Between 1989 and 1990, Pat Sajak might have been the busiest man on televison. In addition to hosting Wheel of Fortune (the most successful game show in the history of television) he hosted his own talk show, aptly named The Pat Sajak Show.
These days, Sajak is so associated with Wheel that it’s difficult to picture him doing anything else. Sure, there’s his surprisingly amusing and often controversial twitter feed, the occasional article for conservative publications such as Human Events, and his cameo in Airplane 2, but those are side projects at best.
Lest we forget Mr. Sajak’s golden year on late night, here’s a look at what may be the most average talk show of all time.
How it started:
Circa 1988, CBS’s late night ratings were dismal. CBS executives openly acknowledged that late night was their weakest time slot, and that it had been since at least the 1960s. Ratings were so weak that only about 70% of America had access to CBS programming during that hour–many affiliates were so disenchanted with the programming available that they bought reruns so they wouldn’t have to share profits with the network. CBS figured something needed to be done.
Enter Pat Sajak. In 1988, CBS announced that it had plans to set up the Wheel host with his own talk show.
It’s worth noting that a game show host transitioning to the talk show realm is hardly unprecedented – Alan Thicke, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Merv Griffin were all successful game show hosts before getting their own shows. In fact, well before being selected for Wheel, Sajak wanted to host a talk show. With The Pat Sajak Show, he finally had his chance.
CBS created the show for a multitude of reasons, but two in particular stand out: the potential wrapping up of Carson’s career, and a need to bring in money in a dying time slot.
First, the money: nearly anything would be more profitable for the network than the situation they had at the time. CBS decided their best course of action was to provide something relatively inexpensive with something their affiliates couldn’t get on their own – a talk show with a nationally recognized figure. (Coincidentally, the previous person to have a talk show on CBS was Merv Griffin, the creator of Wheel of Fortune, in the 1970s.)
Next, Carson: much like nearly every late night show before his, Sajak and company made it clear that they knew it was impossible to knock Carson off the air and doing so wasn’t one of their goals.That said, Carson was 62 in 1988 and his contract was up in ’89. It was only a matter of time until he retired, and CBS knew it would help to have something in place when he left.
The choice of Sajak was a hit with network insiders. He faced no real opposition from top management, and even performed a well-received stand-up comedy set at a convention for CBS affiliates. Sajak had several distinct advantages over previous late night contenders: he was a known quantity, famed for congeniality instead of controversy, and he hadn’t done anything to piss off Johnny Carson. There was no need to overpromote, overcorrect, or overcompensate; just the name “Pat Sajak” could sell.
From the beginning, all parties involved acknowledged that the show would not be revolutionary – it would be a simple talk show on a simple set with a simple but likable host. If anything, Sajak seemed interested in making the show more about talk and in-depth discussions than variety, a format much closer to Tonight Show great Jack Paar’s than, for example, Letterman.
On January 9th, 1989, The Pat Sajak Show debuted.
What it was like:
As promised, the show’s format was standard talk show: monologue, desk, couch, interactions with the band leader. The announcer/sidekick was Dan Miller, a TV personality Sajak knew from their days at WSMV in Nashville. Jazz musician and frontman of the L.A. Express Tom Scott was the bandleader. The show was ninety minutes long at first but was cut to a standard hour at the end of October 1989 because it was more “conducive to a lively, faster-paced broadcast.”
The debut monologue is available on YouTube. Take a gander:
I don’t know about you, but that was actually far better than I expected. The debut episode featured Chevy Chase, Joan Van Ark, a performance by The Judds, outgoing baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, Michael Gross, and a performance by comedian Dennis Wolfberg. Even for a ninety-minute show, that’s a lot with some halfway decent star power for the time.
Perhaps the highlight of the show was Chase raising his hand during the Ueberroth interview and asking to go to the bathroom. He was seemingly serious.
The debut received positive reviews. New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor wrote that Sajak “came through his debut smoothly” and added that “if Jay Leno weren’t around, he would be a perfect successor to Mr. Carson.” (Another person who didn’t get the memo that Letterman was supposed to be Carson’s successor.) Columnist Roger Simon called both the show and Sajak himself “very good” and praised the familiarity of the format. People magazine gave the first few weeks a B+ and labeled it a decent alternative to Carson. It was also a ratings success, beating Carson both on the first night and the first week. The goodwill didn’t last, but we’ll get to that.
Notable moments include:
– Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard was booked to appear on Sajak and was put up in a fancy hotel. They day before he was set to appear on Sajak, he appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show and called Arsenio his favorite talk show host. Understandably peeved, Sajak‘s staff call Leonard and cancelled his appearance.
– This interview with “Weird Al” Yankovic. He’s on Sajak promoting a piece of cinematic perfection known as UHF, and gets Sajak to watch “Wheel Of Fish.”
– This interview with Werner Klemperer of Hogan’s Heroes fame. Towards the end, Sajak presents Klemperer with a monocle to replace the one Klemperer had stolen from his collection.
