'Hangman with prizes': On the scene at the 30th anniversary of 'Wheel of Fortune'

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If you’ve always dreamed of yelling “Wheel… of… Fortune!” on national TV, prepare to be disappointed. It turns out that the shouts you hear when viewing the show at home are prerecorded — the voices of people you’ll never know, excited about a game you’re not actually watching.

I learned this fact in mid-March, when Wheel celebrated its 30th anniversary with four weeks’ worth of shows taped over the course of four days at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. (The tapings I attended are airing in syndication all this week; for fear of spoilers, the nice people at Wheel asked me to refrain from writing about the experience until now.)

Another thing I learned: Kids Today don’t seem to be Wheel‘s biggest fans. Before the taping began, the show’s warmup guy asked trivia questions to a few audience members. One of the people he chatted with was a 13-year-old who admitted he doesn’t watch the show. Later, a preteen girl seated directly behind me groaned when she realized the taping would take two hours: “Kill me now! Save the pain.” Her mom just chuckled indulgently.

Your loss, guys. A full three decades after the game show’s daily version began airing in syndication, Wheel still exudes an old-fashioned, eminently watchable charm. That charm’s especially palpable when you’re sitting in its live audience — surrounded by Wheel fans of all shapes and sizes, watching from a distance as a certified Pumper-Upper enthusiastically urges upcoming contestants to yell letters as loudly as they can, noting with satisfaction that Vanna White’s outfits are even sparklier and slinkier in person.

The episodes I saw — featuring contestants like a salt-of-the-earth driver who enjoys “casino gambling and barbecuing chicken” and numerous excitable types from New Jersey — were bookended by visits from local celebrities, including the hosts of The Chew and Jake Epstein, Broadway’s very own Spider-Man (and Degrassi‘s former head heartthrob). As Epstein tossed off cheesy tagline after cheesy tagline — “Just dropping in!” — I couldn’t help grinning. In an overly ironic age, there’s something refreshing about earnest corniness, especially when it’s punctuated by the spectacle of average people winning cars and nice piles of cash.

This, of course, is likely the reason that Wheel has survived as long as it has. “Television’s changed. In my mind, it’s become pretty nasty. A lot of television’s about embarrassing people, making people look stupid. And we don’t do that,” Wheel host Pat Sajak told me before the taping. “We’re kind of a safe haven for viewers. We treat our contestants with respect” — even when they occasionally give hilariously wrong answers. Pat’s personal favorite: an early contestant who thought “Barrel of Monkeys” was actually “Barrel of Vikings.”

Wheel executive producer Harry Friedman echoed Sajak’s sentiments, citing the show’s essential simplicity as well: “Basically, it’s Hangman with prizes.” And though the series has naturally evolved since 1983 — “If you watched a tape from the 80s, you’d be amazed at the different pace of the show,” Sajak said — it has generally stayed true to its core values: presenting an easy-to-follow, tougher-to-win contest that’s elevated by “fabulous” rewards and a pretty lady in a succession of shiny outfits.

After the taping was over, I headed to one of the Garden’s upstairs room for the game show’s official 30th anniversary party. Despite the PS3s pre-loaded with the Wheel of Fortune video game, it was a fittingly retro affair, complete with crab cakes and suited men of a certain age patting each other on the back. It was comforting, a little goofy, and generally entertaining — much like Wheel itself. Not bad at all, especially considering what Sajak pointed out during his own congratulatory toast: “We’re just playing Hangman here, after all.”

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