Pat Sajak and Vanna White are terribly terribly famous. Sort of. He is the host and she the hostess of "Wheel of Fortune," a game show that is the biggest, most profitable hit in all of television syndication, a gigantic mindless smasheroo that plays pot to producer Merv Griffin's rainbow.
"He spends most of his time at the bank," White, 29, says of Griffin, chuckling. "With a glint in her eye, she said that," corrects Sajak, 40. "No no," says White, "I walked into his office one day and told him people asked about him and he said, 'Tell 'em I spend most of my time at the bank.' So he said it first."
Pat and Vanna have come to Washington to be involved in some way, they know not what, with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "We believe in whatever it is we're doing," Sajak says. "What are we doing?" White doesn't know. "Well, we're gonna have fun," she bubbles. Sajak nods in weary agreement. For Sajak, it is something of a homecoming. When he couldn't get a job in broadcasting in the early '70s, he says, he worked for a year as a desk clerk at the Madison Hotel.
At least a trip to the circus has taken them away from that cursed, fate-determining wheel, which is spun each show by three contestants as they try to fill in the blanks of a mystery phrase and grab a cheesy prize or two from the program's "showcase" of cheesy prizes. This show is so profoundly, swooningly primitive that it could have been done the exact same way in 1951. And probably was.
"I've done 1,700 shows, I figure, in a little over four years," Pat Sajak says, self-sacrificially. "Every now and then, if you're very quiet in the studio, you can actually hear my brain cells die and hit the ground. But you have to listen carefully."
Pat and Vanna, Vanna and Pat, tape 10 shows a week, five for daily use on NBC's daytime schedule, five more for stripping Mondays through Friday evenings in so-called "access" time on 208 local TV stations, including Washington's WDVM, which has always been an eager customer for truly grubby TV trash. This show may be tacky, but it pays off big -- not for the players, who can't win much more than $20,000 in trips and baubles and junky-looking furniture, but for TV stations. And for Merv Griffin, who, though his production company was recently bought by Coca-Cola for a reported $250 million, continues to run the operation.
"What am I gonna say, he's a jerk?" notes Sajak when asked about almighty Merv. "But he is a great guy to work for. Oddly enough, he is involved in this show to the extent that all the puzzles, believe it or not, go through him. He's sitting there in his office going, 'All's well that ends well; that's a good one! Butterfly net; fine.' You go to lunch with him, the waiter will say, 'May I take your order?' and he'll go, 'May I take your order! Great puzzle!' "
Sajak is in the fifth year of a seven-year contract with the show; White, who joined it after Sajak, is just starting the fourth of her seven years. Her job on the show is to smile and pose with prizes and turn the letters around when a contestant guesses them. Yes, the former model who came to Hollywood in 1980 "in a 20-foot U-Haul trailer" probably never dreamed when she was growing up in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., that someday she would be America's most famous . . . most famous . . . most famous whatchamacallit.
"Well, my official title is hostess but I would say that letter-turner is probably what I do," she says sweetly. And beamingly. "That's really what I do. But -- if I didn't turn the letters, they couldn't play the game. So, I consider myself an important part of the show."
Would she like a bigger role on the program? Sajak shakes his head no. White says, "No, honestly. No really I don't. I think people like my position on the show. Pat is the host of the show. It has made me more recognizable. Pat introduces me. They know I'm Vanna White.
"When I'm out there doing the show, for 30 minutes I don't think of anything else. I have to listen to the letters. I have to know where the letters are. I have to concentrate on what I'm doing. And the letters are backwards, too. 'Cause when you look on the screen and see 'The Three Bears,' that's not what I see. Like, 'T-H-E,' only backwards. You kind of have to be there to see what I mean. And I will not turn a letter unless it's lit. Whether I know it's there or not. So, I haven't turned a wrong letter."
"In many ways, it's really an old-fashioned show," Sajak says.
"Yeah, just think, they could replace me with a computer," says White.
"Well, I don't know," says Sajak. "They couldn't get the software. Seriously, she's a letter-turner and it sounds like a pretty minimal duty. But for some reason she has turned that into -- well, she is as widely recognized, I think, as anyone on television. She gets more mail than I do. People name their kids after her. In 15 years, everybody will be named 'Vanna.' "
No, White is not a sex object, she insists, but yes, feminists have criticized her role as blatantly decorative. She's ogle bait. "I was struggling before I got this job, and I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and I still think it is," she says assertively. " 'Cause I make a living on TV, and I think it's terrific. I enjoy my job." Long pause. "It's not what I want to do forever, but . . . "
Although she says she would like to get into "motion pictures" (she had a small role in the aptly titled "Looker," which nonetheless flopped), she is given little encouragement by Sajak. "Jackie Kennedy started in game shows," he says sarcastically. "Golda Meir. Oh, I'll shut up. No, I don't think anyone's gone on from that to fame and fortune."
But White is not deterred. Nor does she mind what feminists may say. "I disagree with them. I don't think there is anything wrong with my job. I think I'm a working person like everyone else, and I don't see why anyone should put me down for my job. I'm bright. I'm intelligent. I turn letters -- so what? I also talk. I talk on the show! People know my name on the show!"
