5 Interesting Stories That Involve Pat Sajak

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Arthur Chu captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means.

The most common question people ask me when they learn that I was on Jeopardy! for twelve episodes is, “What is Alex Trebek really like?”

They’re usually disappointed that I’m unable to give much insight into the man’s character, since I only interacted with him for a total of 240 minutes. Besides, I spent most of that time thinking about how much money I could win (while enraging some fans in the process).

As fascinating and enigmatic a mystery as Alex Trebek is—Why did he shave off his iconic mustache in 2001? What’s the deal with all those little hints he drops to his badass hockey-playing past? Is he officially the world’s most successful Canadian?—I must say that, for drama and excitement, you should be looking to Jeopardy!’s companion show, Wheel of Fortune.

Yes, Wheel of Fortune is looked down upon by the brainiac set, but the show has an anarchic, free-wheeling style that Jeopardy! can't match. Jeopardy! looks the same from week to week, whereas Wheel of Fortune keeps you on your toes (you'll never see "Cincinnati Week" or a Wild Card wedge on Jeopardy!).

But most interesting of all is the man behind the Wheel, Mr. Patrick Leonard “Pat” Sajak. Most of America knows him as the blandly genial guy who congratulates you for winning a car. But he’s had a long and colorful life in showbiz, one that rivals the legends people tell about Alex Trebek. I’m here to give you just a few of the highlights.

1. Pat Sajak Once Cut Off President Nixon’s Radio Broadcast to the Troops in Vietnam

As you may know if you’ve ever watched one of Wheel’s “Honoring Our Veterans” weeks, Pat Sajak is a Vietnam War veteran. Not just that—Pat Sajak got an early start to his broadcasting career as a DJ for Armed Forces Radio in 1968, much like Robin Williams’ character in Good Morning, Vietnam. (He describes his experience in an interview here.)

While his experience wasn't quite as exciting as what happened to Adrian Cronauer, the real-life military DJ whose experiences inspired the film, Sajak did, in fact, get to yell the famous phrase, “Goooood morning, Vietnam!” while hosting the “Dawnbusters” early-AM show.

In 1969, when President Richard Nixon was giving his Christmas address to the nation, Pat Sajak thought he heard him finish the speech and flipped the switch to start playing “1, 2, 3, Red Light” by The 1910 Fruitgum Company. As the music played, Sajak belatedly realized that Nixon hadn't finished his speech, but was actually at the portion of the address where he was giving his Christmas greetings directly to the troops.

Faced with the dilemma of whether to admit he messed up or ignore it, Sajak took the latter option. President Nixon unknowingly delivered Christmas greetings to only one of the troops in Vietnam: Sajak himself—a fact for which Sajak later apologized.

2. Pat Sajak Once Switched Roles (But Not Outfits) With Vanna White

Pat Sajak has never been seen onscreen in one of Vanna White’s signature evening gowns, but he has actually switched places with her. In 1989, Vanna hosted the show while Pat turned the letters, a last-minute decision made because of his growing case of laryngitis. He tells the story to Good Morning America here.

3. Pat Sajak Was Once a Contestant on Wheel of Fortune—Which Was Hosted By Alex Trebek

Wheel of Fortune

Jeopardy!

If you haven’t seen them yet, hie thee posthaste to view these legendary April 1, 1997 episodes of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!. Pat Sajak and Vanna White appear as celebrities playing for charity in an April Fool’s Wheel of Fortune (which is hosted by Trebek), and Sajak hosts an episode of Jeopardy! featuring a trio of adorably confused contestants. (Yes, this means that Alex Trebek has never, ever played Jeopardy! on camera. Start working on that change.org petition now, America.)

Trebek had previously hosted Wheel of Fortune for a one-week stint as a replacement for Chuck Woolery in 1980 and as a one-episode fill-in for Pat Sajak in 1985. However, these April Fool's episodes were the only time since the syndicated revival of Jeopardy! in 1984 that anyone other than Alex Trebek has hosted the show. (Although, the show pulled a similar April Fool’s gag in 2010 with Will Ferrell in his SNL “Celebrity Jeopardy!” get-up “hosting” the show using pre-taped, spliced-in footage.)

Notable moments from these April Fool’s episodes include the incredible meta-ness of Pat Sajak solving a puzzle that reads “PAT, I’D LIKE TO SOLVE THE PUZZLE,” and the introduction of “Before and After” to Jeopardy!, which Pat says is “something we took from another show, you’ll figure it out.” 

The woman clapping and turning letters in the April Fool’s Wheel of Fortune is Pat Sajak’s little-seen wife Lesly Sajak, making Pat Sajak the only Wheel of Fortune contestant to have ever purchased a vowel from his own spouse.

4. Pat Sajak Was Once Replaced By A Former NFL Player

Part of the convoluted history of Wheel of Fortune includes the fact that from 1983 to 1991 there were actually two versions of the series—a daytime show on NBC and a nighttime show on syndication. From 1983 to 1989, Pat Sajak hosted both versions, but Sajak retired from the daytime show to host The Pat Sajak Show, a late night talk show conceived as CBS’s response to Johnny Carson.

During the widely publicized search for Sajak’s replacement, Merv Griffin saw former San Diego Chargers placekicker Rolf Benirschke discussing “healthy habits” in an interview on an L.A. morning show and decided that he liked the young man so that he invited him in for an audition, despite his lack of broadcasting experience.

Benirschke was not a very good host—he frequently forgot the rules to the game and it got to the point where contestants would have to correct him. He was fired after six months and NBC dropped the daytime Wheel of Fortune in 1991.

Lest we think unkindly of Merv Griffin’s taste, the host of Wheel of Fortune had traditionally gone to people with little game show experience. Griffin originally cast Chuck Woolery to host Wheel of Fortune after seeing him perform as a country singer on The Tonight Show in 1975.

Sajak was also an unlikely choice—he was the weatherman for KNBC-LA when Griffin tapped him as Woolery’s replacement. Fred Silverman, the president of NBC at the time, was so opposed to putting Sajak in Woolery’s seat that the standoff between Griffin and Silverman put a halt to all tapings of Wheel of Fortune until Griffin finally won and Silverman was forced out of his position.

5. Rush Limbaugh Had A Huge Meltdown on Pat Sajak’s Talk Show

In case you were wondering, the effort to make Pat Sajak the new Johnny Carson didn’t go that well—The Pat Sajak Show was canceled after one season. (I invite aspiring science-fiction writers out there to imagine the ramifications of a timeline where Pat Sajak has Jay Leno’s career, however.)

The strangest and most notable thing about the waning days of The Pat Sajak Show was CBS cycling through guest hosts as stealth auditions for his replacement. This culminated in the March 30, 1990 incident where Rush Limbaugh hosted the show in Sajak’s stead.

The situation deteriorated almost instantly, with Limbaugh apparently being in front of a non-specifically-prescreened-for-Limbaugh audience for the first time in his career, and a few of his multitudinous haters seized the opportunity to fill up slots in the audience. Whatever the actual initial plan for this episode was, it quickly turned into a raucous back-and-forth shouting match between Limbaugh and an army of hecklers, including a whole group who somehow got through pre-screening wearing ACT UP! T-shirts.

Limbaugh later accused the studio of intentionally letting an audience of detractors through in order to boost ratings which, if it is true, is one of the most awesome things to ever happen on TV.

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May 6, 2014 - 4:30pm
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