Pat Sajak Is The Center Of The Wheel

The best game show hosts personify their programs. Regis Philbin, on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” is a loud, flashy host of a loud, flashy prize. Alex Trebek, on “Jeopardy!”, runs his half-hour seminar like a cool, chatty Television Professor.

And Pat Sajak, who announced Monday he will be retiring as “Wheel of Fortune” host after next season? Pat Sajak… was there.

I don't mean that as an insult. Creature there is a very awesome hosting challenge, TV's toughest easy job. There's a skill to running a show without being a show, to maintain the vibe and the pace while letting the story play out around you. It is an art, to add to yoga, to be present and hold space. Nothing on Earth is stationary as the center of a spinning wheel.

In the more than four decades, since taking over from Chuck Woolery, Sajak has been in the shoes, bantering with Vanna White, swinging the wheel on the last lap, cringing at Bankrupts and anchoring eager winners. He was easy to listen to: joking but not too tense, sympathetic but not too dramatic, enthusiastic but not too excited.

And this, more than any personality quirk, is what helped “Wheel” remain one of America's top syndicated TV shows for decades. He is the median host for the median American game show.

The two poles of America's great game show are “Jeopardy!”, a high-stakes battle of fools that rewards book learning, and “The Price Is Right”, a guessing game that tests everyday consumer skills such as knowing what to pay for a box. Hamburger Helper. The “Wheel of Fortune” has always lived in the Goldilocks zone between the two.

This is a contest of language skills, but with practice wheels. (You buy vowels; you get the initial letters in the last bonus round.) There's a healthy element of luck – just look at the title. These can be played together, like a crossword puzzle that gradually fills itself in for you.

Initially, “Wheel” had a fun shopping segment, which had players blowing up their winnings. furniture and water skis. It was removed, but the prizes have remained modest, excluding such spins Million Dollar Wedge. As a brand, “Wheel” is neither too nerdy nor too down-market.

That more or less describes Sajak's on-air persona. He's not even the most distinctive presence on his own show. It would be his co-host, White, who turned the disclosure of letters into a civic ritual and could provide materials for all Ph.D. dissertation on women as subjects and objects in daytime TV. Rhyme is just Rhyme — like a statue and loves to show off. He is modest in his banter, mannerisms, even his name, all of which you can buy for $250.

But he was comfortable, and comfort gave birth to the habit of watching TV. In one of Martin Short's most memorable “Saturday Night Live” creations played Ed Grimley, the socially awkward “Wheel of Fortune” auditions with fantasies of impressing and befriending Sajak. “I think he'd be quite a nice guy,” said Grimley, grinning with glee. Sajak, represented by a black-and-white headshot, smiled blankly.

The American's easy parasocial relationship with Sajak is part of what made his late career turn into a conservative columnist and social media opinion is so jarring. It's not just hers pose with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene or her climate change denial – she has tweeted that “global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists who deliberately mislead for their own ends.” It was a discordant notion that made Pat Sajak very passionate whatever.

This is also why it's hard to imagine the search for a replacement for Sajak being the sort of off-screen hot soap that unfolds during “Jeopardy!” Hunted for Trebek's successor. Of course, there will be candidates and fan favorites and speculation — Rhyme tweetedafter its announcement, that “it will keep clickbait sites busy.”

But “Jeopardy!” the drama of succession, beyond the show's contest, became a kind of stand-in for a portfolio of cultural values. Arguments about aspiring celebrities and their qualifications are proxy battles over the value of knowledge culture, especially at a time of social battle over science, education, and actual facts vs. alternative.

Such a hot investment is the opposite of the “Wheel of Fortune” low spirit. The rhyme won't be its hub forever, but the whole point of a big wheel is to spin and spin and spin while staying in place.