White says her mail indicates that viewers think of her as more than just a pretty person who turns letters. "They think of me as kind of the girl next door. They write me almost like Ann Landers, like I'm their best friend. They say, 'I'm having trouble with my boyfriend,' or, 'How do I stay slim?' "
"I get a lot of that, too," says Sajak. "They write and say, 'How does Vanna stay slim? Can she help me with this problem?' "
"You never tell me about your mail," White teases.
"It all comes in crayon," says Sajak.
People also write in to ask if Sajak and White know each other in an extra-wheelish sort of way. "Are we fooling around? What do you think?" White says coyly. "We're just good friends, as they say in the Enquirer," says Sajak. "Uh, no, we don't fool around. Sometimes people say what a lucky guy I am to travel around from town to town with this beautiful girl. But after about two trips, who cares what she looks like if she's a bitch? But we happen to get along together."
There was that unfortunate time a viewer from New York wrote in to accuse White the letter-turner of being White the fish-killer. She had shown photos on the program of her annual fishing expedition. " 'You fish-killer, how could you do such a thing?' " White recalls the letter as having charged. "And I wrote back, 'cause I have an aquarium. I said, 'I take care of fish. I feed fish every day!' "
Then Sajak, who has a rather dry sense of humor for such an innocuous-looking chap, says, "So far, this has been the dumbest interview I've ever been on. But I know it's going to pick up."
Okay, he wants the serious questions. The first of these is, quite simply, Pat, "Why?" Why is a stupid game show like "Wheel of Fortune" such an enormous, all-consuming, mind-boggling, mind-consuming hit? Among the shows it has killed in the course of competing is "Family Feud," which was a game show with many more variables and opportunities for contestants to emerge as human beings. And Richard Dawson was the wittiest game-show host since Groucho Marx.
"Dawson's rich," Sajak reassures. "I even think they canceled that show prematurely. I thought they could have run another season. But it'll be back. Game shows never die." And "Wheel's" great success? "A lot is puzzling about this show," Sajak concedes.
"It's a fun game," White interjects. "We all played 'hangman' growing up. And I defy anybody to walk by the TV if there's a puzzle on and not solve it."
Perhaps there's some deep metaphorical resonance there -- after all, what is life but A Wheel of Fortune? One wrong spin and you're bankrupt. Or one wrong spin and you lose a turn. "There is no dignity to this, so stop searching," Sajak snaps. "It's a game show. I read that the show is so popular because this represents a new generation of people wanting goods, and that sort of thing. Well, I guess if you want to find something to fit the scenario, that's okay. But I think people just like to play our little game.
"Game shows are in now because we're a hit. That's why there are 20 game shows. Two seasons hence, they'll be syndicating 'The Cosby Show' and that will be our major competition." He looks momentarily worried, then cheers himself by saying, "But, there's a lot of traffic, and he still has time to get run over."
"That'll look nice in print, don't you think?" that naughty boy Sajak asks her.
As for the appeal of the show, Sajak doesn't think it's a greed-and-lust kind of thing. "See, the greed-and-lust angle -- which, before I started doing a game show, I would have figured was between 98 and 99 percent of the reason people watch or come on the show -- but gee, I don't see a lot of that. First of all, in the history of game shows, we're not really a big game show. We give away no cash at all."
Just those trips and baubles and junky furniture. And if you lose, all you go away with are what Sajak describes to viewers as "lovely parting gifts," which sounds like what you bring to a funeral. Precisely what are these lovely parting gifts? "Toilet bowl cleaner and rice," Sajak says.
"And tuna, sometimes," says White.
"Sometimes $25 worth of Cheerios," Sajak says. The retail value of the lovely parting gifts he puts at roughly 40 bucks. "No, we don't load it in their trunk. We send it to them. We send your Cheerios right to you, we don't fool around.
"But the point is, people who come seem genuinely pleased to have the experience. They seem to come in for that half hour of being in the spotlight. I get testy with people who complain about the players -- 'what jerks they are.' I want to take them by the scruff of the neck and say, 'You try to do it!' It isn't easy. I think what they're mainly concerned about is leaving with their dignity intact. Because if they do something stupid, it's going to be on the VCR at home and they're going to see it every year at the birthday party."
No contestant has ever stomped off in anger over not winning or because the wheel bankrupted them, Sajak says.
"Someone once spun the wheel and one of the spikes came off in his hand," White recalls.
"Uh, I think that was a soldering problem," says Sajak.
He also gets testy with people who dismiss "Wheel of Fortune" as American vulgarity, but then he says, "Game shows are an easy target because we're not doing 'The Hallmark Hall of Fame' here; who are we kidding? But I think there are good ones and not-good ones and I think ours is a good one. We treat our players with respect. I'm a low-key guy, so it's not one of the real hyped-up shows I don't think. For what it is, I think it's a darn good half hour."
White is smiling. She appears to be in agreement on this point. Yeah, she turns letters. So what?