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The Pat Sajak Show

When the news broke a few months ago that this season of "Wheel of Fortune" would be Pat Sajak's last, I immediately thought it would be a good chance to remind everyone of his short-lived late-night talk show from the early 90s.  With the holidays and all, I never got around to it, but I thought this week would be a good chance to head back into Yester Year and refresh everyone's memory! 

For a time during the nineties and early aughts, I LOVED late-night talk shows.  Today, I find them full of bland, safe humor with interchangeable hosts that feature mostly one-sided political commentary that's often not even remotely funny.   But, back in the day, I couldn't get enough.  

In the 8th grade, my friend Chris and I would bicker like old married people over who was the best at late-night comedy:  Leno or Letterman?  (I was team Letterman.)  In college, my friends and I spent hours in the middle of the night watching Leno or Letterman, followed by Conan, The Daily Show, or something similar.  We'd also watch the movie "Late Night" frequently.  My pals and I enjoyed stand-up comedy and looked forward to seeing if our favorites would be on.  

When Conan took over the Tonight Show, the guys in my crashpad in Albany, New York, stayed up late every night (even when we had to be up at 3am for work) to watch his first few weeks.  Personally, I was excited to see Leno come back and soon realized my friend Chris may have been right about him all along.  

Around that same time, I was crashing on the sofa in my girlfriend's parent's basement.  We'd stay up late watching the TV down there, and our favorite late-night show was always Craig Ferguson's.  We have many memories of laughing into the night, especially when trapped indoors during a multi-day blizzard in New York.  In one particular "Woman on the Street" interview, a dazed and confused woman standing on the street during the blizzard coined a phrase we repeat to each other often: "You know?  I don't know."  You probably had to be there, but it's still funny to us.

A few decades earlier, as the 80s turned into the 90s, beloved game show host Pat Sajak created his own late-night show.  I was too young to watch it live, but I've watched a few hours of what's left of it on the internet, and I didn't think it was a terrible show.  Viewers at the time thought otherwise.  

Let's go back in time together, shall we?    

Pat Sajak was born Patrick Leanord Sajdak in Chicago on October 26, 1946.  After high school, he enrolled in Columbia College of Chicago while working as a desk clerk at The Palmer House Hilton Hotel.  He changed his Polish-origin name of Sajdak to the American pronunciation of "Sajak" when he entered the entertainment business.  His career began broadcasting for a local radio station before joining the United States Army and being shipped to Vietnam.  He became a disc jockey for the American Forces Vietnam Network, taking over the "Dawn Buster Show" that Adrian Cronauer (made famous by Robin Williams in "Good Morning, Vietnam!") had hosted for 14 months.  Sajak continued Cronauer's trademark of "Good Morning, Vietnam!" 

In the '70s, Sajak hosted shows on various radio stations around the country, including rural Kentucky and Nashville, Tennesee.  While in Nashville, the radio station's sister television station, WSMV, brought Sajak on screen, first as a voiceover artist and then anchoring the five-minute newscasts during NBC's Today Show.  He then became a weekend host and substitute weatherman.  In 1977, KNBC in Los Angeles needed a weather reporter and offered Sajak the job as the full-time weather reporter for the station.  

In 1981, Merv Griffin asked Pat if he would be interested in taking over the duties as host of Wheel of Fortune from Chuck Woolery, but Fred Silverman, President of NBC, rejected Sajak, claiming he was too "local."  Merv Griffin halted all production on his game show until Sajak was hired, but shortly after, Silverman was replaced by Brandon Tartikoff.  Sajak accepted the position and, from 1983 to 1989, hosted the daytime NBC and syndicated evening version of Wheel of Fortune.  In 2019, during his 36th season, he became the longest-running host of any game show, surpassing "The Price is Right" host Bob Barker.  

As Wheel of Fortune's popularity skyrocketed in the late 1980s, Sajak was offered an opportunity to host his own late-night take show on CBS.  

