America’s Man Of Letters: An Interview with Pat Sajak
“Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak never pictured himself as a game show host — and neither he nor the show’s creator, Merv Griffin, thought the show would last very long — but Griffin took a chance when he hired the little-known local weatherman to replace Chuck Woolery as host in 1981, and America responded by taking to “The Wheel” like few other game shows in history.
When he hasn’t been manning a big, multicolored wheel and awarding contestants millions of dollars in cash and prizes, Sajak has spent the last three decades giving other things a spin. He hosted a short-lived late-night talk show on CBS, frequently filled in for both Larry King and Regis Philbin on their talk shows, and has written about politics for Human Events, National Review Online and Ricochet.com.
An unabashed Republican, Sajak now saves most of his political commentary for his Twitter feed, where the television icon’s musings have earned him both cheers and the occasional jeers.
Sajak recently chatted with The Daily Caller via email about his career, being a Republican in Hollywood and the perils of social media.
As the story goes, Merv Griffin originally offered you the job as host of “Wheel of Fortune,” but Fred Silverman, then-president and CEO of NBC, told him you were too local and refused to hire you. In response, Merv supposedly threatened to halt all tapings of the show until you were hired. How awkward was that situation and how much did it mean to you for Merv to stick up for you?
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and I’m not really sure if the resistance came from Silverman or another executive, but there was no halt in taping prior to the issue being resolved, though he may have threatened it. In any event, it was very gratifying to learn of Merv’s tough stand. When he believed in someone or something, that’s the way he was.
How much pressure did you feel when you took the job?
Really very little. The show had been on for seven years when I came aboard in 1981 (from local LA TV), and it appeared to be winding down. After being very strong for a while, it was finishing third on NBC daytime — where it aired at the time — behind “The Price is Right” on CBS and reruns of “The Love Boat” on ABC.
I never envisioned myself as a game show host, but I took the job thinking it had a year or two left in it, and then I would have established a little national credibility. Instead, the show got a second wind and went back to number one. Then, the nighttime, syndicated version was launched in 1983, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Did you have any inkling at the time that it would go on to become the phenomenon it’s become?
Of course not. Nobody did. Not even Merv, who sold “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” way back in 1986.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen on the show since you’ve been the host?
So far as rules are concerned, getting away from the “shopping” element is the biggest change. People feel nostalgic about it, but — trust me — it was the most boring two minutes in television.
“For $100, I’ll have the table… Umm, no, the lamp… I mean, the table…”
If we had kept doing that, I firmly believe the show would be long gone.
How long do you see yourself staying on board?
I don’t have a timetable, but I’m certainly not out to break any records. My two main criteria are that I’d like to leave while the show is still popular and before people start saying, “What the hell happened to him?”
If people are at all familiar with Martin Short’s Ed Grimley character, they likely also know that Ed was obsessed with you. What did you think of that bit when you first saw it?
I wasn’t an SNL viewer, so I was puzzled when people starting coming up to me doing bad Grimley impressions. But it was all pretty benign, and I had fun with it. I recently worked with Martin as an interview victim for his Jiminy Glick character when he brought his show to Annapolis, Maryland.
What is life like for a Republican working in Hollywood? Are there more or less of you working in show business than we’d think?
It’s really not much of a factor. First of all, there are more than most people think. Secondly, though there’s no doubt there are far more liberals than conservatives in my business, most people are much more interested in ratings and box office receipts than in politics. Other than the “usual suspects,” most people are not terribly immersed in it.
One of Jay Leno’s longtime producers recently said that America would welcome a conservative-leaning, late-night talk show host. You’re no stranger to the late-night talk show scene. Would you consider pursuing another such gig?
Been there, done that. I’m happy to sell vowels and play hangman for a few more years and then quietly fade into the sunset.
While you’ve done a fair amount of political writing over the years, most of your commentary can be found on Twitter (@patsajak) these days. What drew you to that platform?
Probably laziness. Writing is tough, as you know.
What do you think about the response your posts have gotten? Are you surprised at how easy it is to ruffle people’s feathers within the span of 140 characters?
I’ve learned that both subtlety and hyperbole are lost on a large number of Twitter users. And I’m surprised by the extent of a lack of a sense of humor. I’m also amused by what I think of as “Fake Twitter Outrage,” wherein people become intentionally obtuse so they can express their anger and give the illusion that they really are addressing important issues. Tweeting is much easier than actually doing something. #HashtagsInsteadOfAction
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
I don’t have a clue. Probably dozens of things, because people tend to forget that it’s only television; it’s not real life.
Thank you very much for the time.
Don’t ever bother me again! 🙂