|Wheel of Misfortune|
|When you’re jobless in America, the logical step is to look for work. When you live in Los Angeles, the logical step is to audition. In 1990, at 23, I had just moved to L.A. I didn’t have a job, a car, or a girlfriend, and slept in a friend’s living room in Burbank. I had nothing to anchor my life, but also nothing to lose, so when I heard “Wheel of Fortune” was holding contestant auditions nearby, I took my place in line as if it were hand-out day at the unemployment office.
I’d grown up with the show, especially at suppertime – Pat Sajak was a constant guest at our Texas dinner table. Coming from a crazy empathically-challenged Jewish household, I was particularly transfixed by the way he was able to console the game’s losers with only a handshake and a few choice words.
In a sterile room with a two-way mirror, about 50 of us -- some whom spoke very little English, others under the idiotic impression they would meet Pat and Vanna -- were given an hour to complete as many cryptograms as our tiny golf pencils would allow. It was like the SAT for 4th graders. Later we played sample games, introduced ourselves and our odd hobbies, and practiced saying things like, “Big Money, Julio!” with complete sincerity. When I got my official letter from Merv Griffin Productions a week later saying I’d be scheduled “soon,” I was ecstatic.
A year passed before I heard from Merv again. In that time, I landed a good job selling casting directories, got a comfy apartment, and found a girlfriend. But when I showed up at the “Wheel of Fortune” studio in Culver City, my sense of accomplishment paled. I was sweating profusely in my Dad’s over-sized navy dinner jacket, and inside my head was the throbbing thought that my parents would be watching.
We were given a sugary lunch and some rules: Be happy and supportive. Don’t say “oh my God” or make other references to higher powers. Don’t say “please” or “thank you.” I memorized these directives as if my future depended on them.
My panel included a balding cowboy from Kentucky who looked strikingly like Garth Brooks and Mary, a Midwestern mom already up $25,000 from the previous game. In the third position was me, a transplanted Jew from North Hollywood. Together we seemed like a bar joke in the making. On cue, we ran goofily to our positions as the magical harp theme opened the show.
Pat came out for the official introductions and worked us like a seasoned politician. I had an urge to describe the palpable sense of fate hanging heavily around me in the cold studio atmosphere, but I settled on my name and generic occupation. He smiled and nodded as if reading my mind, and moved to his post.
Cowboy Garth quickly and prodigiously solved the first two puzzles.
“Is it…Autobahography, Pat?” he said with only the “A” and two “O”s showing.
“It sure is,” said Pat, not chiding Cowboy Garth for his flagrant excessive-words violation.
I didn’t get many turns in the first two rounds. In the third round, things started to happen. The puzzle was a “before-after”: two common phrases, joined by a shared inner word. Before long, I was up $3000 plus a dude ranch vacation. I had no idea what a dude ranch vacation was but felt immediately incomplete without one. At this point, all the vowels were showing. Solving a “Wheel” puzzle with all the vowels showing should be no harder than recognizing your own car in a small parking lot. This is was my lot:
_ _AR _S THE S_OT RE_OVER
I thought. How could a one-letter word NOT be a vowel?
Time was a jackrabbit. I kept thinking “revolver,” which didn’t fit, but effectively pushed the letter L to the front of my mind. I focused on “S-something-O-T”. Slot? SLOT!
“L,” I shouted.
A buzzer rang out.
“No, I’m sorry, Joel,” said Pat.
The jackrabbit died.
Cowboy Garth blew his turn too, and suddenly I was one spun-“Bankrupt” away from getting my turn back. Maybe Midwestern Mary would feel bad for me and sabotage her own turn, I delusionally thought. After all, she had already won $25,000, and seemed sweet…
“Pat, I think I know it. Is it ‘X Marks the Spot Remover?’”
That selfish, too-many-words-spouting, rule-breaking bitch!
“It is indeed!” said Pat.
“Oh my GOD!” Mary said loudly.
I realized it wasn’t fate I had sensed in the air; it was doom. After waiting an entire year for this moment, I knew I’d go home with nothing, perhaps less than nothing.
As Pat made his consolation rounds, he shook my hand warmly, looked into my eyes, and said without the least bit of condescension, “I’m sorry, Joel. You know, when you don’t get a chance to spin, you don’t really get a chance to win.” At the time, it seemed profound. I was back in my car before I knew it, driving home the long way. That night, all routes home were the long way.
The box of cheap consolation prizes that arrived a week later sat unopened in my apartment for days. With Pat’s consolation fading like a hangover, I felt as if I had lost my purpose in life, or left it behind on the heavy wheel somewhere between Bankrupt and Lose a Turn. But that terrible feeling, like my show’s reruns, was no match for time.
This year, Pat Sajak will celebrate his 25th anniversary as host of the most popular syndicated TV game show on the planet. While I’ve moved on, he seems to have stayed in the same place. I don’t even think the quarter-century has aged him, but maybe that’s just television. I’ve come to recognize game shows as intense, addictive, and completely insignificant distractions. Now when I’m near a TV and hear that familiar magic harp, I quickly change the channel. I can handle failure, even regret, but I’ll probably never refill that tiny vowel-sized void in my heart.