If there’s one thing that we, as a nation, have been confused about over this past year — no surprise it’s the number one subject of the cards, letters, and postcards you people have been sending into the ol’ blog — it’s this:
What’s the deal with those white things on “Wheel of Fortune”?
Now, if you haven’t tuned in to “Wheel” (industry term) for a while, let me get you up to speed: when COVITZ-19 hit, the staff over at “Wheel of Fortune” was at a complete loss as to how to continue production.
The problem they faced was grim: How can you tape a program where central to gameplay are three contestants touching potentially the same 5.52 square inches (I calculated the surface area) of any of the iconic wheel’s seventy-three spikes? You don’t know where any of those players’ hands have been! Throw in Pat’s good-natured insistence in high-fiving the contestants after each win (or “solve” as they call it behind the scenes), and you’ve got an easy, delicious, make-ahead recipe for a super-spreader event.
Solution: The folks in the prop department came up with the white thing — a comfortable, form-fitting sheath that slides down over the hard, sturdy peg much like a condom slips over a man’s (or, it being 2021, woman’s) erect penis. And much like a condom, it protects the contestant from the COVITZ.
Pat calls them “those white things” and we catch a glimpse here and there of them, but never for very long, and never in closeups. But what exactly are they? Well, I aimed to find out. So I decided to go on the show.
The fact is I was going to Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City anyway. I was kind of torn between just getting a full-time job on the writing staff (up to this point I’d just been sending in “spec” puzzles — they pay $3 for each one they use; $5 if it’s used in the bonus round — plus an extra $1.50 if it stumps the contestant and the show doesn’t have to pay out) or going on “Jeopardy!” and winning the “Jeopardy Showdown!” there.
They tape “Jeopardy!” directly across the hall and I considered going on that one, but Anderson Cooper was hosting. We had been involved in a Twitter war the prior week and I was concerned (and with good reason, I believe) that he would refuse to call on me when I raised my hand to answer one of the trivia questions that pop up during the show.
Still, I hadn’t yet committed to one program or the other, so I stood in the contestant line for “Jeopardy!” — but just long enough to realize I wasn’t going to get on without a wacky costume. I gave up and headed across the hall to “Wheel.”
As regular readers of this blog know, I have publicly proclaimed, loudly, often on municipal buses (including LA Metro’s #33 that brought me there that morning), that it would be a cold day in hell before I appeared on “Wheel of Fortune” if it was hosted by anyone other than Chuck Woolery, but even I’m ready to admit that maybe that ship has sailed. I’d made my peace with the infamous host shakeup/kerf_ffle of 1981 and I was finally ready to go on and come home with at least their famous life-size ceramic Croatian.
“Wheel” it was!
I won’t bore you with the details of the actual taping other than to say it happens so fast you barely know you’re on. I pounded one of these guys from the craft services table…
…right before we started (they encourage you to do whatever you need to, to get relaxed — as long as you can still enunciate the letters of the alphabet clearly) and I was still good and buzzed by the time we finished.
Vanna’s great as ever, turning the letters like a pro. And there’s an art to it. The rods those triangular letter “cubes” are mounted on are lubricated with WD-40, because otherwise the microphone picks up the metal-on-metal screech. She turns those things too far and America is treated to the never-before-seen third side — each one featuring an unflattering caricature of “Wheel” creator Merv Griffith’s arch-enemy, Todd Goodmark.
Of course, since the onset of COVITZ, Ms. White is required to stand six feet away from each letter as she turns it, so they’ve given her what looks like a mop handle to push them while properly socially-distancing.
There’s two ways to enrage the host, the genial Pat Sajak, and we’re warned against them — drilled, really — before the cameras roll: One is to refer to a beloved pet as though you’re its parent — like it sprang forth from your very loins and it isn’t just an animal living in your house, shedding hair everywhere, and occasionally tinkling on the carpet. (During the interview portion, there’s a stagehand just off-camera holding a huge cue-card that reads, in huge letters, “DO NOT SAY ‘FUR BABIES’!”)
The second is to purchase, or “buy” a vowel — literally any of the letters A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y— by saying, specifically, “I’ll buy the [vowel].”
The presumption that it’s there — that you know it’s there — irritates the hell out of Pat, and frankly, it pisses me off too when I watch at home. “I’ll buy the E.” Okay, there, potential M.E.N.S.A. member Elaine from Rochester Hills, Michigan — “the” E.
Well, that buzzer telling you there is no “the” E in that particular puzzle is music to my — and Pat’s, I must assume — ears.
During my taping, I was doing great in figuring out the answers (I didn’t even need the little memo pad & pencil they give you to jot down notes) but I kept phrasing the solution in the form of a question and they deduct points for that now. Ultimately, I ended up with a big goose egg at the end of the show. (And not a Fabergé goose egg — available for $450 during the shopping portion — either.)
However: A big goose egg at the end of “Wheel” is not zero. No, they have something that they like to refer to as “the pity grand.”
“Well, Ted,” Pat said to me, “It just wasn’t your night, but we do have that pity grand for you.” I responded with a heartfelt speech about giving Chuck Woolery a second chance, maybe just having him fill in for Pat on weekends, but it was cut (you’ll see the obvious, jarring edit when it airs).
Once the taping is over, in file a troupe of interns in hazmat suits looking for all the world like Oompa-Loompas from the Wonkavision scene in “Willy Wonka” — quite apt, it turns out, since that movie was filmed on that same soundstage in 1963. They go to work with a power washer to clean the Wheel with some sort of industrial disinfectant, while others come over and collect all the “wedge swag” (industry term) that got pried off the Wheel during the show. In the case of my taping, this included a $550 space that I mistook for a Wild Card. That’ll teach me to forego wearing my spectacles when on national TV — vanity, thy name is Ted!
Side note: It was my intention, had I landed on the Million Dollar space, to bend that bastard in half if I hit a bankrupt because 1) what the hell does the Wheel of Fortune art department do all day? Making a new one for the next show would keep ‘em employed for another week — you’re welcome, fellas! — and 2) if I had bent it in half, you know the staff would be all, “well, it’s useless now — you might as well take it home — we’re just going to throw it out.”
And then — craigslist collectibles section, here I come! $700 or best offer!
Of course, they also collect the white things — and that’s what I was there for in the first place. So here’s what I did: I wisely wore loose-fitting basketball shorts to the taping, and slid that bad boy down the front of my chonies (ethnic term).
“I don’t know what happened to it,” I told the young p.a. in charge of collecting them. “I think it rolled under the Wheel.”
Well, while they were bringing in a forklift to lift up the Wheel and look, I got the hell out of there. They tape eighteen shows a day and after the last one, Pat and Vanna takes everyone out to Shakey’s for a pizza party. But they still had six shows to go, and I wasn’t about to wait around.
Long story short, I got the damn white thing, and here it is!
The warning about the explosive dye is nonsense. It detonated, yes, but I was well off the lot — three blocks away! — when it did. Basically no stronger than a party popper, it shot confetti and streamers plus a few coupons for $1 off three skeins of Vanna White’s yarn (and those I will definitely use).
The white thing is pretty solid and it weighs about ten pounds. Turns out it’s made of titanium with a kiln-fired powder enamel finish.
I’ll be putting it on eBay, starting bid $1,800, along with what will no doubt be some sort of cease-and desist letter from Sony Pictures.
Oh look, here it is already.