"All I'm trying to do is be Pat Sajak," the latest pretender to King Johnny's late-night crown told television critics here on Thursday. "It's the only act I have. And so far, it's been OK for me."
It sure has. The one-time TV weather man used his boyish good looks, quick wit and unassuming Midwestern charm to help make "Wheel of Fortune" the most successful syndicated program in television history. And now he's putting that same energized package of talents to work in "The Pat Sajak Show" (11:05 p.m., Ch 5), CBS's new late-night talk show that premiered last week to enthusiastic audiences and fairly good reviews.According to overnight ratings in 16 of the largest television markets around the country, "The Pat Sajak Show" actually beat "The Tonight Show" its first two nights on the air.
The loyalty of Sajak's "Wheel" audience probably accounts for a great deal of the initial tune-in. But the fact that it's actually a good talk show-thanks mostly to Sajak's witty, easy-going style-may help keep the audience levels up there.
"We're doing a show we like," he said, gesturing to producer Paul Gilbert, announcer Dan Miller, and musical conductor Tom Scott, who were with him on the dias at the Registry Hotel. "We're doing it for us, really. We're trying to put an entertaining show together. And you know, America, bless its heart, will make the judgement as to whether or not they it!"
And so far, they seem to like it.
Of course, there are exceptions. "They tell me one person called CBS looking for 'Night Heat,'" Sajak said, grinning. "They said,'I've got this awful 'Wheel of Fortune' guy on. What's happening'?"
Well, what's happening is a talk show that is very much like other late night talk shows, complete with opening monologue, sidekick/announcer, loud live band and a steady stream of celebrity guests, most of whom are trying to plug something.
If it weren't for a slightly different set you'd swear Sajak was just guest hosting for Carson-which he has done in the past and could have done last week, as Carson was on vacation.
And that's OK by Sajak.
"We're not out to re-invent the form or break any new ground," he said. "I believe the form works, and it has worked for a long time. We're happy with what we're doing."
Even though they did experiment with some variations, like having the guest's sit on the host's left, instead of having them sit on his right as has always been traditional.
"But it was so odd to see-it felt as if we had dyslexia when we were watching it," Sajak said. "And so we said, why bother? I mean, what's the point of changing something, even a small thing like that, just for the sake of changing it?
"I do have my own personality," he continued, "and that will unfold as the nights go on, and people will either accept it or reject it. But just to go out there and say, "Let's carpet the guests because that's never been done'-I'm not sure what we're accomplishing with that."
An addition to hosting the show, Sajak is listed as the program's executive producer, even though he says he's not exactly sure what that means ("I guess, in the end, I'm the one who says, 'Sure, let's do that," he surmised). So obviously, he has a clear vision of what the show's personality is supposed to be, right? Wrong.
"We're not sure what the personality is," he admitted. "We're trying to experiment while at the same time do a show that will be accepted and enjoyed by folk. And I suppose that's one of the reasons that you stick close to the form, because people are comfortable with what's gone before.
"But the first few weeks are very difficult, because when you experiment you have to be prepared for failure," Sajak continued. "And failure is fine when you'vebeen on the show for a while, but there's no place for the new kid to bomb anymore. If you don't do well the first couple of nights terrible things are written and tune-out grows."
Having survived the first couple of nights rather successfully, Sajak promises the show will continue to experiment and grow. "The show two years from now will look a little different, with a different spirit than it has now," he said. "I don't exactly know how or in what ways, but I think it will be different."
For one thing, he may figure out wjat to do with announcer Miller, who is now little more than a couch ornament "It's going to take some time to establish who this guy is and what our relationship is," Sajak said).
And for another, he may be able to focus completely on his talk show and not have to split his time with the syndicated version of "Wheel" ("My contract runs for another year and a half," Sajak said. "After that, I don't know").
But for right now, Sajak isn't worrying about any of that. The only thing that matters to him-more than fame, ratings or competing with King Johnny-is putting on a good show.
"Be believe-naively or not-that if we put together an entertaining 90 minutes with some broadly based appeal, we'll be OK," Sajak said. "If we do a show that people like, enough of them will come back to make it a success. That's it."
Indeed it is.