In the late 1980s, CBS was looking for a plan. Johnny Carson was still dominating late night on NBC, and there was no sign of him slowing down. But even with no finish line in sight, he couldn’t run forever. CBS hadn’t competed in the late night arena since The Merv Griffin Show left the network for syndication in 1972, having lost a ratings battle to Carson. Now, the network wanted someone ready on the back burner for when the beloved host of The Tonight Show eventually retired—an announcement that, it was rumored, would happen within the year. And so, in January 1989, six days after the legendary Arsenio Hall Show first hit the airwaves, The Pat Sajak Show premiered.
Known for hosting the network version of game show Wheel of Fortune since 1981, and simultaneously the syndicated version since 1983, Pat Sajak left the former for a two-year contract with CBS, turning down another offer for a daytime talk show elsewhere. In preparation for the show, CBS reportedly spent over $4 million dollars on a new studio, and Sajak’s two-year deal was worth a reported $60,000 per week, with an option for 3 more years built in. Also joining the show was the all-male, jazz-rock-fusion Tom Scott Band, as well as announcer and sidekick Dan Miller, a former news anchor and longtime friend of Sajak’s from Nashville. Explaining why he didn’t choose a woman as his sidekick, Sajak said he worried viewers may have felt “as though Vanna [White, his Wheel of Fortune counterpart] and I had gotten a divorce or something.”
The Pat Sajak Show would ultimately be carried on 195 stations across the country—about 95% of CBS affiliates, as compared to Carson’s then-99% of NBC stations. This was, however, a marked increase over the 75-80% of stations that were carrying CBS’ late night block of reruns, action-adventure shows, and Canadian police dramas one year earlier.
The premiere featured Chevy Chase as its first guest. In what was widely noted as one of the opening night’s highlights, Chase interrupted Sajak’s interview with Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth to ask if he could use the bathroom, then departed and returned to the couch a few minutes later. Sajak’s first monologue also took shots at CBS’s troubled ratings.
A New York Times review of the show’s debut would point out that the show “makes no attempt to conceal its role model” in Carson’s Tonight. Sajak himself was repeatedly open about this goal in the press, explaining that he wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Even months into the show’s largely uneventful run, Sajak was sticking by his goal: “We set out just to make a good, solid talk show. There are a limited number of things you can do. If you set out to be different, you end up with The Wilton-North Report.”
While Sajak wanted to avoid a traditional monologue at the top of the show and spend more time on his guests like his friend Jack Paar did, he stuck largely to Carson’s convention, though he tried distinguishing himself by wearing silly and abstract neckties every night. Sajak also entered the fray as a 90-minute show, which Carson’s Tonight Show had done for its first 18 years. This pitted it against the first half-hour of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman as well. To allow some of the affiliates’ local news programs an extra half-hour of broadcast time, The Pat Sajak Show would reintroduce Sajak at the top of the show’s back hour, so as to keep newly tuned-in viewers up to speed. While the Times reviewer noted that Sajak’s first outing was “sometimes a trying exercise in trying to provide a little something for everyone” it went on to admit that “if Jay Leno weren’t around, he would be a perfect successor to Mr. Carson.”
As much as Sajak hoped to be the next Carson to America, he had no competitive edge or ill-will against the man. In an interview on Mark Malkoff’s Carson Podcast, Sajak noted that upon signing his deal with CBS, he called Carson’s camp to inform Johnny and thank him for his support. (Sajak had been a guest on The Tonight Show, and was set to guest host it for two nights in July 1987 before a director’s strike cancelled the tapings.) And the cordiality was mutual. After a tabloid falsely reported competitive tension between the two, Johnny sent word to Sajak that all was well between them, and that he knew the stories in the press were false.
Sajak would leave its premiere week at the top of the ratings. Of course, curiosity accounted for a sizable portion of this lead. Within two months, the show had fallen to last place. While CBS’s late night ratings were up 10% that quarter year-over-year, The Pat Sajak Show couldn’t overcome its competitors. Carson continued his longstanding ratings dominance—normally turning in ratings more than twice as high as Sajak’s average of 3 million—while Arsenio cornered the market on younger and more diverse demographics. And of course, Carson didn’t retire.
