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Celebrity Wheel of Fortune Could Be a Celebrity Schadenfreude Bonanza

Two dozen stars are set to compete — and the potential for embarrassment is high.
  • Vanna White and Pat Sajak host Celebrity Wheel of Fortune. (ABC)
    Vanna White and Pat Sajak host Celebrity Wheel of Fortune. (ABC)

    Let's get this out of the way up front: I am very excited for Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, the limited primetime event that premieres January 7 on ABC. Each episode will bring in three celebrity contestants to play the venerable word game: guessing letters, buying vowels, and asking hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White for permission to solve the puzzle. I'm excited because I love game shows, because Wheel of Fortune is a fun show to watch in the first place, and, regardless of what it says about me, I'm excited (and a little scared) about the potential for some major embarrassment.

    Celebrity game shows are a wildly different beast than regular game shows. For one thing, they're not playing for themselves, they're playing for charity. That not only removes the potential for the audience to root along for a rags-to-riches story for a contestant (I can't be the only one who watches Jeopardy! and imagines what kind of apartment I could afford with the returning champion's winnings), but it also takes some of the desperation and pressure off of the players. Yes, celebrities definitely want to win money for their charities — check out the excellent clip from Celebrity Millionaire with David Chang going for the million-dollar question to see just how much he's agonizing over winning for his struggling restaurant industry — and in the best-case scenario, the celebs are competitive enough to want to win just to win, but there's nothing quite like the pressure heaped upon a contestant trying to change their own standard of living to really goose a game-show moment. So what, then, does the audience do for stakes in a celebrity game show? It's the pride, the notoriety, and the knowledge that looking smart on a celebrity game show is fun, but looking stupid on a celebrity game show is forever.

    This will be the dilemma facing the 24 celebrities who've signed up to play Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, a list that includes Grey's Anatomy's Chandra Wilson, This Is Us's Chrissie Metz, Community's Joel McHale and Yvette Nicole Brown, Nailed It!'s Nicole Byer, The Bachelor's Chris Harrison. Drew Carey, Paul Reubens, Leslie Jones, Tony Hawk, Rachel Leigh Cook, Alfonso Ribeiro, Sherri Shepherd, and Constance Zimmer. And here's wishing them the best of luck. Because if any of them blows an easy puzzle solve… you're gonna hear about it.

    Wheel of Fortune has been on the air since 1975 and has placed itself firmly into the backbone of America's daily television lineup. Yes, Vanna White was once an avatar of TV glamour, and Pat Sajak got to host a late night talk show for a minute there, but for the most part, Wheel has faded into the background of the culture. This is punctuated by two kinds of exceptions: one is when contestants make impossible puzzle solves, getting the board right with only a couple letters revealed. These are thrilling and triumphant and more than a little unbelievable:

    But then there's the other occasion we see Wheel of Fortune clips go viral: the spectacular fails. The layup puzzle solves that go inexplicably sideways. When "LEAT_ER __LL_T" becomes "LEATHER MULLET" instead of "leather wallet." These are tiny moments of schadenfreude that brighten the drudgery of our day-to-day lives, and it's why we're still so grateful to have Wheel of Fortune out there. These moments are embarrassing enough when it's just regular people whose names we barely know during the clip and forget immediately after. Now imagine Teri Hatcher doofs one of these puzzle solves. She'll never hear the end of it!

    Compounding the embarrassment potential is the fact that this is Wheel of Fortune we're talking about. Celebrities have gone on Jeopardy! for years, and while unbelievably poor showings will definitely stick in the culture's memory (Wolf Blitzer, we will never forget that -$4,600 score), but also… it's Jeopardy! It's famously hard! Even the dumbed-down version they tend to trot out for celebs is at least somewhat challenging, and the show's general reputation for being for smarties has meant celebrities can compete there and be relatively certain their reputations won't take a hit. Celebrity Millionaire works on the same principle. And shows like Celebrity Family Feud have enough antics floating around that a poor showing there never really reflects all that poorly on anyone.

    But Wheel of Fortune is supposed to be the easy one. Fairly or not, it's the checkers to Jeopardy!'s chess. A celebrity screwing up a Wheel of Fortune word puzzle in spectacular fashion would be the schadenfreude event of the year. Bad for them. Great for us. Especially if it's Chris Harrison.

    Celebrity Wheel of Fortune premieres on ABC January 7th at 8:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Chandra Wilson, Chris Harrison, Chrissy Metz, Drew Carey, Joel McHale, Nicole Byer, Pat Sajak, Paul Reubens, Vanna White, Yvette Nicole Brown