Old School Americana & Nostalgia


‘Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak and His Forgotten Late-Night Show

‘Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak and His Forgotten Late-Night Show

Pat Sajak is beloved as the host of the game show Wheel of Fortune, but many fans have forgotten his time leading a late-night talk show. In the 1980s, Johnny Carson ruled the late-night TV realm on NBC, keeping his foot on the gas pedal with no pit stops in sight. However, CBS started preparing to nurture its own late-night host to capture Carson’s audience once he retired.

In January 1989, shortly after the groundbreaking Arsenio Hall Show premiered, The Pat Sajak Show made its debut, aiming to steal the spotlight… or at least give it a shot.

Michael Brockman, then Vice-President of CBS Daytime, Children’s, and Late-Night Programming, recognized Sajak’s popularity on both the daytime and syndicated versions of Wheel of Fortune. According to Vulture, to accommodate the new Pat Sajak Show, CBS built a $4 million sound stage.

The Tom Scott Band, a jazz-rock-fusion ensemble, joined the show along with Dan Miller as Sajak’s announcer and sidekick. Miller may have been another attempt to emulate Johnny Carson. The Nashville-based news anchor had a deep, gravily voice like Carson’s second banana Ed McMahon. Miller and Pat Sajak were also old friends from Sajak’s early broadcast days in Nashville, which promised baked-in chemistry.

Pat Sajak’s Late-Night Show Struggled With a Veteran Johnny Carson and Upstart Arsenio Hall

However, FOX’s efforts to enter the late-night talk show wars proved difficult for Pat Sajak and CBS to overcome. While Sajak hoped to endear to audiences as Carson’s younger successor, The Arsenio Hall Show gave viewers a youthful alternative with an entirely different energy.

Carson maintained his longstanding supremacy in ratings, consistently delivering numbers that were more than double Sajak’s average of 3 million. Meanwhile, Arsenio carved out a niche among younger and more diverse demographics. To make matters worse, Carson didn’t retire as early as planned. Within a few months of its debut, The Pat Sajak Show‘s ratings fell behind every other late-night talk show, including Late Night with David Letterman and Nightline.

Sajak’s show imitated Carson’s format (opening monologue, banter with the band, etc) but underwent significant changes in February 1990 to salvage it. The duration of The Pat Sajak Show was reduced from 90 minutes to 60 minutes, following the precedent set by Carson’s Tonight Show in 1980. Sajak ditched his desk, stuffy attire, and chit-chat with the bandleader. He even traded his grand entrance for a snappy seated monologue and a swift leap into the interviews.

Perhaps the most significant shake-up of The Pat Sajak Show was adding a guest host every Friday. This led to controversial political pundit Rush Limbaugh landing in the host chair. Of course, Limbaugh’s brand of supercharged political rants wasn’t what folks tuning in for some light-hearted banter before bed wanted.

The Pat Sajak Show was canceled two weeks after the Limbaugh episode in April 1990, 15 months after its debut. Sajak chose not to return for the final weeks, letting comedian Paul Rodriguez host the last episode. Some CBS stations replaced it with The Arsenio Hall Show.