Michael Brockman, then the CBS Vice President of Daytime, Children's, and Late Night Programming, wanted a late-night talk show established on his network when Johnny Carson eventually announced his retirement from NBC.  Brockman had known Sajak since the late 70s when Pat was a weatherman for NBC.  At that time, Brockman had approached him about hosting a game show, but Sajak turned down the offer, wanting to host his own talk show instead.  

In 1986, as Wheel of Fortune was popular nationwide with Sajak as host, Brockman asked Pat to lunch and reminded him of that conversation years earlier.  Sajak confirmed interest in a talk show, and Brockman went to work getting approvals from his management to commit to the show.  This would be CBS's first foray into late-night talk shows since The Merv Griffin Show in 1972.  

In 1988, Sajak was still hosting the NBC daytime and syndicated nighttime version of "Wheel of Fortune" when he and CBS announced his new talk show.  After the announcement, Sajak would leave the daytime version of Wheel in January 1989, where he was replaced by Rolf Benirshke and, later, Bob Goen.  Sajak continued with the nighttime syndicated version and will wrap up his term on the show in 2024.  

CBS spent over $4 million for a new sound stage at Television City, specifically for the new talk show.

A "Pat Sajak Show" Commerical

In press before the show launched, Sajak joked that he was "not looking to raise the level of television."  He summarized his show, stating the plan was to "steal liberally" from past and present talk shows.  The show's format was similar to Carson's "The Tonight Show," consisting of comedy monologues, celebrity guests, and musical numbers.  Sajak wanted to avoid the traditional monologue at the top of the show and spend more time with his guests like Jack Paar did, but in the end, the producers convinced him to stick closer to Johnny Carson.  

A staff of over 30 was hired, and Pat Sajak was hired on a guaranteed two-year contract for reportedly $60,000 a week (roughly $125,000 per week in 2024 when adjusted for inflation.)Sajak's announcer and sidekick for the show was his close personal friend, Dan Miller, whom Sajak worked with at WSMV in Nashville.  CBS hired jazz musician Tom Scott as the bandleader.  Scott would go on a few years later to be the band leader of another short-lived talk show, "The Chevy Chase Show."  Interestingly enough, Chevy Chase was the first guest on "The Pat Sajak Show."  

After all the preparation, Pat Sajak's new show debuted on January 9, 1989.  The launch came at an unfortunate time, just six days after the debut of the immediately popular Arsenio Hall Show.  

Following Sajak's comedic monologue on the first show, he introduced Chevy Chase as the first guest on the show.  Following Chevy's appearance was an interview with soap opera star Joan Van Ark and a musical performance by The Judds.  Later in the show, Sajak interviewed Peter Ueberroth, the outgoing Commissioner of Major League Baseball.  

In one of the most memorable events in the show's history, Chevy Chase interrupted the interview by raising his hand and asking if he was allowed to use the bathroom.  He then got up and left the stage to much laughter from the audience.  Moments later, he interrupted the show again by returning to the stage and taking his seat.   

There was also an interview with sitcom star Michael Gross (Family Ties) before the show ended with a comedy act performed by stand-up comic Dennis Wolfberg.  

Clips From The First Show

That may seem like a jam-packed lineup for the first show, but from its debut in January until October of 1989, the show was 90 minutes long.  It was later reduced to 60 minutes to match the other network's talk shows.  Initially, "The Pat Sajak Show" would be carried on 195 stations nationwide.  This would be about 95% of all CBS affiliates, a marked increase over the 70% of stations carrying CBS' late-night block of reruns, police dramas, or movies.  

The New York Times had positive reviews of the first episode.  They did note that the show was "sometimes a trying exercise in trying to provide a little something for everyone." Still, they made the very positive critique that "if Jay Leno weren't around, he (Sajak) would be a perfect successor to Mr. Carson." 

The ratings were vital for the first two weeks, and the reviews were good.  In fact, the show led all late-night programming in total viewers.  

Viewer curiosity eventually wore off, and the ratings began to drop by the third week.  

"The Arsenio Hall Show" had been a surprise hit, and by August, Sajak trailed in the ratings to Carson, Arsenio, David Letterman, and ABC's news magazine show "Nightline."  

