Monday, August 15, 2005

Wheel of Not-So-Much Fortune OR Faint Hearts Never Get on Game Shows

Ok, I fully realize that I haven't posted in more than two months, and I apologize for that. The summer has just whizzed by what with socializing, traveling, and so forth. In an attempt to make it up to you, dear readers, I am posting the unedited version of a column I wrote that recently ran in the Boulder Weekly. As background, I actually did all of this in May, so it's still sort of too little too late, but it's better than nothing! I'll try to do better as we move into fall. Here goes ...

"In an attempt to chronicle important events in the Front Range’s pop-culture fabric, I trucked myself down to Denver last weekend to audition for Wheel of Fortune. You know, that game show that’s been the number-one program in syndication for like the past 20 years? The one you used to watch with your parents while your mom made dinner and you avoided doing your homework at all costs? The one that, right at this moment, you are surprised to learn is still on television? It actually still draws huge audiences, and this past May, became the number-one show in Denver at 6:30 pm on Channel 7, beating Entertainment Tonight.

The open auditions featured the following things: First, the WheelMobile, which is a tricked-out Winnebago that serves the duel purpose of toting the set and Wheel chatchkes (keychains, pens, hats, water bottles, travel mugs, you get the idea – nothing you really want) all over the country, AND promotes the show because it is bright yellow and has Wheel of Fortune painted all over it.

The event also featured fake Pat Sajak – aka Marty Lublin –a fairly hot guy amped on Red Bull who jumps around a lot and speaks very enthusiastically into a microphone. The thousands of fans who were gathered for their chance to be on Wheel of Fortune didn’t seem to care that Marty wasn’t Pat, and the few that made it on stage hugged him and slobbered on him just like he was actually famous. Which he isn’t. But who cares, they might be on TV! There was even a camera there from News 7, encouraging people to act even more stupidly than they otherwise would have.

Just to keep everything parallel in the universe, there also was a fake Vanna White –aka Kim Sullivan. Kim is a cute girl wearing a cheap-looking dress (guess the couture is saved for Vanna) who writes puzzle letters on erasable pads as opposed to turning lit-up panels. The touring version of the job is much tougher than Vanna’s, in my opinion, because Kim actually had to figure out where the letters went and then write them down. All Vanna has to do is look good and determine which of the very well-marked panels she needs to flip. It’s a job we all should aspire to: very little work for very much money.

The auditions were held at the Universal Lending Ampitheatre, right behind Pepsi Center. The place seats at least a couple of thousand wannabe contestants. While I overheard people at the nearby gas station say that folks had lined up at 4 and 5 am for their shot to be on the show, the Wheel of Fortune execs assured me that because the WheelMobile is primarily a good-will builder, promotional tour and a contestant search all wrapped up in one, they do everything possible to get every person that shows up a chance to get on stage.

The whole point of the WheelMobile tour – which drives around the country from April through November, hitting 22 cities a year—is to find contestants. In fact, it’s the only way the show finds contestants, other than occasionally testing people in Los Angeles.

People in line are handed “applications,” yellow, orange or blue slips of paper that include a bit of information about them. The applications are put into a spinning bin, like lottery ping-pong balls, and then a lucky few – about 30 per hour – win a spot on stage. Each would-be contestant is subjected to a very easy interview with fake Pat aka Marty, who always asked “what do you like to do in your free time?” (“My husband,” said one contestant. C’mon, keep it clean, people! Haven’t you heard about Janet Jackson and the FCC?) and then they play a quick game.

The interviews can take a bit of time because if you say you sing or rap or teach aerobics or cheer lead, you are subjected to performing that skill. This was no secret, however, because whenever said skill was mentioned Marty would say “did you say SING?” and then Miss, Mrs. or Mr. Contestant would be off to the races. I heard Amazing Grace at least three times, and one white guy rapped out to Kid Rock. He wasn’t bad, actually. Another woman said her life-long goal was to be a Denver Broncos cheerleader, but other than yelling “Go Broncos!” and leaping lamely one-half inch into the air, she hadn’t really gotten around to charting that course yet.

Once I realized that demonstrating high-energy antics, such as jumping up and down, and possibly performing in front of 1,000 or so strangers would be a requirement of this gig, I bowed out. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve been covering the business of television for a while now, and just moved back to Boulder from LA. I already had an in with the Wheel people, and since I can’t be on the show, for ethics’ sake, they weren’t really pushing me on stage. Still, I could have put my foot down and demanded that I run the paces, because that’s what I told them I wanted to do for this article, but I didn’t. I thought I was going to be in a room, play a little Wheel, maybe fill out a quiz or something. But bounding about and singing in public? Not for me. This is why I’m a writer and not a dancer, stand-up comedian, actor or anything else that requires public performance.

But getting on Wheel isn’t just about jumping up and down and screaming, says Lisa Dee, executive director of marketing and promotions for Sony Pictures Television, which produces both Wheel and sister game show, Jeopardy! It’s about having good energy, not freaking out in front of a camera and being able to play the game.

“I compare it to getting into a really good college – you have to have the whole package,” Dee says. Whatever, I wasn’t doing it. I was content to sit backstage and eat Quizno’s with the rest of the crew. I also tried to get fake Pat’s attention with a come-hither look and a wave of my toasted sub, but I think he was unimpressed by my wimpy stance. Plus, he was too busy fending off bouncy contestants.

As I was leaving, one of the tour producers tossed me a pack of brand-spanking-new Wheel of Fortune playing cards, which are round, like the venerated Wheel itself. So I can’t say I came away empty-handed. No chance to test wits with Pat or to win an all-expense paid trip to Hawaii, but my dignity was intact and I had a Wheel of Fortune-branded chatcke in my hand. Oh, and they bought me drinks aftewards so that probably counts for something too."

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