Wheel watchers

The “Wheel of Fortune” crew came through town this weekend in a contestant search. My wife and I took our 6-year-old son, who is a big “Wheel” fan, to the mall to try out. Maybe we’d be lucky.

My wife is the puzzle master in our household. Each Sunday, everyone in our house has to be quiet during the Will Shortz segment on NPR, and she needs her sudoku time. And she’s great at “Wheel.” Vowels? She doesn’t need to buy any stinkin’ vowels. She’d be a great contestant on the show.

I’m OK at such things, but not stellar. So naturally, I was the one who ended up on the “Wheel” stage Sunday. Here’s how the game works when it goes on the road:

  • About 500 “Wheel” hopefuls line up in a vacant department store and fill out forms that pose the usual questions, plus one asking “what makes you interesting?”
  • The forms are pulled from a bin five at time, and those five people take the stage.
  • A fake Pat Sajak and fake Vanna White run the game.
  • The fake Sajak asks contestants about themselves: name, occupation and what makes them interesting.
  • The game begins.
  • Contestants don’t spin the wheel. They just call out letters, including vowels. The first contestant to get the puzzle wins, and the game is over.
  • All five contestants get some swag as they step off the stage: items such as “Wheel” T-shirts and glossy photos of Sajak and White.
  • Five more lucky people get their chance.

My name was called in the fourth round of contestants. I wasn’t nervous about being on stage or being interviewed. But I was nervous about disclosing my occupation. Earlier, the audience had booed when a woman said she was an office manager for “some lawyers.” And another was hissed when she said she was a fan of Duke University athletics. How would this crowd, with lots of Wolfpack red in evidence, react to a professor from UNC, not to mention a former member of the dreaded mainstream media?

I got lucky again. When the fake Sajak asked me what I did for a living, I replied: “I
am a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.” The audience roared in approval. I roared back: “Yeah!” (The fake Sajak had been encouraging us to be as enthusiastic as possible.) For my interests, I told our host that I liked playing tennis with my son and listening to ’80s music. I got lucky one more time: The fake Sajak didn’t ask me to sing or dance, as he had done with other contestants. My performance of “Careless Whisper” may have turned the audience against me, after all.

The game itself took less time than the interviews. I only got to call one letter (T), and I didn’t win the puzzle. My luck had run out. The answer, by the way, was Research Triangle Park, as many of the puzzles had a local flavor.

If the “Wheel” people liked my performance, I will get a call within four weeks to return to the mall for more realistic simulation of the game, and from there, to a taping in California. It would be fun if that happened, but if not, that’s fine too. It was a thrill to get a chance to play — and to know that 500 people will cheer for an editing professor.

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