Six months in, Sajak was trailing in the ratings behind not only the syndicated Arsenio, but NBC 12:30-talker Letterman and ABC newsmagazine Nightline as well. But perhaps the most concerning ratings battle CBS faced was with itself: The Pat Sajak Show was now performing worse than CBS’ old late night block. Even so, Sajak was bringing in higher ad rates and requiring a lower production budget. All told, The Pat Sajak Show was more profitable for CBS, allowing Sajak some degree of temporary safety.
Ten months into its run, Sajak was shortened from 90 minutes to 60, just as Carson’s Tonight was in 1980. By March of 1990, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted rumors that a new late night show was in development at CBS “ostensibly to follow Sajak but more likely to replace it. The ax could fall after the network sees the February sweeps numbers.” But February would come to pass, and despite losing almost a million viewers that quarter from the year before, Sajak kept chugging on, albeit with renewal decisions coming two weeks at a time.
In early 1990, the show introduced some significant changes to differentiate it from Carson, including a new set, new aesthetic, and new format. Sajak dropped his desk, his formal wardrobe, and his banter with the bandleader. He even traded his grand entrance at the top of the show for a brief seated monologue and quick jump to the interviews. None of it helped..
Most significantly, CBS replaced Sajak with guest hosts every Friday. This resulted in an unusual bit of controversy and, ironically, the most memorable episode of the show’s run. In March 1990, a Rush Limbaugh-hosted episode featured the polarizing figure expressing anti-abortion and anti-Affirmative Action opinions, resulting in anti-Limbaugh jeers from the crowd. One audience member’s arguments even took aim past Limbaugh and at the network, threatening, “If CBS wants to make money off of you, we’ll boycott them as well.” After two segments of heated exchange, the audience was cleared out of the studio for the show’s final act.
In an interview with Sajak eleven years later, Limbaugh explained that Sajak’s producers were not involved with his episode, and said he suspected the angry audience was a set-up. He and Sajak also agreed that the introduction of guest hosts on the show had been a way for CBS to audition talent for the network.
The Pat Sajak Show was ultimately cancelled two weeks after the Limbaugh episode, in April 1990—15 months after it started. The show’s final week would not feature Sajak at all. On honeymoon in London when he was informed of the program’s cancellation, Sajak opted not to return for a final few weeks, instead allowing the scheduled guest host, comedian Paul Rodriguez, to anchor the last episode. Some CBS stations went on to carry Arsenio in its place.
In 1998, Sajak told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn’t all that interested in giving the talk show world another go, saying, “I don’t have much talk-show desire. It’s kind of a “been there, done that” kind of feeling.”
In 2015, Sajak reflected on the show’s brief run with Malkoff on The Carson Podcast. Sajak openly said that though CBS didn’t have a “talk show mentality” at the time, the blame ultimately rested at his feet. “In the end, if I had done a show that people really wanted to see, it would probably still be on the air,” he admitted. Simply put, “there wasn’t a compelling reason, necessarily, to watch it.”
However, Sajak would make somewhat of a return to the talk show world in 2003 with Pat Sajak Weekend, a Sunday-night talk show on Fox News Channel. It lasted only a few months.
The legacy of The Pat Sajak Show would be discussed once more in the new millennium. In 2010, Sajak posted a video of him interviewing Keith Olbermann on the show in 1989 to the conservative news website Ricochet, expressing regret that he “introduced Keith Olbermann to America.” Olbermann denied that claim and took a jab at Sajak: “I think if he needs to apologize for anything it needs to be that talk show.”
Despite both unsuccessful attempts at a talk show, Sajak has continued to find huge and lasting success on the nightly syndicated Wheel of Fortune, which has long been one of the most successful shows in syndication history. As for his time in late night, he remembers it fondly. “I have no regrets,” he told Malkoff. “I loved doing it.”