Ratings even fell below that of CBS's old late-night programming block.  "The Pat Sajak Show" would average half of Carson's viewers on NBC, while Arsenio Hall cornered the market on younger and more diverse viewers.  Still, Sajak averaged 3 million viewers per night, a boon for any show in 2024.  For example, the number one late-night show, Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show," averages just about 1 million per night today in 2024, although the public's television viewing habits have significantly changed.  

A complete 1990 episode of The Pat Sajak Show featuring Patrick Stewart

In any event, Sajak's show was more profitable for CBS than the original late-night programming due to a lower production budget and higher ad rates, so the show continued.  Despite the cancellation rumors, the show made it through its first year.  

Beginning in February of 1990, the show started to undergo several changes.  The producers slowly rolled out changes, such as scrapping Sajak's stand-up style monologue and replacing the couch, desk, and late-night backdrop with a round table and chairs.  Sajak's formal wardrobe and grand entrance at the top of the show were replaced with a more casual look and a brief seated monologue before jumping into the guest interviews.  The comedic-relief sidekick, Dan Miller, was eventually let go from the program.  The biggest change producers made was limiting Pat Sajak to four nights a week and introducing a rotating cast of Guest Hosts on Fridays.

The "round table" format

The inclusion of guest hosts resulted in the most infamous episode of the show on March 30, 1990.  That week's Guest Host was conservative political talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who attempted to gauge the audience member's thoughts on polarizing topics such as abortion and Affirmative Action.  He would end up arguing with members of the audience, and after two segments full of heated exchanges, the audience was cleared for the final segment. 

Affiliates began removing the show from their lineup for syndicated programming shortly after the Limbaugh episode, more so because of ratings than Limbaugh.  Pat Sajak hosted his show for the final time on April 5, 1990, before leaving the United States on his honeymoon vacation to Europe.  

Five days later, on April 9, CBS announced the cancellation of The Pat Sajak Show due to low ratings.  Once informed of the cancellation, Sajak opted not to return for a final week of shows and instead allowed the scheduled guest hosts to run the final week.  On April 13, 1990, comedian Paul Rodriguez had the honor of finishing "The Pat Sajak Show's" 15-month run.

CBS restored its Late Night block of movies and reruns, and in many markets, Sajak's show was replaced by Arsenio Hall.  CBS would not program another late-night talk show until David Letterman moved to the network in the summer of 1993.  

Also in 1993, Sajak's first guest, Chevy Chase, would launch his own late-night talk show on FOX.  Chase's show was even less successful than Pat Sajak's, lasting only 6 weeks.

Many years later, Sajak (serving as the Guest Host of "Larry King Live") interviewed Limbaugh and joked that his show had been going so well "that they auditioned my replacements live on air."  Limbaugh agreed and later suggested that the show's producers set him up with an audience full of political activists as a publicity stunt.  

Sajak would reflect in 2015 on his late-night experience during an interview with Mark Malkoff.  Sajak said the show failed simply because he didn't put out a show that people wanted to watch.  He has no regrets about trying the show and can always take solace in the fact that his show lasted eight months longer than Conan O'Brien's version of The Tonight Show and 13 months longer than The Chevy Chase Show. 

A view of the first episode, featuring Chevy Chase and Joan Van Ark

Studio 56 at CBS Television City would later host numerous other talk shows, including The Dennis Miller Show, Politically Incorrect, The Tyra Banks Show, and The Wanda Sykes Show.  In September 2012, "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" moved into Studio 56, bringing a late-night talk show to that location 22 years after The Pat Sajak Show was canceled.  In tribute, Ferguson installed an autographed photo of Sajak, hosting The Pat Sajak Show, on the set of "The Late Late Show."  

In September of 2021, it was announced that Pat Sajak had signed a new contract to continue hosting "Wheel of Fortune" through the 2023-24 season.  In June 2023, however, Sajak announced that he would retire as host of "Wheel" at the end of his current contract, ending his legendary run as a game show host.  Ryan Seacrest was announced as Sajak's successor.