Stop Buying Vowels

I love the popular game show Wheel of Fortune. When I say popular, I mean it’s po pular with 90% of those over 60 years old, the marketing demographic known as th e “Baby Boomers”, “Blue-hairs” or “Wheel Watchers”. My Mom watched this show for as long a I can remember, and my own aspirations of appearing on the program developed as I entered junior high. It was usually on when my Mother and I were eating dinner, so after the news we would plop out the TV trays and get our game faces on. After my sister left for college and it was just the two of us, the thirty minutes during Wheel of Fortu ne were time that we spent doing very little talking but a great deal of bonding . If we did talk, the conversation usually consisted of unfinished sentences di rected at the television, followed by cursing when we realized our answers were wrong (“Fit to be…Fit to be lied? Oh, Fit to be TIED…Damn it!”). As hip as I thought I was in junior high and high school as a semi-popular, wannabe jock, I was alway s a little sad if I got home too late to watch Wheel. I grew up watching in the days when you solved a puzzle and quickly had to spend the cash as you watched a rotating stage of prizes, usually consisting of crapp y pot and pan sets, sewing machines, and horrid pieces of so-called art that wer e supposed to be high-end décor, pieces so ridiculous that no one in their right m ind would spend their own, hard-earned money on them if they saw them in a depar tment store. But when those awful pieces were on the Wheel’s spinning stage of pri zes and it was Merv’s money you were spending, price was an afterthought. My feelings for the show turned from healthy infatuation to a critical analysis after I recently watched an episode where a young engineering student from my al ma mater, Iowa State University, was on during College Week. I proceeded to bre ak down every detail of his performance. First of all, you could tell by his demeanor and his nervous fidgeting that he w as completely out to lunch. And in the end, my assumption was correct. If Whee l of Fortune had been a foot race, he would never have heard the starter’s gun go off. If it had been during one of the show’s week-long themes like ‘New to the Engl ish Language Week’ or ‘Never Seen This Show Before Week’, I could understand how someo ne studying engineering at a collegiate level could have performed that poorly. It is quite possible that this sparkplug from ISU was intimidated, even hung ove r, considering he had no doubt spent most of his life in the fabulous Midwest an d was just handed a free ticket to L.A. It is also possible that he was not ver y smart, because, let’s face it, I’m not exactly killing it in the world of words an d phrases, and I graduated from the same school. But this guy was an engineerin g student, so let’s go with intimidated. Neither Pat nor Vanna stopped to help th e overwhelmed student gather his puzzle-solving composure. They just watched as he was ground against the rails beneath the barreling game show locomotive know n as The Wheel. I think everyone should have a game show that they follow religiously. As you a spire for game show greatness, one should mind the details and realize what you’re up against before your day in the sun. WHEEL! OF! FOR-TUNE! The crowd chants the name, the theme music starts and an other show has begun. Vanna White and Pat Sajak make their grand entrance, wavi ng to the adoring crowd, whispering the game plan to each other before they go t heir separate ways, furthering the “us against them” feeling that hovers over each e pisode. They take their places, not even acknowledging the contestants until th ey are forced to greet them with a fake smile and polite nod. My oldest daughte r has begun to gain a sense of the power that is Pat Sajak. We recently watched

