Ken Jennings’s Stint As ‘Jeopardy!’ Guest Host Isn’t Going Well

Ken Jennings’s Stint As ‘Jeopardy!’ Guest Host Isn’t Going Well

As we saw with Ken Jennings's 'opening night jitters,' it's going to be a tall order for anyone to replace 'Jeopardy!' legend Alex Trebek.
Christopher Jacobs
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Opening an episode of “Jeopardy!” originally scheduled to air on Christmas Eve, Alex Trebek noted the proliferation of online shopping over the years. While those changes mean  many people now do their holiday shopping online rather than in stores and malls, Trebek observed, “Jeopardy!” has stayed the same.

Until now. The episode proved the penultimate one of Trebek’s 36-year-long stint as host, due to his death shortly after its late October taping, forcing producers to find a new host, and face, of “Jeopardy!” for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s first term.

Former champion Ken Jennings, who joined the “Jeopardy!” production staff at the beginning of its 37th season in syndication last fall, took the reins as guest host when the show resumed production following Trebek’s death. But as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, the show has commenced a full-fledged search to find a permanent replacement, rather than automatically bestowing the job on Jennings, as some had speculated.

Jennings has already taped 30 shows (about six weeks’s worth), as his role on the production staff made him a logical interim host. But the show has announced a series of other celebrities who will take a turn behind the podium, including talk-show host Katie Couric, actress Mayim Bialik, current “Jeopardy!” executive producer (and former game show host) Mike Richards, and NFL star (and former “Celebrity Jeopardy!” contestant) Aaron Rodgers.

Hence the first installment of this semi-regular feature, which will analyze the performance of each guest host after a week’s worth of shows. “Jeopardy!” hasn’t given a deadline for the conclusion of its search process, but it seems possible the show might announce a permanent host in mid-summer, to have that individual at the helm when the show’s 38th season begins airing in September.

Controversial Comments

As to Jennings, his initial week as host became somewhat overshadowed by multiple controversies he stirred online. Conservatives took umbrage (rightly) when many leftist, sarcastic, and otherwise offensive tweets from prior years resurfaced. Jennings apologized, but some didn’t buy it.

Jennings also faced criticism for rushing to defend “bean dad,” the infamous father who made his hungry child wait six hours to eat until the youngster figured out how to open a can of baked beans on her own.

Jennings eschewed further controversy during his initial “Jeopardy!” run. On the episode that aired on Jan. 11, Johnny Gilbert announced Jennings as the “guest host” (not the “host”) of “Jeopardy!” the first time he had introduced anyone not named Alex Trebek. After walking onstage for that first episode, Jennings acknowledged the difficulty he — or, for that matter, anyone — would face in trying to assume a role Trebek had held for generations:

Jennings’s heartfelt show of emotion for what Trebek and “Jeopardy!” meant to him continued at the end of every episode, as he signed off with, “Thanks, Alex.”

Uncomfortable on Stage?

In some respects, Jennings’s prior comments and controversies could pose less of a problem than an overall feeling that persisted through his first five episodes:

The analogy comes from several factors. First, Jennings’s slight stature and build gave the impression of a host almost shrinking from the camera. Trebek did not tower over individuals, but both his body and personality gave him an energetic presence.

As one might expect, Jennings also showed some proverbial “opening night jitters.” In one episode, a clue looked for a response of “Dr. No,” the famous James Bond villain. When the contestant gave the intended response, Jennings followed up with “No — that’s correct.” The host’s seemingly oxymoronic “ruling” prompted quizzical looks from the contestants, and what may have been a tape stoppage to sort out the confusion. Other episodes appeared to suggest tape stoppages as well, although these could have arisen from factors outside Jennings’s control — checking the accuracy of a contestant’s response, for instance.

These various factors in combination suggest a slightly formal, occasionally wooden, demeanor — someone not entirely at ease with his surroundings. Of course, as Jennings said his wife pointed out to him,  Trebek had 36 years to master hosting duties at “Jeopardy!” and his style and demeanor changed over time (in the earliest shows, for instance, audiences would applaud after every correct response).

Need the Right Presence

When I took up extemporaneous speaking in high school, I struggled mightily, for lack of correct technique. At first, I essentially tried to write a speech in my head and recite it back word-for-word. When I stopped trying to “give a speech” and instead just focused on “talking,” I became a much better public speaker (I don’t think I’ve given a scripted speech since). Jennings suffers from much the same problem: He doesn’t look comfortable in his own skin on-camera — and it shows.

Jennings’s first week as guest host perhaps explains why the Los Angeles Times reported that “Jeopardy!” has sought television and news personalities like Couric or Meredith Vieira for the role. To borrow a phrase that became cliché during the 2004 presidential campaign, the “Jeopardy!” hosting job requires gravitas — a presence that, at first blush, Jennings thus far has lacked.

Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

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