My Wheel of (Mis)Fortune Contestant Experience

A true story requested by @bjnovak
  1. In late 1990, I was 23, unemployed, and living in a college friend’s living room. I didn't even have a nice suit. But I was 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.
  2. So when my friend got two audition tickets for Wheel of Fortune and offered me one, it felt like a moment that was meant to happen...Well, I was the seventh person she asked, and apparently the only one who could afford to kill a weekday, but it was a moment nonetheless.
  3. A week later, about 60 of us hopefuls showed up at Burbank Studios -- home to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We were ushered into a sterile room with a two-way mirror. Two stern-looking women introduced themselves and took questions, quickly dismissing the notion that we would somehow get to meet Pat and Vanna right there and then.
  4. 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). They gave us a simple cryptogram quiz basically to see if we knew the difference between a vowel and a consonant. That alone narrowed our 60 down to 12.
  5. 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.
  6. Weeks after the audition, I got a letter from Merv Griffin Productions saying I’d be scheduled “soon.” I was ecstatic. I immediately vowed to watch every Wheel of Fortune episode I could, play scrabble every chance I had, and stir cookie batter on a weekly basis to build the strength and endurance of my “spinning arm.”
  7. A year-and- a-half later – having done none of those things – I presented myself at the television studio as requested, but now I had a new job, my own apartment, a bona fide girlfriend, and even my Dad’s double-breasted navy blazer, which he clearly bought sometime during the Carter Administration.
  8. After being treated to a gratuitously sugary lunch, we were handed some rules: 1. Don’t say excess words like “I’d like a G, Pat.” Just say the letter. 2. Don’t refer to higher powers, as in “Oh My God!” or “SWEET JESUS, WHAT A PUZZLE!” 3. Don’t ogle Vanna. Well, they didn’t really say that last one, but it seemed like the polite thing to do.
  9. The Wheel was very heavy that day, my friends...but not nearly as heavy as the doom I felt when I was placed in the dreaded third position. Every time I knew the answer, it wasn’t my turn. Every time it was my turn, I didn’t know the answer. It was 8th grade algebra all over again!
  10. My poor draw placed me alongside a Midwestern Mom, already up $40,000 from the previous game, and a balding Cowboy Guy from Kentucky. The big prize was a $25,000 annuity. At the time, none of us had any clue what an annuity was. But that didn't stop us from wanting one desperately.
  11. Cowboy Guy quickly solved the first two puzzles, as if guided by a divine hand. “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.
  12. Moments later, I not only got a turn, but a real opportunity. The category was "before/after": two phrases that share an inner word. The example they gave us earlier was “Burt Reynolds Wrap” – a mashup of “Burt Reynolds” and “Reynolds Wrap”, two things that, by the way, wrinkle very easily.
  13. 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. This was my Santa:
  14. I looked at the board and thought: 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 letter L seemed to glow. In my mind, I saw the word “slot." I then saw the word “revolver." Both had Ls and, well, who among us doesn’t own a Slot Revolver?
  15. One second left. “L!” I said. Bzzzzzzzz. And just like that, my turn – and for all intents and purposes, the day -- was over.
  16. But then Cowboy Guy blew his turn too, and suddenly I was one spun-“Bankrupt” away from getting my turn back. Maybe Midwestern Mom would pity me and sabotage her turn on purpose. After all, she already had $40,000 locked up, and she seemed like a very sweet...
  17. “Pat, I think I know it. Is it ‘X Marks The Spot Remover?’” “You’re right!” Pat said. “Oh My GOD!” Midwestern Mom said. That selfish, too-many-words-spouting, higher power rule-breaking bitch! I even think I saw her ogling Vanna. So much for playing by the rules.
  18. Had I just one more turn, I would have won not only the round, but a dude ranch vacation! And if you’ve ever been on a dude ranch vacation, then you know...what one is. Because to this day, I still don’t.
  19. When all the spins were spun, Cowboy Guy had won $7,500. Midwestern Mom was going home with a two-day total of $46,000. And, me, I was left standing behind a blank screen. They didn’t even have the decency to give me a zero.
  20. Pat came over to me, put his hand on my back and said these fatherly words: "You know Joel, as so many contestants learn, it unfortunately doesn't help to know the answer when it's not your turn."
  21. At the time, it didn’t come across like something Pat actually says a thousand times a year. It seemed personal and empathic, as if he sincerely cared about me, and it made me feel better. For years afterward, I wanted Pat Sajak to console me whenever I had a bad day... but he never returned my phone calls.
  22. What do you say to someone who lost on Wheel of Fortune? It’s not like Hallmark makes a card for that. Coworkers came to me after it aired and said “Hey, I saw you on Wheel of Fortune” and nothing more. They had nothing positive to add. It’s like saying “Hey, I see you have a new haircut,” and leaving it at that.
  23. It was all very sad. To this day, I can’t watch Wheel of Fortune at all. And just for good measure, I also avoid Jeopardy.
  24. My profound disappointment has subsided over time. But the regret? Not so much. I may never fill that tiny vowel-sized void in my heart, no matter how many slot removers I try.