the opening of an episode together: Daughter #1, as the theme music starts: “Dad, what’s his name?” Me: “Pat Sajak.” Daughter #1: “Is there a Mrs. Sajak?” As if she is considering marriage to a game s how host as a career choice. Me: “Yes, I think so.” Daughter #1: “Ooooohhhh.” She stares at the screen, as if in a trance. Drink the kool-aid, honey. Good girl. Pat asks the contestants to tell him a little bit about themselves, not that he gives two shits. Before these poor contestants know it, they’re off and rolling w ith the first “toss-up” puzzle, and there’s no time to ask for autographs or be star s truck. Unlike Family Feud, none of your relatives are there to help you come up with the answers. There’s no drunken host to stumble around and slur out the que stion to buy you some time. No happy Chuck Woolery to smile and remind you “It’s ju st a game, and even though you’re getting your ass kicked in the points, you’ll prob ably still get in her pants” like on The Dating Game. No smooth Bob Barker and hi s old car antenna microphone eagerly accepting a kiss on the cheek. This is Whe el, and each new contestant is faced with some tough puzzles to solve, not to me ntion the shifty, shady Pat Sajak. The initial encounter with the ominous Pat Sajak and Vanna White is enough to ra ttle anyone’s cage. Assuming the contestants maintain their composure and don’t pis s themselves when asked to pick up their buzzers, they then must come to grips w ith the giant wheel of spinning cash and prizes Despite the frustrations I have with the show’s bully-of-a-host and his feathered, blown dry hairdo, my hope to someday appear on the show has not dimmed. As I p lan for this glorious moment, I am not only fine-tuning my game strategy and pol ishing my spelling, but I am also amassing a number of questions I hope to get a nswered during the taping. 1) What is Vanna’s story? Can she even spell? Is she a robot? How much mon ey does she make? In the old days, she used to have to physically spin these giant glowing cubes t o reveal the letters. She was probably burdened with game board maintenance, ha ving to wipe it down after every show and lube the axles of the spinning blocks. These days, if the letter the contestant guessed is in the puzzle, it illumina tes, Vanna walks over to it and merely has to touch it. The blank space then re veals the consonant or vowel, like she’s carrying some magic wand of the English l anguage. I’m thinking she filed some sort of disability case against the show, possibly for tennis elbow or carpal tunnel, hired a slick legal counselor and won the jury o ver with her infectious smile, thus forcing Merv to switch to a non-labor intens ive puzzle board. In neither case does she have to know the answer to the puzzl e, or how to spell for that matter. She could even carry a cocktail while she w orked. I would guess Vanna is a very nice person and fully literate, but how ironically awesome would it be if she couldn’t spell? She does tend to stare at the board u ntil it lights up, guiding her to the next letter to be turned. Maybe she’s lazy. Maybe Mr. Sajak scolded her once for starting her strut too soon and stealing the puzzle board’s thunder. Perhaps the puzzle board is its own organism that thr eatens Vanna when she angers it (“I’m sorry, Vanna, I can’t let you do that”). An experienced, nationally known, giant letter-turner probably pulls down high s ix to low seven figures, not to mention any speaking fees she may accrue as a ce lebrity guest at different events. Those could be challenging if she really did n’t know how to read or spell, especially if she were, say, a celebrity auctioneer at a fund-raising gala. I’m guessing if you can’t read or spell that you didn’t catc h the ‘talk ridiculously fast’ bug, either. 2) What is the pre-show process? I’m sure there is the usual identity verification, questions about your family, oc

cupation, hometown, and a few minor health background questions (“Do you get nause ated staring at a giant spinning wheel of cash and prizes?”). During this pre-epi sode screening, I doubt they would put you on the show if you sat there and said absolutely nothing, so as part of my strategy I plan to lie, providing them the most inaccurate information about my background or current lifestyle. Game Show Strategist / ME: “Yes, I’m a radiologist from San Diego, California, and live with my life partner, Malcolm, in a loft downtown. We enjoy rooftop garden ing, baking bread and yoga.” Game Show Analysts / Bastards: “Well, I guess we can’t challenge him with any puzzl es regarding family medicine, the Pacific Coast or agronomy. We’ll have to confus e him using puzzles about beer, living in the middle of nowhere and, of course, Super Mario Kart.” Advantage, Me! I wonder if the contestants are given any advance warning of possible interrupti ons. Wheel is also one of those shows that rarely slips out of its usual routin e, seamlessly moving from one puzzle to the next with the only interruption bein g the regularly scheduled commercial breaks. But on a recent episode during ‘Pet Lovers Week’, after the second puzzle was solved (probably a prize puzzle resultin g in a lifetime supply of lint rollers for the pet-hair-covered solver), instead of moving on to the next round, Betty White came out and talked for what seemed like an eternity about some animal rescue project she was promoting in Los Ange les. If I were one of the contestants, especially one of the contestants not in the l ead at the time, I would have been pissed about the amount of puzzle-solving tim e wasted by the guest appearance of that bag of bones. Of course, if I were in the lead, I would try to stall, raising my hand to ask Betty a few questions, l ike, “How many muscle relaxers did you have to take to get through so many tapings of The Golden Girls without going postal?” On the off chance that I was not in t he lead and was stalled along with the other contestants, I would have interrup ted her by just spinning the wheel and asking for a letter, even when a new puzz le had not yet been displayed. Or better yet, I would just get my mug on camera and attempt to insult her until she left us alone to resume our puzzle solving. ME: “I’d like to solve the puzzle, Pat,” I would shout to be sure the ridiculous circ us was interrupted. Sajak: “There’s no puzzle to solve---“ ME: “Hit…The...Fucking...Bricks...Betty” drawn out in slow, puzzle solving, one-word sentences. 3) Why are people still buying vowels? I understand literacy is on the slide, but they don’t just let anyone on this show . Most contestants get a few letters right and then proceed to spend all their hard-earned money on vowels, like some acne-covered junior higher blowing their paper route paycheck at the local mall. It is hard enough to make money on that show, with all the Bankrupt and Lose a Turn landmines on the wheel. These A’s, E’s, ‘Is, O’s and U’s come with a price tag, and this show is about making money. Real “tak e it home, turn it in to singles and spend it at the strip club” money, no longer the imaginary Merv-money that has to be spent on bar stool sets, knife blocks an d other crap you don’t need or want. My plan is to let someone else buy the vowel s. Then when they hit Bankrupt or Lose a Turn, swoop in and solve the half-fini shed puzzle like the game show vulture you know you are. Nothing is more frustrating than when a contestant loudly proclaims, “I’d like to bu y a vowel”, as if everyone should shut up and listen because this contestant is ab out to do something totally awesome, then they ask to purchase a vowel that isn’t even in the puzzle. Even Vanna laughs, and I’m pretty sure she isn’t allowed to tal k during taping. If people take the time and spend the money to buy vowels that aren’t even in the puzzle, Sajak should have the contestant eliminated from the remainder of the ga me. They should be asked to leave the set with a camera following their every st

