It’s been six weeks since Alex Trebek’s last episode of “Jeopardy!,” one of TV’s top-rated game shows. So what happens next?
“Greatest of All Time” champion Ken Jennings completed his six-week hosting gig on Friday, the first after Trebek’s death in November of pancreatic cancer. Starting Monday, executive producer Mike Richards steps behind the lectern for two weeks’ worth of episodes, to be followed by the first group of celebrity guest hosts.
Former “Today” and “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric takes a turn starting March 8, followed by Dr. Mehmet Oz on March 22. Green Bay Packers quarterback (and 2015 “Celebrity Jeopardy!” champion) Aaron Rodgers fills in on April 5. Each will have a two-week stint and taped their 10 episodes over two days in January. Future guest hosts include CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, “Today” host Savannah Guthrie, neurosurgeon and CNN medical adviser Dr. Sanjay Gupta, “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker and Mayim Bialik, who stars in the Fox sitcom “Call Me Kat.”
Some of these hosts will be considered for the permanent slot, but “Jeopardy!” will take its time and may not replace Trebek until the show begins its 38th season in syndication in September. The challenge is to plan for the long term, because the show’s longevity isn’t in doubt: “Let’s make sure we get someone we are going to feel even better about in a decade than we do this year,” Richards says.
Richards, 45, who joined the show last summer, answers our burning questions about what’s next. (Answers edited for length and clarity).
Question: You’ve hosted game shows before (“Beauty and the Geek,” “Pyramid”), but what’s it been like following Alex in this one, since you’re also a producer?
Mike Richards: In some ways it’s easier for me, because I’m an executive producer. So if I didn’t like the way (a clue) was written I could get mad at me. Once I was able to get (past) the enormity of the man who stood behind the lectern for the better part of four decades … it was very fun. But at every commercial break, as I stepped back, I would think of Alex, who he was, how great he was, and it was easy to get in your head that way.
I didn’t know I was going to be doing it until three days before, and so I had not prepared myself to host in the way that I know other guest hosts are. So there was just a lot to unpack. Plus, I also only owned one suit, so there was a little bit of scrambling there. It was very fun; humbling doesn’t begin to describe the feeling. It hit me like a ton of bricks when Johnny Gilbert announced my name. That’s of course the last thing you hear when you start to walk out. … and it was overwhelming in the moment.
Q: It seems an impossible task to replace Alex the week after his final shows, but how do you think Ken did?
Richards: Ken did an amazing job; that’s why we picked him to do it. He did better than I thought, and my expectations were incredibly high. I think he was the perfect person to come onto the stage after Alex. Our fans, our staff and crew are all familiar with him. He came out, said the right things, was humbled by the situation, addressed the elephant in the room right away and said no one’s going to replace Alex, and they’re not. It’s a fool’s errand.
Ken hosted the show as Ken. And what you’ll see with all the guest hosts is they’re not distracting from the game; they pay homage to Alex, but they are also getting to show their unique talents within those confines. And they’re very strict confines: 61 clues in 22 minutes will never be done again on television, and it’s part of its beauty. I’m proud of Ken because I know he was very nervous, but also very up for it.
Q: Will he be considered as a permanent replacement?
Richards: Yes, absolutely. I think we want to look at everyone.
Q: How did you pick the other guest hosts, and are many of them are competing for the job?
Richards: Dr. Oz is someone who was very close to Alex. There are people just kind of in the orbit that I knew feel very strongly about stepping in, not to try out for the role but to honor Alex. This is not a host competition. This is people who love this game, and their respect for Alex is off the charts. That’s how we went about it: Who would feel a connection? Who has the unique talents? Because it’s so hard to host the show, as I can tell you having hosted five series myself. Each person brings their own intense love for the game. Aaron Rodgers loves that game at a visceral level.
Q: Any sense of when you would like to settle on a permanent replacement? Would that be someone you’d introduce next season?
Richards: Perhaps sooner. We’re going to look at the guest hosts, we want to see how the community reacts, how people feel. I felt it was very important to not choose someone right away, because we are all still mourning Alex, we all still miss him. Whoever we put in that role would have been in an unwinnable war, so that’s the reason for the direction that we’ve taken. My guess is it’s going to be the end of this season or the summer when we’re going to make that announcement. That decision hasn’t been made. It’s not like I’ve got the person and I’m just holding them back. We’re legitimately looking at some of these (guest hosts), and some of them are just there for charity and to show their love of the game. (“Jeopardy!” will match contestants’ winnings and donates them to the charity of the celebrity hosts’ choosing.)
Q: Is there a special quality you’re looking for in a permanent host?
Richards: The qualities are things I had talked to Alex about. Alex Trebek was not a household name when he started the show (in 1984), but the qualities that made him so perfect for it were that he had a good voice, that he had an incredibly quick mind that can be the arbiter of the game, (because) the host is the initial judge. You have to be credible when you give the response. Would you have actually known that? Also, you’ve got to be able to do the pronunciations. And there was an element of Alex pulling very hard for the contestants. He wasn’t trying to show them up. He wasn’t trying to be the smartest guy on the stage even though it might have been Alex, although he would have denied that and hated that I said that. The ability to be funny and get something out of those (contestant) interviews is important. And in many ways, Alex was such a centrist: He didn’t spark debate and was not controversial in any way.
Alex was a star, and became a star and became larger than life, but not because he was trying to be. And that’s a very different thing from other game shows. Alec Baldwin has to go on and be a superstar, and “Match Game” demands it. You have to have on “Jeopardy!” someone who’s larger than life, but also humble in the same way that isn’t going to make the game about them, in any way.
Q: That would seem to argue against hiring a well-known celebrity.
Richards: That’s why it’s important to see people do it, because you might assume some people would (steal the spotlight) and then you see them in that spot and they’d be great.
Q: Are you skipping the usual champions, college, teen and celebrity tournaments?
Richards: Because of travel restrictions, we have been very, very limited in what we can do. And tournaments in particular really require nationwide casting. In terms of the Tournament of Champions, I am really pushing to get it done this season. As for the others, this year will be a pause.
Q: What would you like fans to know as they watch these next several weeks of shows?
Richards: “Jeopardy!” is about inclusion, and it’s a respite from what’s happening in the outside world. As you watch guest hosts come through, you might like some, you might not like some others. Let’s be that welcoming “Jeopardy!” community. Let us know what you think, but let’s all be kind and open. Because in the end, that’s what “Jeopardy!” is and that’s what Alex was, and that’s the way we all should behave.