Wheel of Fortune, the longest-running syndicated game show in American television history, is celebrating a special anniversary this month -- one quarter-century of syndication. You may not be breaking out the party hats, but this milestone makes me think of my own "Wheel World" experience as a contestant -- and the psychological schooling that followed. Can you spell R-E-G-R-E-T?
In late 1990, I was 23, unemployed, living in a college friend's living room, and nonetheless full of hope. When you're unemployed in America, the next logical step is to look for a job. When you live in Los Angeles, the next logical step is to audition for a game show. And so that day, at a friend's suggestion, it seemed only natural to drive to Burbank and try out for the Sajak Spinfest.
After waiting on line for an hour, I and about 60 other hopefuls were ushered into a sterile room with a two-way mirror. Each of us was given an "I Auditioned for Wheel of Fortune!" pencil, presumably to wow our friends and family and place immediately under glass. I'd be lying if I said I didn't still have mine.
Two stern-looking women introduced themselves and took a few questions, quickly dismissing the ridiculous but widely-held notion that we would somehow get to meet Pat and Vanna. Instead we were introduced to a series of cryptograms and an hour to complete as many as our tiny pencils would allow. It was like the SAT for 4th graders. Later we played sample games, introduced ourselves and our odd hobbies, and learned to say things like, "Come on, Rhonda!", "You can do it, Fred!" and "Big Money, Julio!" with complete sincerity.
Weeks after the final audition, I got a letter from Merv Griffin Productions saying I'd be scheduled "soon." I was ecstatic. I swore to watch as many game shows as I could, play Scrabble every day, improve my hand-eye coordination on a range of arcade machines, and memorize every Chinese cookie proverb I came across.
Nearly two years later, having done absolutely none of those things, I got the call. By this time in my life, I had a job, an apartment, and a native Los Angeles girlfriend who was more than prepared to jump into the passenger seat of a newly-acquired American automobile on national television.
I brought my Dad's oversized double-breasted dinner jacket and a caffeine-inspired positive attitude to the CBS Studios in Los Angeles where an entire week's worth of Wheels are shot in one afternoon.
After being treated to a gratuitously sugary lunch, we were handed some rules:
Don't say "Oh my God" or make other references to higher powers, even Merv Griffin.
Don't say "please" or "thank you". Just the letter or answer, and that's it.
Don't ogle Vanna.
Alright, the last one wasn't stated, but understood.
By the time I got onstage, a poor draw placed me in the dreaded "third position" alongside a token "Midwestern Mom", already up $40,000 from the previous game, and a balding token "Cowboy Guy." The big prize was a $25,000 annuity. At the time, I had no clue what an annuity was. None of us did. But we all desperately wanted that annuity as if it were an antidote to life's problems.
Cowboy Guy quickly and prodigiously solved the first two puzzles.
"Is it...Auto-bah-ography, Pat?" he said with only the "A" and two "O"s showing.
"It sure is," said Pat, not even chiding Cowboy Guy for his flagrant excessive-words violation.
Moments later, I not only got a turn, but a real opportunity. The puzzle was a "before-after": two phrases, joined by a shared inner word. The example they gave during our prep is "Burt Reynolds Wrap". I think Wheel of Fortune ran out of actual recognizable phrases sometime around 1987, and it wouldn't be long before they just whipped out the Yellow Pages for stumpers like "130 Johnson Street" and "Manny's Plumbing."
The puzzle's vowels had already been called and placed. Solving a Wheel of Fortune puzzle with all the vowels already showing should be no harder then recognizing your Grandpa Louie behind a Santa Claus outfit.
On my turn, this was my Santa (the slashes separate complete words):
__ / __AR__S / THE / S__OT / RE__OVER
I looked and thought (and you may too): How could a one-letter word NOT be a vowel?
Time was a jackrabbit. I focused on the word "S-something-O-T" and looked at the remaining letters. The image of Las Vegas suddenly leaped into my mind, with all of its one-armed bandits. That's the first and last time I spontaneously thought about Vegas.
"L," I nearly shouted.
A buzzer rang out.
"No, I'm sorry, Joel," said Pat.
Time stopped then. The jackrabbit died.
But Cowboy Guy blew his turn too, and suddenly I was one spun-"Bankrupt" away from getting my turn back. Maybe Midwestern Mom would feel bad for me, I delusionally thought, and sabotage her turn on purpose. After all, she already had $40,000 locked up, and she seemed like a very sweet...
"Pat, I think I know it. Is it 'X Marks The Spot Remover?'"
That selfish, too-many-words-spouting, rule-breaking bitch!
"You're right!" Pat said.
"Oh My GOD!" Midwestern Mom said.
The studio atmosphere felt thick for the rest of the game. At the time I thought it was the artificial air being pumped inside the building, but I know now it was a cloud of assured doom hanging palpably within the air. I was going to win nothing.
As Pat made his consolation rounds, he shook my hand warmly, looked into my eyes sympathetically like a blood relative, and said something like, "You know Joel, as so many contestants learn, it unfortunately doesn't help to know the answer when it's not your turn."
At the time, Pat's words seemed profound and consoling.
With all the wit, cleverness, and grace I could summon in front of millions of TV-loving Americans, I looked at him and said: "Uh huh."
With three Hs and only one vowel, "uh huh" would have been a decent bonus round puzzle; as a snappy comeback, it was just pathetic. My girlfriend and I were back in my bruised Mazda hatchback before we knew it, driving the lonely freeway back to North Hollywood.
For a few years thereafter, a friend or colleague would inevitably see me on TV and come screaming into work to out me as if I were a Nazi fugitive. But my profound disappointment and embarrassment -- just like the show's many reruns -- were no match for time.
Still, the regret of a single letter choice still leaves me empty. M! M!! If I had said "M" instead of "L," my future would have spelled itself out before me, and I'd be one annuity richer than I am right now, whatever that means.
Congratulations to Pat and Vanna and the Gods of Syndication on their 25 years. As for me, I fear I'll never fill that tiny vowel-sized void in my heart, no matter how many slot removers I try.