Much like other red-blooded American nuclear families back in the 1980s, my family would routinely sit down together every weeknight around 7:00 and
petition the Lord through prayer to strike down those who weren't like us
watch Wheel of Fortune
We all watched the game for different reasons, of course. Some driven people like my father would watch to see if they could solve the puzzles before the contestants, and I can only imagine how great it must have felt for a grown man to have guessed "BISCUITS AND GRAVY" one turn before the guy on TV did. I'm assuming the rush of mental superiority one got from such an achievement must have been addictive, because he sure got sore if one of us kids guessed it before he could.
Still others watched to see what Vanna White, the Stepford-smiling letter turner would wear, and to this day, even after I've learned and comprehended the concept of Being Famous For Being Famous, I just can't see what the big deal was about her. Not even after seeing those nude pics of hers once published in Playboy. (Sure, they were nice and tasteful, and we learned that underneath her evening gowns she was indeed a naked lady, but what did any of it accomplish?) I'm guessing some other folks watched obsessively for Pat Sajak's smiling face (no Playgirl scoop, thankfully) but me, I obsessively watched for the money-spending part of the show.
See, the game was different back in the 80s. While you spun the wheel to earn money by guessing letters in the puzzle, you didn't actually win
the cash in every round. Instead, if you solved the puzzle, you had to spend your money on the prizes available to you, displayed on these incredibly elaborate showcase tableaux. These prizes ranging from pretty neat to downright tacky, and I think you had to spend as much money as possible before you were done. I loved to watch the camera pan across the glittering prizes, all tastefully arranged with glittering price tags, while the deedly-deet-doo-doo music played and the winner's face (in a little inset, like the ol' sign language interpreter for the news) would contort in agony as they made their choices.
The poor winners would usually start with the dining room set or the golf clubs or the diamond tennis bracelet, then work their way through the fireplace pokers or the Leroy Neiman print, and then near the end, they'd wind up having to take the bronze ducks-in-flight wall decoration or the $225 life-sized ceramic dalmatian before the remainder of their balance could be "put on a Service Merchandise gift certificate" (where, naturally, one can purchase more diamond tennis bracelets and Leroy Neiman prints.) The only other game show that came close to fulfilling my youthful obsession for rampant consumerism was $ale of the Century
and what a show that was. Holy cow. We'll have to obsess over that sometime.
My little brothers watched because nothing else was on and they had no control over the TV anyway when the bigger people were in the room.
But as far as we could tell, my mother watched the show for one reason and one reason only. Contestants often could figure out the puzzle in their heads with a few letters left unturned, and so, comfortable in their confidence that they were about to win, they'd invariably spin the wheel just once more
to pick up some extra money before reciting the solution. But should their final spin go awry and the wheel hit BANKRUPT instead, my mom would just go crazy. She'd throw up her hands, she'd cackle, and she'd sing this little song composed just for such an occasion:
THAT'S what you GET when YOU are GREEDY!
THAT'S what you GET when YOU are GREEDY!
THAT'S what you GET when YOU are GREEDY on the WHEEL of FORTUNE SHOW!
Her jubilation was even more pronounced if the contestant had spun a few times before hitting bankrupt. The greater the loss, the sweeter the song. And, eventually, my brothers and I grew to share her obsession, and we'd all gleefully sing along whenever that particular disaster did befall an unwitting contestant. Ryan even came up with a part in harmony.
I'm not sure what lesson she was trying to impress upon us impressionable youth: Don't take the risks? Quit while you're ahead? Stay humble and don't grab the gusto? Take the money and run? Never buy a vowel when you're certain of the puzzle solution? (Yeah, that one caused us all to laugh like mad, too.) But whatever it was, it certainly learned me a thing or two about game shows, and that's why to this day I don't have a $225 life-sized ceramic dalmatian in the living room. I'm sure it would scare the cat, anyway.