Pat Sajak’s Last ‘Wheel of Fortune’

A four decade run is coming to an end today.

CNN (“Pat Sajak is leaving, but ‘Wheel of Fortune’ should just keep R_LLING AL_NG“):

Pat Sajak will host “Wheel of Fortune” for the final time on June 7, ending a run of more than 40 years and 8,000 episodes. Yet unlike its companion “Jeopardy!,” which went through a long process replacing the late Alex Trebek, “Wheel” figures to keep rolling along without much of a hitch, a sign of how the two long-running game shows differ.

Both programs were created by Merv Griffin, who became fabulously wealthy thanks to their command of the hour leading into prime time on TV stations across the country. They thrived, however, for fundamentally different reasons, as anybody who ever watched “Wheel” with an elderly grandparent can probably attest.

“Jeopardy!” was the smart show, the one where viewers might be able to answer some of the questions, but probably not as well as the winning contestants. Trebek captured that with a sly wit and suave demeanor, creating the impression that he knew all the answers – or rather, questions – even if that wasn’t necessarily so.

“Wheel,” by contrast, caught on because of its simplicity, and like a lot of TV game shows, the rather smug sense of superiority the audience could hold toward many of the players. “Seriously, you couldn’t solve the puzzle with only three letters missing, all of them vowels? You deserve not to win that money!”

Sajak reinforced that by hosting the show with what felt like an arched eyebrow, while engaging in interactions with contestants that were frequently playful, if occasionally, particularly in recent years, a trifle odd. The mini-controversies included moments where he crankily snapped at players, and in 2023, awkwardly tried to put one in a headlock after he said he was a wrestler.

Sajak was working as a TV weatherman in Los Angeles when Griffin hired him to take over “Wheel,” replacing Chuck Woolery in 1981.

[…]

Sajak will be replaced by Ryan Seacrest, who has come as close as anyone to replicating the genial on-air persona of another game-show icon, Dick Clark, who, as host and producer, represented another conspicuous tie to a bygone era. Co-host Vanna White, meanwhile, continues with the show, providing an element of continuity beyond the game itself.

[…]

Even amid turmoil and change for the TV industry, “Wheel” still averages more than 8 million viewers each week, ranking behind only “Jeopardy!” among syndicated shows. Erosion remains a fact of life for linear TV, but that relative status isn’t likely to change, with or without Sajak behind the wheel.

None of that should diminish the durability of his tenure – being invited into people’s homes night after night – or Trebek’s 37 seasons with “Jeopardy!” before his death in 2020. In a video posted by his daughter, Maggie Sajak, Sajak said the show “became part of people’s lives, And that’s been awfully gratifying.”

It’s been a long time, indeed, since I watched “Wheel” intentionally. But I was a regular viewer as a kid even in the Chuck Woolery era—quite probably from its 1975 debut— back when contestants would go shopping in between games, spending their winnings on “fabulous prizes” including trips to “lovely Puerto Vallarta.” That Sajak hosted for almost 43 years is just remarkable. That Vanna White, who is essentially a model, has lasted for 42 and is still going strong at 67(!), even moreso.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DrDaveT says:

    Vanna White has had arguably the least predictable career in TV history.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I would have taken the under on her lasting 10 years. There’s seldom longevity in the “eye candy” business.

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  3. inhumans99 says:

    I am not sure I remember the Chuck Woolery days (before my time, or at least I no longer remember those years because I was born in 1971 and I know growing up I watched a ton of Wheel and have aged out of being able to remember when I was say 7 or younger), but I sure do remember when the contestants had to use up all their winnings on over-priced doodads such as a designer ceramic dog, or at least even if you over paid, there was the occasional car or trip to bid on.

    Of course, any left-over winnings was paid out in the form of a gift certificate for a jeweler or something along those lines.

    To this day, I think the only time I remember seeing Vanna White essentially acting as a model, and in lingerie no less, was on the show Married With Children. She did a guest appearance on the show as a character named Coco who is a blast from Al’s past that likes Al Bundy even though he is a slob and wants to buy him. This is noted on IMDB, but yup…that is pretty much the storyline for that particular MWC episode. The scenes with her in lingerie showed just how much of a stunner Vanna was especially in her prime.

    I have never bothered to search for pics of Vanna as a model, or modeling lingerie, because I just do not think of her as a model/lingerie model first and game host second, to me she will always be (and continues to be) Wheel’s co-host who turns the letters and got along with Pat Sajak so well that you quickly understood why no one behind the scenes tried hard to replace her with someone that they thought was the latest shiny new model, and she of course became a fan favorite co-host of Wheel.

    Still, even not having seen an episode in years, Pat will be missed. At least he is going out on his own terms, having been quoted a lot on the web as saying he would rather step down a couple of years too early vs a couple of years too late. I can so respect that.

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  4. CSK says:

    I can only remember from when Vanna White was a blonde.

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  5. a country lawyer says:

    I’ve never seen either Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy but when I came to Nashville in 1971 for law school Sajack was the local weatherman. He held that post for several years.

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  6. Crusty Dem says:

    I remember being 7-8 years old and explaining to my family that I would carefully arrange my purchases so I would never end up with the ugly ceramic dog. That and baseball statistics were early, nonsensical motivators to get better at math..

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  7. Crusty Dem says:

    @Crusty Dem:

    This was before I leaned that the prize showcase was just to advertise and burn time, and all prizes were actually just cash.

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  8. Bill Jempty says:

    @James Joyner:

    I would have taken the under on her lasting 10 years. There’s seldom longevity in the “eye candy” business.

    Kathleen Turner, Shirley Knight, and Jane Birkin being some examples.

    Jean Simmons was still an attractive woman when she did ST TNG. Rosalind Chao aka DS9’s Keiko O’Brien looked far from bad when she did Mulan in 2019

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  9. DrDaveT says:

    @Crusty Dem:

    This was before I leaned that the prize showcase was just to advertise and burn time, and all prizes were actually just cash.

    That’s actually a much better deal, because the taxes on the prizes are killer.

    As of the late 1990s, Jeopardy! winners got cash, but the second and third place contestants got prizes, plus a lot of “free” promotional items. A second place winner who won a week at a resort somewhere would still have to pay both California and federal income taxes on the (inflated) cash value of that vacation, which could be thousands of dollars. They switched to all-cash in the 2000s, at the same time they doubled the dollar values of the questions.

    Even today, if you go on Wheel and win $2000, a trip to Mexico, and (in the bonus round) a car, you have gained $2000 in cash and incurred $20,000 in income tax liability. I hope you really like the car.

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