The Real Reason 'The Pat Sajak Show' Bombed And Got Canceled

For some younger people the name "Pat Sajak" might mean absolutely nothing but the question, "Who?" For everyone else Sajak means one thing and one very specific thing only: That guy who hosted "Wheel of Fortune" for — you ready? — 41 seasons. That's some excellent job security right there. Sajak, co-host and letter-turner Vanna White, the eponymous wheel that people spin, the dreaded black-and-white "bankrupt" wedge, and lots of cool word puzzles occupy a singular place in American pop cultural memory. 

On June 7, 2024, Sajak brings his tenure on "Wheel of Fortune" to a close. "It's been a wonderful ride," he commented on X in June 2023, "and I'll have more to say in the coming months. Many thanks to you all." Whether "more to say" means news about a new Sajak show, a post-career memoir, or something else entirely, is unknown. 

But, folks might not realize that another Sajak show already existed — "The Pat Sajak Show." It aired for a brief time from January 1989 to February 1990 and was a talk show along the likes of "The Tonight Show," "Late Night with David Letterman," and a bevy of other barely distinguishable offerings. Footage from its inaugural episode shows a big ole' band, an announcer with that announcer voice, spotlights, a cheering crowd, an opening monologue, and all the typical trimmings. But despite reaching 295 episodes viewership quickly plummeted and the show bombed. Ultimately, there was just too much competition on the late-night landscape. And after Rush Limbaugh guest hosted one time, it was all over. 

Wheel of misfortune

"The Pat Sajak Show" had a brief flicker of glory before rapidly nosediving. As Sajak himself said, the show didn't try to be too different. "We set out just to make a good, solid talk show," Vulture quotes. "There are a limited number of things you can do." CBS put a lot of trust in Sajak, who left the daytime version of "Wheel of Fortune" in 1989, signed a two-year deal for $60,000 a week (over $150,000 in 2024), and got a new $4 million studio (over $10 million in 2024). There was an opening monologue that showed Sajak at his least comfortable, although once behind his desk and interviewing people he settled well into the role. And, the show was 90 minutes — a choice that revealed a huge crack in the show's armor. 

Because "The Pat Sajak Show" was 90 minutes long, it aired at an odd timeslot of half-past the hour. That half-hour overlapped with "Late Night with David Letterman," so if folks wanted to watch "The Pat Sajak Show" they'd have to ignore Letterman for 30 minutes or switch to Sajak halfway through. Plus, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" was still on the air, and would be so until 1992, at which point it rolled over to Jay Leno. Plus, the "Arsenio Hall Show" debuted just six days before Sajak's show. "The Pat Sajak Show" couldn't compete. Two months after its first show it went from first to last place in the ratings, and after 10 months on the air, its runtime was reduced to 60 minutes.

The Limbaugh nail in the coffin

Pat Sajak and NBC didn't immediately give up on "The Pat Sajak Show." He tried wearing some casual clothes to mix things up, and NBC changed the set and format, ditched the desk and had Sajak sit directly across from his guests, and shrunk the monologue to nearly nothing. They also added guest hosts every Friday, which was the final decision that obliterated any chances the show might have had — at least once Rush Limbaugh hosted in March 1990. 

For folks unfamiliar with Limbaugh, he was always a loud and divisive figure, especially when it came to American sociopolitical issues. On the night that Limbaugh hosted he brought up his anti-abortion and anti-Affirmative Action opinions and the audience turned on him. They were actually removed for the final part of the show. Two weeks later "The Pat Sajak Show" was done, and Limbaugh was claiming that the audience "was a set-up," per Vulture. 

To his credit, Sajak approached the whole thing with nonchalance and dignity. He didn't hold any ill will towards Limbaugh, NBC, other talk show hosts, or anyone, really. He blamed himself for his show's failure, citing his lack of a real love for the venture. On "The Carson Podcast" in 2015 Sajak said that he didn't have a "talk show mentality." "In the end," he continued, "if I had done a show that people really wanted to see, it would probably still be on the air. There wasn't a compelling reason, necessarily, to watch it."