of the events of that day, Slauson could have embellished the account, and said that Kniess took that final bid directly from him. Instead, Slauson states that he gave the exact bid to Kniess’ wife, Linda, who then directly gave it to Kniess, right before Slauson changed his mind and tried to round off the number to keep Kniess from going over. That kind of roundabout self-effacement—along with the obvious video evidence—convinces me that Kniess got his winning bid from Slauson (particularly damning is Kniess’ later accounts that he had the winning number just pop into his head…when you can clearly see him, like a dolt, silently sounding it out from his wife’s prompt in the audience—footage that was mysteriously cut from the final network broadcast).
And everyone associated with TPIR knew it at the time, too: that’s why they hustled audience member Ted out of the studio and banned him for life from the show. If you still have doubts, Drew Carey said about five years after the incident, referring to Kniess’ repeated, increasingly unconvincing stories about how he magically came up with that number, “I don’t care what the f*cking guy [Kniess] said. He got it from the guy [Ted] in the front row cause we have it on tape.” Case closed, Terry.
All of that is pretty fascinating in a mini-Zapruder film kind of way, but I wish Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much had done more to connect up with Ted all the interview stuff from Roger Dobkowitz, the long-time producer of TPIR who was canned after Drew Carey took over (gee…I wonder why?). While Dobkowitz’s tidbits about his career and how TPIR worked are amusing and entertaining, there needed to be more of a connection between Dobkowitz’s statements and what Ted was talking about, to justify all that crosscutting between the two of them. They couldn’t have been put in the same room to discuss what happened (or for that matter, former producer Kathy Greco, who initially believed Ted was in on a scam to bring down the show in a cheating scandal)? Bob Barker’s remembrances are slight here (I know he’s in his nineties…but he kept reminding me of Dan Akroyd in Nothing But Trouble). Wallis couldn’t directly question him about Ted? I smell lawsuit/interview cut-off warnings there for both TPIR veterans. Too bad.
Still… Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much becomes surprisingly effective and even resonant when you realize you’re listening to a guy, Ted Slauson, who was arguably the best in the world at what he did—even if it was something as small as “beating” The Price is Right. D*ckhead Drew Carey may sneeringly belittle Slauson by referring to him as “Rain Man” in his Kevin “Hey! Let Me Do an Impersonation of Someone More Talented and Famous Than Me!” Pollack interview, but Slauson shows the true artist matter-of-fact gratification of expressing his skills, regardless of recognition or remuneration. Of course the biggest irony of Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much is that Ted’s genius math skills were for naught when it came to his only appearance as a bona fide contestant on The Price is Right: he may have gotten to the Wheel, but pure (lack of) luck—not skill—doomed him to miss his possible glory.
What’s telling, though, is that Slauson’s a real fan of the show; he may have lost his one shot that day, but you can tell that an unasked-for autographed photo from “Barker Beauty” Holly Hallstrom at the very least made up for the disappointment. You clearly believe him when he states, “It’s just fun to watch people win,” when referencing all the money and prizes others won because of his unselfish help. Simply: he has that quiet satisfaction of knowing he’s the very best at something. Who thinks a pool table, or two cars, or a trip to Mexico—or fleeting, momentary fame—beats that?
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.