Wheel of Misfortune: When Pat Sajak Tried to Take Carson’s Late-Night Crown

The professional tributes poured in this week to salute the long career of Pat Sajak as host of the seemingly eternal syndicated game show Wheel of Fortune.

No such tributes even dribbled in to applaud the very short career of Pat Sajak as network late-night host.

That may be because virtually no one remembers Sajak’s stint in late-night, less because of its brevity (in total, he lasted 15 months) than its minimal impression on the consciousness of American late-night viewers.

But let us spend a few minutes acknowledging that, forgotten as it may be, Sajak’s sojourn in the land of late night had something like the effect of a small gust of wind in the Sahara that ultimately ignites a swirling maelstrom that wreaks havoc all across the American seaboard (and in this case, the purple mountain majesties and fruited plain as well).

For if Sajak had not failed quickly and thoroughly in his effort to extend his television career to late night, dominos with names like Arsenio, Leno, and Letterman might have fallen in entirely different patterns, and who knows what people would have watched in late night for the next three decades?

First, it should be said, it is no dishonor to fail as a late-night TV host. Lots of folks have that distinction, from Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase, to Keenen Ivory Wayans, Dennis Miller, sportscaster Joe Buck, and basketball legend Magic Johnson.

The major difference with Sajak was that a legacy broadcast network, CBS, gave him a show in 1989, expecting that he would be the savior to change the grim late-night record for that network just in time to take advantage of the inevitable retirement of NBC titan Johnny Carson.

The fact that someone in authority at a network actually thought of Sajak and Carson in the same sentence—or even the same universe—seems preposterous to the point of stark, raving insanity today.

And actually it sort of did even then to at least one then-minor CBS executive who was paying attention.

His name was Rod Perth and in 1988 he led the CBS-owned station in Chicago when the network’s late-night executive, Michael Brockman, pitched the notion of grabbing Sajak, who had been popular as a funny-ish weatherman on local TV in LA before hosting what was by the end of the ’80s the immensely popular Wheel. The master plan was to set Sajak in place, let him gather popularity, and be the established show ready to seize the night when Johnny finally stepped down.

At CBS, it seemed Perth alone disputed the idea that an audience for a game show would translate in any way to late night. Perth had a rather mean-spirited (but funny) sense that  Wheel fans were mostly blue-haired ladies who lived in trailer parks and went to bed early (as he told me later).

But nobody listened. Sajak was hired, debuted on January 9, 1989 with as much fanfare as CBS could produce, beat Carson for less than a week, and then saw his audience drop to less than half. Again, asking the right question is a late-night staple: what was CBS thinking?

Sajak is/was a “host.” He was not a comic. Hosts had some history in late-night shows. Merv Griffin was essentially a “host” who sang a bit. Sajak didn’t really have even that level of showbiz talent.  He had been a DJ and local TV guy in his early career. 

That background translated well to “host.” The Wheel job, like most game shows, was about repetition and recitation. Same job every day; different names to pronounce. That’s why most game shows shoot two to three episodes a day. They exist out of time and disconnected from culture.

Successful late-night shows had always been based in topical humor and interviews with stars of the latest movies and TV shows.

Sajak didn’t fit that mold. And Perth—who was rewarded for his prescience about what a bad idea the Sajak hire was by being put in charge of CBS’s late-night programming—thought Sajak didn’t even try to fit the mold. He was astonished that Sajak’s only real demand when he got the show was that CBS put his face on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard.

The timing was crucial. Sajak started up just as Arsenio Hall’s late-night entry was exploding in syndication. CBS stations, suffering with ratings for Sajak, lusted after Arsenio. By December of 1989, more than 50 CBS stations had dumped Sajak in favor of Arsenio.

That had the effect of christening Arsenio as a potential inheritor to Carson’s pre-eminence in late night. He would be on CBS effectively, though not as a CBS show. Perth was desperate for an alternative.

The place with all the late-night stars was NBC. They had Carson at 11:30, Letterman at 12:30, and Leno in the Tonight Show bullpen as regular guest host. That meant only the latter wasn’t under long-term contract and so could—in theory—be wooed.

Perth did his best, giving Leno a vintage motorcycle as a sign of CBS’s devotion. But he actually gave him—and his hard-charging manager Helen Kushnick—even more. He gave them a tank of propane to ignite the heat under NBC: Nudge Carson toward a decision and also get Leno signed before he bolted to CBS.

Letterman was the afterthought at that point because he was under a long-term deal and his management had not included a painful penalty should he be passed over.

Less than 18 months later, Carson announced his end date (without informing NBC in advance); Leno already was contractually guaranteed The Tonight Show; Letterman was devastated to see his own dream dashed, but eventually wound up filling—gloriously—the hole left by Sajak.

And Pat Sajak? He was, until this Friday, still successfully and happily hosting Wheel of Fortune. As though nothing had happened.

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