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Pat Sajak's last day: A look at what made the 'Wheel of Fortune' host so special

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK, everyone. I am thinking of a word. It's seven letters, three vowels. Could it be the word goodbye? Sorry. I had to do it because Pat Sajak...

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ding, ding, ding.

CHANG: ...The longtime host of "Wheel Of Fortune" is retiring after more than 40 years. And in an interview with his daughter, Maggie, he said he never expected to keep the job forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT SAJAK: My goal is not - it was not, you know, to do the job and to, like, keel over on it. I've always said I'd rather leave a couple of years too early than a couple of years too late.

CHANG: Tonight is Sajak's last episode, and NPR's Eric Deggans has written all about this for our website, and he is here in the studio at NPR West to talk all about it. So great to have you here, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, so good to be here.

CHANG: All right. So tell me what you think is so special and unique about Pat Sajak as a game show host.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, I guess what's special is that he wasn't obviously special, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: OK.

DEGGANS: As I noted in the story that I did for npr.org, he was part of this generation of old-school game show hosts from decades ago who seemed almost designed to be inoffensive, affable, slightly witty. You know, think about former "Price Is Right" host Bob Barker.

CHANG: Yeah.

DEGGANS: You know, once upon a time, there were a lot of these guys on TV. They were telegenic, usually former radio hosts or local TV personalities. In fact, Pat Sajak was a weatherman at KNBC here in Los Angeles when "Wheel Of Fortune" creator Merv Griffin called him in 1981 about possibly taking over the show. Now, these guys, and they were almost always middle-aged white guys...

CHANG: Of course.

DEGGANS: Of course - were there to explain the rules to contestants and the audience, keep the players in check and keep the game moving along, all of which Sajak managed quite well for more than four decades and more than 8,000 episodes.

CHANG: Eight thousand episodes. What do you think was the secret behind that longevity? Like, why was this show so incredibly popular for so long?

DEGGANS: I think there were a few reasons. Now, it's tough to resist a good word puzzle. You know, Wordle fans know that. And the game itself is essentially a televised version of the old hangman game. Now, many years ago, "Wheel Of Fortune" was paired with "Jeopardy!" on TV stations across the country. So you got "Jeopardy!," this tough quiz show that can intimidate viewers, and then "Wheel Of Fortune" comes along with these simpler word puzzles.

CHANG: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: Now, Sajak was also paired with former model Vanna White, who reveals the letters in the puzzles, and they have this chemistry. They come off like a genial, married couple. And White posted a farewell message to Sajak on the show's YouTube page, where she got a little bit emotional. Let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VANNA WHITE: What an incredible and unforgettable journey we've had. And I've enjoyed every minute of it with you.

CHANG: Aw.

DEGGANS: Yeah. Now, Vanna White's going to keep working on the show. She's going to join "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest, who will succeed Sajak - succeed Sajak, say that five times - in September.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, Eric, because there are all these other new game shows on TV now, and I'm curious, do you think the model for game show hosts is changing?

DEGGANS: Yeah. It seems like most contemporary game shows feature hosts who are already famous as performers somewhere else, whether it's comic Steve Harvey on "Family Feud" or even current "Jeopardy!" host Ken Jennings, who was a champion on the show before he took over the show from Alex Trebek. I think networks are afraid viewers won't watch, especially newer game shows, if they aren't hosted by somebody who's already a star because there's so much competition on TV days. But shows like "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel Of Fortune" have been around for so long that the format is really the star. So as long as Seacrest stays out of the way, keeps things moving, I think he's going to be just fine.

CHANG: That is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you so much for being here, Eric.

DEGGANS: "Wheel Of Fortune."

CHANG: "Wheel Of Fortune."

DEGGANS: You got to love it.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.