– An interview Keith Olbermann back when he was a sportscaster, quite possibly his first talk show appearance. In 2010, Sajak apologized for introducing Olbermann to the country. Shortly after, Olbermann fired back by saying that he’d been doing broadcasting on a national level well before The Pat Sajak Show, and said “if [Sajak] needs to apologize for anything it needs to be that talk show.”
– An extended interview with former Tonight Show host and one of Sajak’s personal idols, Jack Paar. It’s long, but it’s worth it. About half of the first clip is hard to find archive footage from Paar’s tenure on Tonight. Years later, Sajak himself called it the high point of his show. It was also one of the last major appearances for Paar on TV.
– Finally, we have what is easily the most notorious thing to ever happen on the show. Two weeks before the show was cancelled, a before-he-was-famous Rush Limbaugh guest hosted the show.
He started out by discussing an anti-abortion bill in Idaho that was vetoed. When the audience cheered, he went into the crowd to confront a woman about her position on the issue. The whole situation only gets uglier and more awkward from there, leading to booing, yelling, and heckling. A later segment had him being heckled by people wearing ACT UP T-shirts. By the time Limbaugh came back for his final segment, the audience had been cleared from the studio. Years later, Limbaugh noted that he may have been brought in because CBS was “auditioning talent for various things” and has his suspicions that certain audience members against him were planted.
Why it ended:
Poor ratings, plain and simple, stemming from a lack of innovation.
After the initial positive reception, reviews for the show got progressively worse. In December 1989, noted TV critic Tom Shales listed Sajak as the third worst TV show of the year, calling it “so aggressively feeble as to make potatoes rise from their couches.”
After an initial spat of curiosity, ratings took a decent drop as early as the second week. The ratings stayed okay-but-unimpressive at least through March, but they were still better than what CBS had before the show aired in the first place. That didn’t stop some columnists from tossing Sajak’s name onto the pile of failed Carson challengers after a mere four weeks.
By August 1989, Sajak’s ratings were behind Carson, Arsenio, Letterman, and Nightline. By some counts, ratings were higher when they were playing dramas. Cancellation rumors floated, but the show was kept on air, in all likelihood because the show was still profitable despite the dismal ratings. Around this point, the show entered a never-ending phase of retooling. The set, style, and execution of the show were each in constant states of flux, never landing on anything successful. Even taking away the monologue and adding taped bits didn’t help.
Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate (KDKA), for example, wanted to cancel the show in early March 1990 – going so far as to pick up syndicated programming to run in his slot in autumn – but held off on dropping the show themselves because they figured the ratings would beat them to it. They were right, and the show was formally cancelled a month later.
When looking for reasons why the show was faltering, almost everyone pointed at the same thing: Sajak played it too safe. In Sajak’s quest to be conventional, the show became too much like Tonight. For talk shows, it’s the host that makes the show, and Carson could do anything Sajak could, and do it better. Sajak was also taking on Arsenio, a dynamic host who played with the format of the talk show and got great ratings in the process.
In many ways, Pat Sajak was the reverse Alan Thicke. While Thicke was an unknown quantity who was too ambitious, Sajak was a known quantity who never took risks. Both failed in their own ways.
Towards the end of the show, Sajak was only hosting part time while guest hosts (such as Limbaugh) took over from time to time. The show aired its final episode on April 13th, 1990. The show ran for fifteen months, a respectable amount of time, given the circumstances.
Sajak was out of the country at the time of the cancellation and couldn’t comment. It’s entirely possible he never commented–in the extensive research I have done for this article, I haven’t found a single statement made by him from this time period regarding the cancellation. The only mentions of it I found are in the occasional interview years later, and even then it’s little outside of “will you ever do a talk show again?”
CBS late night programming returned to action movies while they developed new content. Some stations picked up Arsenio Hall to fill the gap. A couple of years later, Letterman defected to CBS after getting denied The Tonight Show, and he’s held that slot under The Late Show banner ever since. Years later, Craig Ferguson would host The Late Late Show from the same studio in which Sajak was filmed. Check the mantelpiece on the Late Late Show set, and you might notice a picture of Sajak.
Sajak still had his gig on the nighttime version of Wheel, and returned to that full time. The daytime edition was eventually cancelled, leaving just the syndicated version. Years later, Sajak had a brief foray into the talk show sphere again when he hosted Pat Sajak Weekend on Fox News for a few months in 2003. Since then, his television duties are almost exclusively Wheel-related.
In the long run, the show was less than a smudge against Sajak. It’s rarely if ever mentioned in retrospectives of him and he never addresses it in interviews except in the rare cases that he’s directly asked about it. Few people remember (or even know) that he had a talk show at all.
You can still see Sajak on TV today, provided you visit your grandmother’s nursing home during group TV hours. My research indicates that’s the prime audience for Wheel these days.