Last week, “Jeopardy!” began its run of guest hosts not affiliated with the show. For the first six weeks after longtime host Alex Trebek’s death, former champion Ken Jennings hosted the show. Executive producer Mike Richards followed for two weeks, filling in at the last minute after scheduling conflicts precluded Jennings from hosting.
In addition to taking a turn behind the lectern, the guest hosts will all have a chance to earn money for charities of their choice. “Jeopardy!” will donate the winnings of all contestants for each of the shows they host — the amount earned by the winner, plus the $2,000 earned by the second-place contestant and $1,000 earned by the third-place contestant.
First up: Katie Couric — the first female ever to host “Jeopardy!” — who pledged her honorarium to Stand Up to Cancer. The cause comes near to Couric’s heart; she lost her first husband to colon cancer in 1998, and her older sister Emily to pancreatic cancer (which also took Trebek’s life) in 2001.
The (Unnamed) Elephant in the Room
Couric’s appearance on the “Jeopardy!” set comes approximately two months after the former network anchor made news of her own — and not necessarily in a good way. In an appearance on Bill Maher’s show this past January, Couric cheered on the possibility of President Trump’s removal from office via a second impeachment, speaking of the need to “really almost deprogram these people who have signed up for the cult of Trump.” For self-evident reasons, those comments drew controversy from conservatives as “condescending and elitist.”
Shortly after the January incident, unnamed “Jeopardy!” sources told Page Six that Couric’s comments meant “she already appears to have ruled herself out of becoming the permanent host of the show.” Couric has not apologized for the incident, nor did she address it in any of the first week’s episodes. But the memory lingers, and some conservative groups called for a boycott of her two weeks of episodes.
A Bubbly Personality
Beyond the political controversy that went unspoken on-air, “Jeopardy!” viewers got a sense of the effervescent persona that made Couric a fixture on NBC’s “Today” show for a decade and a half. She started her first episode with a quick and peppy monologue, and the enthusiasm continued from there.
One theme running through the hosts to date: They all seem focused on relating to the contestants. For instance, Couric commented that a sailor luckily buzzed in first on a clue regarding maritime history — “I’m glad you got that one.” Jennings and Richards acted similarly during their hosting duties, in a way that Trebek normally did not. On the one hand, this kind of banter slightly slows down the competition, but on the other, it gives the show more personality.
Another theme comes through from watching these episodes: The producers appear to have given the guest hosts supplemental information about certain clues on the board. For instance, after a contestant on Thursday’s show responded correctly to a clue about the late celebrity chef James Beard, Couric added a nugget about the onion sandwiches that helped make Beard famous (my producers on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” called such factual flourishes by the host “frills”).
Alex Trebek would occasionally interject after clues — to add some flourish, distinguish between a correct and incorrect response, or offer a quick quip. But he did so almost effortlessly, either because he knew the material from his knowledge base and research or felt comfortable enough to improvise on the fly (or, more likely, both). The producers are taking steps to maintain that tradition with the guest hosts, but it feels more scripted — likely because it is more scripted, and in a way that serves to reinforce Trebek’s skill as a host.
Non-Television Hosts Get Their Turn
Following Couric’s appearances, celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will each take their turns behind the lectern. While Jennings, Richards, and Couric have most of their experience in television, the next two guest hosts come primarily from a background outside the studio — the operating room in the case of Dr. Oz, and the gridiron in the case of Rodgers.
How will the “non-traditional” guest hosts perform when set loose on the “Jeopardy!” soundstage? Stay tuned.