ep. As they exit the stage in tears, they should have to walk past Vanna as she shakes her head and spits at them in disgust, the audience booing and shouting profanities in the background. 4) What were the old consolation prizes? This question would have to be answered during the ‘Winners Only’ cocktail hour that is sure to follow the taping of my episode of glory. When someone did not make the bonus round, they got to take home any of the shitty prizes they bought wit h their pretend money during the game and the “nice” consolation prizes awaiting the m backstage. If they are so nice, why were they always kept backstage and not w heeled out on a decorated cart for the viewing audience to see? I am quite positive these gifts were demeaning and salted the wound of the conte stant’s poor performance, like maybe a used Walkman or travel-sized dictionary wit h a card attached that read: Third place out of three….Knot tue Baad! Yoars Truwlee, Pat, Vanna and the Merv!! P.S. Tell your third grade classmates we said “Hello”, and keep watching the wheel every weeknight at 6:30 Central! 5) Why do contestants scream out the answer? I understand their excitement, but what about the possibility their answer is no t only wrong but it may give some helpful hints to their competitors? Don’t get m e wrong, there is nothing sexier or better for ratings than an overweight, middl e-aged woman screaming “Pulled Pork Sandwich” while solving a puzzle from the “On the Menu” category. But the contestants who shout incorrect answers are making fool s of themselves in front of two million medicated blue-hairs. Do these contesta nts really think the senior citizens watching who already have both their televi sion volume maxed and their hearing aids cranked appreciate their shouting? If I get on the show, my strategy would be to say, “I would like to solve the puzz le”, and then wave Mr. Sajak over and whisper my hopeful answer in his ear, giving no ground to my competitors. The other contestants will glare at me in disgust , and I won’t care because I will not have taken the time to get to know them nor will I ever see them again in my life. They will be packing their shit and chec king out of their hotels while I’m busy solving the bonus round puzzle, followed b y scotch with Merv and intoxicated passes at Vanna, the grand finale being a dru nken brawl between myself (the heroic puzzle solver) and the evil Pat Sajak. I will change this game show from a game of shouting wrong answers at a giant boar d of letters and an illiterate millionaire to a game of strategy, just like the game Press Your Luck, whose little, red, cartoon-ish devils I would also like to drunkenly challenge to a fist fight.

Being a realist, I know my chances of getting on this show are slim, especially living in Des Moines, Iowa. We’re not exactly a regular stop on the Wheel’s America n Tour, or anyone’s American Tour, for that matter. Wheel of Fortune has had try-outs at our local malls, but I never go. Pessimist ically, I tell myself that they have these try-outs every eighteen months or so just to stir up their legions of fans and remind them to watch the show in an ef fort to stabilize ratings. I think the real reason I don’t go is because I don’t wa nt to be disappointed by the theme music fed in over the crappy sound system and the imposter host and hostess that they dress up to act and look like Pat and V anna. Even if they could get the guy’s hair to look exactly like Sajak’s Sonic the Hedgehog ‘do and trained him to deliver the classic Sajak “worthless-fucking-contest ant grin”, I’m still not booking my ticket to the Merv Griffin studios. Until I get my shot at the real thing and not the shitty mall try outs, I will remain Wheel of Fortune’s best kept secret, solving puzzles and kicking asses from behind my T V tray.

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