When I was in elementary school, my uncle told me he'd met Vanna White on a plane once. I was amazed — and jealous! I had endless questions: What was she like? Was she tall? Was she wearing one of her signature gowns? Did she have an entourage?
Like so many Americans, I grew up adoringly watching Wheel of Fortune. And so, when the show ditched its normal Los Angeles studio to tape several episodes at Madison Square Garden in honor of Wheel's 30th anniversary, I was immediately and completely in.
I had the distinct honor of meeting one-on-one with both Pat and Vanna, along with members of their production team. I got to sit in the front row of the audience, and I was over the moon when they let me on stage between takes. But perhaps the best part was being privy to some of the weird behind-the-scenes things that go into making a successful TV game show. Here's what I learned:
1. The set weighs close to a million pounds
And it requires 14 giant trucks to move it. There are 12 high definition cameras, 140 color monitors, and more than 30 miles of cables. "We try as best we can make the viewer feel like we are plunked down in the middle of wherever it is we're going," says Harry Friedman, the show's executive producer. The wheel and puzzleboard are one of a kind, so they are dismantled and reassembled whenever the show travels. Here's the New York City set:
(Photo by: Jessica Hullinger)
2. Contestants have to be "severely" coached
More than 10,000 people try out for the show each year, and fewer than 600 are selected. Those chosen to be contestants spend the entire day of the taping being prepped by a team of intense contestant coordinators who teach you how and when to buy a vowel, how to properly spin the wheel, and where to focus your attention. "We get them out on stage right away," says Gary O'Brien, contestant producer. "We want them to be aware of logical, common letter patterns. We tell them not to reuse letters. Very few people have what it takes to be a contestant."
3. Contestants have their own cheerleaders
Between takes, the contestant coordinators act as a sort of moral support team. They shout encouraging words while contestants play a mock round. Players are made to shout out letters, and if they aren't loud enough, they're told to do it again. The whole point is to get them hyped. "A really important point of being a successful contestant is having a good strong presence at the wheel. It starts with your voice," O'Brien says. Here you can see him pumping up some players:
Voice coaching contestants. vine.co/v/bpdQBe0KBZj— Jessica Hullinger (@JessHullinger) March 19, 2013
4. Vanna has worn 6,000 different outfits on the show
And no, she doesn't keep any of them. "The designers send their clothes to the studio, I try them on, and I wear them. Normally I'll get a hundred gowns at a time, and we pick a dozen of them." When she's done, they go back to the designers.
5. She's still anxious about tripping on camera
"That's the only thing I feel nervous about," she says. Pat, for his part, says he never gets nervous.
6. Vanna reads self-help books
She goes on "spurts," she says. "Sometimes I'll read novels. Sometimes I'll read those trashy books. I love autobiographies, too."
7. She's in the Guinness Book of World Records
As "Television's Most Frequent Clapper." She claps more than 28,000 times per season. "And no calluses to prove it," she adds.
8. Vanna and Pat both have very simple taste in food:
Guys, Vanna White just told me her favorite food: vine.co/v/bpwrQlnv0ej— Jessica Hullinger (@JessHullinger) March 19, 2013
Pat's Sajak's favorite food is... A bit too long for Vine. vine.co/v/bpwxVeVY9nn— Jessica Hullinger (@JessHullinger) March 19, 2013
9. They don't plan their "post-show banter"
They improvise, and people love it. "Its funny how that's taken on a life," Pat says. "People have come to know us through that little segment we do. It's become strangely popular." So, things like this are completely unplanned:
10. Pat and Alex Trebek aren't friends
But they're not enemies either. They get along, but they don't hang out. "We get along fine but we're not in the same bowling league," he says.
11. Pat hates reality shows
"The idea is to make people look stupid, which is the opposite of what we do," he says.
12. Very little has changed about the show since it started
Even the price of a vowel is still a bargain at $250. Perhaps the biggest change came in 1997, when the letterboard went all digital. It now contains 52 touch screen monitors.
13. Neither Vanna nor Pat expected the show to run for 30 years
"You start a job and you hope that it'll go for a few years, but 30 years?" says Vanna. Pat says he never saw himself as a gameshow host. "A door opens up and you either walk in or you don't and it seems to have worked out," Pat says. "Would I rather be doing Shakespeare in the park? Probably not. It doesn't pay as well."
And the Wheel of Fortune crowd goes wild. vine.co/v/bpdA2xhHZl0— The Week (@TheWeek) March 19, 2013
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Could better U.S.-Cuban relations thwart baseball's human smuggling problem?
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- Dick Cheney's America is an ugly place
- Why torture doesn't work: A definitive guide
- How to make the ultimate grilled cheese
- The Hobbit: A disappointing set of movies, but a worthy set of prequels
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
Subscribe to the Week