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Pat Sajak departs 'Wheel of Fortune' as TV's last old-school game show host

 Pat Sajak on the <em>Wheel of Fortune</em> set.
Carol Kaelson
CBS Media Ventures
Pat Sajak on the Wheel of Fortune set.

It was the game show answer that nearly broke the Internet: Tavaris Williams, eager to solve one of the word puzzles on Wheel of Fortune, gave an answer that wasn’t quite ready for prime time. The board looked like this: _ _ _ _ I _ T _ E B _ _ T!

His guess for the correct phrase? "Right in the butt."

But while some in the audience gasped – and one of Williams’ competitors said, incredulously, "Whaaat!?" – host Pat Sajak simply answered "no," smoothly moving on to the next contestant, who figured out the correct answer. (The solution was, for the record, "This is the best!")

That incident aired on the show less than two weeks ago, going viral on social media and giving Williams enough visibility to land on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where he complimented Sajak for making him feel better and joking about it all, despite such an embarrassing flub.

But that's been Sajak's secret weapon over 41 seasons and more than 8,000 shows hosting the TV version of a Hangman-style wordgame. He leverages an easygoing, affable nature that helps move the show easily past any rough spots — whether it’s a contestant who loses thousands of dollars after mispronouncing an answer or a competitor who knows the show so well, he solves the puzzle and grabs his reward with no prompting from the host. (Sajak quipped, "There’s really no need for me at all.")

On Friday, Sajak appears in his last new Wheel of Fortune episode, retiring from a job he began in 1981, as the longest-running host of a single game show in modern TV history. He told daughter Maggie in an interview also featured on Good Morning America that he could probably still keep hosting awhile, but "I'd rather leave a couple of years too early than a couple of years too late."

While it’s true that Sajak’s departure is the end of an era for Wheel of Fortune, it’s also a pivotal moment for TV game shows in general.

Because Sajak is the last of TV’s old-school game show hosts.

Pat Sajak and Vanna White prepare to tour cities across the country in 1987 aboard the Wheel of Fortune Express.
Judy Sloan / AP
Pat Sajak and Vanna White prepare to tour cities across the country in 1987 aboard the Wheel of Fortune Express.

The rise of the traditional game show host

Game show fans with short memories might not remember decades ago when hosts like Sajak filled the TV dial. Jeopardy's Alex Trebek. The Price is Right's Bob Barker. Let’s Make a Deal host and co-creator Monty Hall. Original Wheel of Fortune host Chuck Woolery. The Hollywood Squares' Peter Marshall. Tic-Tac-Dough’s Wink Martindale.

They were of a type. Generally middle-aged white men with the kind of telegenic, affable charisma found in local TV anchors – it's no surprise Sajak was a weatherman at KNBC in Los Angeles before Wheel of Fortune creator Merv Griffin called – these hosts were studiously inoffensive and positioned for appeal to viewers in middle America.

Many of them were former radio hosts or fledgling actors. But their primary fame came from leading viewers through amusing contests on television.

"There was this sense of an almost lab-created broadcaster, whose job was to direct [the show’s] traffic in a sense," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "The contestants were really the show’s rotating cast … The hosts came from what I like to call the Wink Martindale School of Broadcasting."

On paper, the job was simple. Introduce the contestants, explain the game, make a little small talk to turn the participants into characters viewers might invest in, and handle the occasional moment when an errant guest might say something bizarre or, um, explicit.

But watching the cavalcade of celebrities guest host Jeopardy in 2021 after Trebek’s death – names like quarterback Aaron Rodgers, talk show personality Mehmet Oz and broadcaster Joe Buck – it’s obvious there’s a secret sauce to leading such shows successfully.

Hosts must be knowledgeable without looking like know-it-alls; empathetic without looking too invested in any one player. They must explain the game in ways the players and the TV audience can follow, while also being fun and funny.

And they have to handle the reactions of average civilians under pressure – calming down the folks who get over-excited and pumping up people so intimidated they might shut down on camera.

For viewers of a certain age, old-style game show hosts like Sajak were comforting buddies – fun personalities to make you feel better while sitting at home sick from school or puttering around the house, watching daytime TV. Or, in the case of shows like Wheel and Jeopardy, which often air on TV stations after the network evening newscasts, their hosts are a relaxed presence easing you into the night.

Sajak channeled that inoffensive style well – even when news broke in 2019, amid the country’s increasing political polarization, that he was named chairman of the board of trustees for Hillsdale College, the private, conservative Christian school.

When he was paired with actress and model Vanna White in 1982, the two had chemistry like a charismatic couple leading a game among friends.

So, what are we losing, now that the last of the old school game show hosts is leaving the job?

New hosts with celebrity cachet

These days, thanks to network TV’s shrinking appetite for scripted TV series, there are more game shows than ever – from revivals of classic formats like Family Feud and Password to new inventions like Beat Shazam and The 1% Club. But the old school hosts have retired and/or died, like Trebek on Jeopardy, Barker from The Price is Right and Richard Dawson from Family Feud.

In their place are leaders who have already earned fame as performers elsewhere, bringing their fame, fanbase and persona to the screen. Consider Glee alum Jane Lynch on Weakest Link, actor/standup comic/musician Jamie Foxx on Beat Shazam or The West Wing alum Rob Lowe on The Floor. Even new Jeopardy host Ken Jennings was a champion on the program before he began hosting it.

Stand-up comics and improvisational performers accustomed to thinking on their feet have done well here, including Drew Carey, who succeeded Barker on The Price is Right, Let’s Make a Deal’s Wayne Brady and Family Feud’s Steve Harvey, who Syracuse University’s Thompson says is the king of game show hosts now – for his ability to inject personality and humor without derailing the game.

Old-school hosts were never expected to be an audience draw and even Wheel of Fortune's success has seemed a bit of a happy accident. Paired with Jeopardy in many TV markets, the two shows have become ratings juggernauts together, with the tough, intellectually challenging questions of Jeopardy balanced by the easy wordplay on Wheel of Fortune.

And who can resist solving a good word puzzle?

Given all that, it makes a certain kind of sense that Sajak's replacement would be the closest modern equivalent of an old-school game show host: radio personality and American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who has amassed his own endless list of hosting gigs.

Thompson expects the show’s popularity to keep chugging along when Seacrest takes over the show alongside Vanna White in September.

"If Barker and Trebek can be replaced… then Sajak can," he adds. "I think the formats on these shows have become the star now. All the hosts have to do is stay out of the way and keep things moving along."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.