‘Jeopardy!’ May Have A New Host, But Replacing Alex Trebek Remains Impossible

‘Jeopardy!’ May Have A New Host, But Replacing Alex Trebek Remains Impossible

The past six months of auditions only served to reinforce Trebek’s subtle mastery behind the lectern, and illustrate the big shoes the next host will have to fill.
Christopher Jacobs
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“Jeopardy!” officially selected a new permanent host – two new hosts to be exact. The show’s current executive producer, Mike Richards, will take over as host of the daily syndicated program and actress Mayim Bialik of “Big Bang Theory” will host “Jeopardy!” primetime and spinoff series.

As one might expect given the long, drawn-out search, fans of other hosting candidates immediately responded on social media with snap reactions. Some questioned why “Jeopardy!” selected a white male as its candidate, instead of alternatives like LeVar Burton. Richards did a good job as a guest host in his own right this past February, although his daily sign-off — echoing a speech Trebek gave in his last week of episodes prior to his death — seemed slightly hokey and contrived.

But this article, written long before that announcement, won’t focus on Richards or Bialik so much as the individual they will replace: The show’s longtime host, Alex Trebek.

Since Trebek’s final episodes aired this January, “Jeopardy!” has seen a veritable cavalcade of interim guest hosts. Most have started their stints behind the lectern with a brief monologue expressing their love for “Jeopardy!,” giving paeans to the departed Trebek, and referencing their hopes to honor his legacy.

The constant refrains of praise might have seemed a bit over-the-top for Trebek, who famously shied away from the limelight. But in one sense, the guest hosts’ performances paid tribute to Trebek more than their words ever could. The past six months have only served to reinforce Trebek’s subtle mastery behind the lectern, and illustrate the big shoes “Jeopardy!’s” next host will have to fill.

An Intimidating Job

On the face of it, hosting “Jeopardy!” seems almost as intimidating a task as competing on the show itself. You arrive early in the morning and receive 305 clues — 61 clues for each of five shows — featuring material on an array of topics.

You have but a couple of hours to familiarize yourself with the clues, which will likely feature foreign languages and pronunciations more complicated than the word “genre” (to which the Ontario-born Trebek always gave a French Canadian accent). You will have to read those 305 clues carefully — with only a handful of flubs — while looking up from the lectern in between each clue to recognize contestants once they ring in. And you often will have to read your material in random order, given contestants’ growing tendency to bounce around on the game board when selecting clues.

You will also have to interview the contestants to tease out a bit of interesting information about their lives and judge the accuracy of their responses. You do so knowing that tens of thousands (occasionally hundreds of thousands) of dollars are on the line, in front of a national audience, in what many contestants view as one of the most stressful experiences of their lives.

In between all of that, you have to ad-lib brief commentary at the beginning of each show, and into and out of commercial breaks. And to top it all off, during the 15 or so minutes between each of the five shows taped in one day, you have to get changed into a new outfit.

If you think hosting “Jeopardy!” is simple, or easy, think again.

Imparting Knowledge, without Showing Off

Watching the guest hosts’ appearances, two particular things seemed noteworthy by their absence. First, Trebek would often drop little knowledge nuggets into the course of a game. While the guest hosts occasionally inserted factoids, I never saw one do so purely spontaneously.

To give one example: During Katie Couric’s hosting stint, a Daily Double asking for the President born in West Branch, Iowa led the contestant to respond “Who is Truman?” Trebek might have gently observed that, although Harry Truman did hail from the Midwest, he was born in Missouri, while Herbert Hoover (the correct response) was born in Iowa. In this case, however, Couric merely noted the correct response and moved on.

Imparting such knowledge without dominating the show, or looking like a know-it-all, requires a deft hosting touch. At the time of my “Jeopardy!” appearance in 1995, several of my fellow teen contestants had decidedly mixed views of Alex Trebek. Part of their impressions might have had to do with the impertinence of youth, but the host’s role in pointing out contestants’ errors likely also played a factor.

But “Jeopardy!” clearly wanted the guest hosts to follow in Trebek’s footsteps by incorporating these random bits of knowledge into the show. The producers included one or two factoids for each game, which the host would read following the relevant clue.

Unfortunately, the effort came off in a rather ham-handed manner, as if the production staff gave the host a directive: “Be smart now.” But Alex Trebek didn’t need to be smart—he was smart. And the attempt to replicate the Trebek dynamic looked slightly contrived, and showed that even guest hosts with plenty of intellectual firepower—like Ph.D. neuroscientist Mayim Bialik and former “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings—felt uncomfortable improvising on-camera in the way that came naturally to Trebek.

Situational Awareness

A similar dynamic occurred regarding game scores. At key moments in the game — for instance, a contestant getting out of a negative score, or another contestant surging to the lead — Trebek would frequently make a quick comment highlighting that fact. He also had a history of trying to goad players into making large wagers on Daily Doubles (“If you bet everything and responded correctly…”), such that a book released nearly 30 years ago commented on the habit Trebek exhibited even back then.

In many cases, the guest hosts seemed too consumed with staying on top of the gameplay to comment about the size of a contestant’s lead. And I don’t recall a single guest host ever remarking about whether or not a contestant had the game in hand, with a score more than twice that of their two opponents, heading into Final Jeopardy (in Trebek-speak, a “runaway” game).

Epitome of Excellence

Of course, it’s difficult to judge “Jeopardy!’s” guest hosts, most of whom taped all their shows in one or two days, with someone who had guided the program for over 36 years and more than 8,000 episodes. The program has evolved during the course of its history — during the show’s first episodes in syndication, the audience used to clap after every correct response — and the next host will evolve and grow with it.

But the small ways in which he made “Jeopardy!” function like a well-oiled machine demonstrate how — even while battling pancreatic cancer, and at an age twice that of some of the guest hosts who auditioned to replace him — Alex Trebek remained razor-sharp, the master of the show to the very end. The person taking his spot behind the lectern has a daunting task indeed.

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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