As regular viewers of “Jeopardy!” know, former champion Ken Jennings’s six-week stint as guest host recently ended. On the episode that aired Feb. 22, executive producer Mike Richards noted Jennings’s contractual commitments to tape ABC’s relaunch of another quiz show — “The Chase” — meant Richards would host the next two weeks of the show. Beginning Mar. 8, however, a series of guest hosts not currently tied to the program will take turns hosting “Jeopardy!” presumably for the balance of its 37th syndicated season.
This development leads to the second of what will become a regular series of reviews of “Jeopardy!” guest hosts — all of them written after the hosts complete their first week of episodes. My first installment, analyzing Jennings’s first week as host, prompted some complaints to “Give him a chance.” This implied Jennings will win over any skeptics, given enough time. But “Jeopardy!” made clear before Alex Trebek’s final episodes aired that it has embarked on a full-fledged search for a new host, with Jennings not a lock as Trebek’s permanent replacement.
As a result, this space will give all guest hosts a chance, highlighting their backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses. While one week’s episodes seem like a small sample size — the show almost always tapes an entire week’s episodes in one day — it remains unclear whether some hosts will get more than one week in the role, making it the only fair sample size to judge everyone equally.
About Mike Richards
While his name might not ring a bell with the general public, or even most “Jeopardy!” viewers, Richards has a lengthy background in game shows for someone aged 45. For more than a decade, he served as a producer of “The Price Is Right,” and helped bring “Let’s Make a Deal” back to television.
Richards also has experience in front of the camera: While he unsuccessfully auditioned to replace Bob Barker when Barker retired as emcee of “The Price Is Right,” Richards did host “Pyramid” and “Divided” for GSN. Since September 2019, Richards has worked for Sony Pictures Entertainment, succeeding Harry Friedman as executive producer of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” at the start of their seasons last fall.
Richards’s prior hosting experience came in handy, as the scheduling conflict that precluded Jennings from hosting two additional weeks of shows cropped up at the last minute. In interviews, Richards said he had only three days to prepare for hosting “Jeopardy!” He also claimed he only owned one suit — something hard to believe for someone who has hosted game shows before. As a result, the production staff had to finagle a wardrobe for his full two-week stint.
Generally Positive Reviews…
Several articles, using an unscientific sampling of Twitter comments on his first few episodes, found overall support for Richards’s stint. Generally, he kept the show’s pacing bright and brisk, demonstrating more of an aura and presence than his immediate predecessor.
Unlike Jennings, Richards did not sign off every episode with, “Thanks, Alex” — a flourish Jennings admitted Richards had suggested. Instead, he borrowed from a monologue Trebek gave at the start of what would be his last week of shows, closing each episode by noting that if we all pitch in and act kindly toward others, we will get to a better place.
As both executive producer and guest host — a dual hat Trebek wore for “Jeopardy’s!” first three seasons in syndication — Richards began his second episode with a tribute to the production staff behind the scenes who make the show possible:
Guest host Mike Richards opens today's show with a special thanks to the staff and crew of Jeopardy!, continuing to honor Alex's legacy. 👏 pic.twitter.com/N0DvOOpBaX
— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) February 24, 2021
As a further tribute to the show’s close-knit production staff, this former contestant would love if Glenn Kagan — a longtime contestant coordinator, and the stand-in as host during rehearsals — got a chance to host “Jeopardy!” on-camera himself. That said, Kagan has low name ID and may have little interest in such an appearance.
…But an Annoying Pet Peeve
Unfortunately, replacing a host who served for nearly 37 years brings attention to every little detail distinguishing Trebek and his successors. For instance, when the first-place contestant had an insurmountable lead going into Final Jeopardy, Trebek often highlighted what he called a “runaway” game. Jennings and Richards, however, have largely de-emphasized these scenarios.
It also seemed striking to see Jennings wearing what appeared to be an earpiece during at least one episode and to watch Richards host from a standing position behind the lectern (Trebek presented “Jeopardy!” while standing for most of his 37 years, but knee problems over the past decade made him sit behind the lectern more recently).
Furthermore, when giving correct responses to clues that stumped the contestants, both Jennings and Richards have shown the somewhat irritating habit of saying “We were looking for” — implying uncertainty in both the clue and the correct response.
Jennings compounded the matter by telling incorrect contestants “No…” or “No?” — his voice trailing off in a potentially misleading way. I initially interpreted his pronunciation as a suggestion the contestant was on the right track. Had I been a contestant, the chance that this was some sort of vocal “cue” might have encouraged me to ring in and attempt a guess.
Of course, some clues do lend themselves to multiple correct responses. For instance, the largest mountain in North America goes by both Mount McKinley and the Native term Denali. And “Jeopardy!” producers do adjust game scores when the writers inadvertently misword a clue, or a contestant gives an alternative, but equally correct, response.
But particularly in today’s society, “Jeopardy!” should remain unafraid to call truth and facts for what they are. The host shouldn’t embarrass a contestant for an incorrect response, but neither should he or she pull punches and hesitate to call the proverbial spade a spade.
More Guest Hosts Ahead
The first guest hosts have taped their episodes, such that “Jeopardy!” announced the lineup for its next few weeks, beginning with former CBS and NBC anchor Katie Couric on March 8. Couric’s hosting stint will prove particularly noteworthy, given her recent comments about needing to “really almost deprogram these people who have signed up for the cult of Trump.”
Despite the controversy, Richards gave an apt suggestion to those critiquing the guest hosts, from Jennings to Couric and even himself: “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.”