Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at the controversial search for a new host of Jeopardy!
Finding a replacement for the late Alex Trebek was never going to be easy. But recent events have proven the search for a new host of Jeopardy! to be even more difficult than anyone could have imagined. Guests hosts have auditioned. Fans have weighed in on which individual they want and why. And one host has come and gone amidst a wave of controversy.
If you’ve only heard bits and pieces of information about the hectic search for a permanent host for the game show Jeopardy!, here is a brief history of what has transpired.
A Series of Jeopardy! Guest Hosts
Alex Trebek hosted Jeopardy! for thirty-seven seasons, starting with the game show’s revival in 1984. After he died of cancer in November of 2020 at the age of eighty, a series of a variety of famous personalities emceed the show during its most recent season.
Guest hosts included seasoned broadcasters such as Robin Roberts, Katie Couric, and Anderson Cooper. Also, performers including LeVar Burton (Star Trek) and Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory). Plus the medical doctors Mehmet Oz and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.
The Wrap conducted an analysis of the highest-rated guest hosts. The top three were NFL quarterback Aaron Rogers, Jeopardy! executive producer Mike Richards, and Ken Jennings. The last of those three not only earned the highest ratings of all but is best known as the highest-earning game show contestant of all time. In 2004, Jennings won seventy-four consecutive games Jeopardy! and more than $2.5 million.
Naturally, the slew of guest hosts elicited a number of fan reactions and rankings. USA Today, The A.V. Club, and BuzzFeed were all in agreement: Dr. Oz was the worst host. Fans of the show were also not happy with Dr. Oz, in no small part due to his history, as USA Today reported, of “peddling controversial medical advice to his fans.”
BuzzFeed and The A.V. Club agreed that Jennings made the best host. The latter’s Alex McLevy wrote of Jennings:
“Dependably professional but just idiosyncratic enough to bring his own demeanor and style to the series, he made Jeopardy! feel like a game that could exist with a slightly different personality and tenor under his stewardship, yet retain all the qualities that make the series great.”
USA Today had Jennings at number three, Buzzy Cohen, another former contestant, at two, and Richards at number one. Of Richards, Kelly Lawler writes:
“From his cool and sleek delivery of clues to his clever banter, Richards was both comforting and uncontroversial, taking his cues from Trebek’s work but never directly copying him.”
The Fan Favorite
If you’ve been on social media in recent weeks, you will know that LeVar Burton is widely considered the fan-favorite to replace Alex Trebek. In fact, a Morning Consult poll found that Burton was the number one choice to host Jeopardy! Mayim Bialik was number two.
Burton won over the hearts of fans in no small part due to his own Jeopardy! fandom. In a promo video he shot for his own guest hosting spot, Burton said:
“I’ve been a fan of Jeopardy! for all of my life, and when this opportunity came by, I could not pass it up.”
Jeopardy! Producer Mike Richards Pulls a Dick Cheney
Clearly, the show’s producers were in agreement with USA Today and not their fans. On August 11th, Sony Pictures named Mike Richards as the new host of the daily, syndicated show and Mayim Bialik as the host of a new primetime and spinoff series of the franchise.
After the announcement, some said that Richards, as the show’s executive producer, had “pulled a Dick Cheney.” Cheney famously led the search committee to find then-presidential candidate George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000. Of course, he ended up joining Bush on the ticket and becoming vice president.
Details from Richards’ past immediately began to dominate the conversation. First, it was revealed that during his time as an executive producer of The Price is Right, a number of women filed harassment complaints and pregnancy discrimination cases against him. A suit filed by Brandi Cochran, a former model on the show, was eventually settled.
A week later, Claire McNear of The Ringer published a report detailing the way Richards “repeatedly used offensive language and disparaged women’s bodies” as the host of the podcast The Randumb Show. Following McNear’s report, all of the podcast episodes were removed from the internet.
Two days later, on August 20th, Richards stepped down as host and Sony announced that their search would resume for a new replacement. Richards remains an executive producer of the show.
Where do we go from here?
Fans of Jeopardy! expressed a mix of anger, relief, and happiness after Richards’ resignation from hosting duties, and frustration with how the show handled the search. And fans have also continued to advocate for Levar Burton.
And let's take race out of it for a second: Why wouldn't you want LeVar Burton?
He's captured the hearts and minds of millions across generations, just like Alex Trebek.
The transition could've been smooth and yet you opted for ragged.
— Morgan Jerkins (@MorganJerkins) August 20, 2021
Mayim Bialik Fills In
Sony announced that the show would continue to feature a number of guest hosts. Bialik will be the first. But in recent days, controversial statements that Bialik made in the past have come to dominate the conversation around Jeopardy!
Rolling Stone published a report on Bialik’s history of peddling “pseudoscience.” In addition to working in Hollywood since the age of eleven, she also holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
In 2017, after sexual harassment and assault allegations were first made against Harvey Weinstein, Bialik published an op-ed in the New York Times about life as a woman in Hollywood. Some interpreted the piece, according to the Washington Post, “as victim-blaming and saddling women with the responsibility for not getting sexually assaulted.” Bialik later apologized.
The Industry Responds
Vulture’s Josef Adalian published a detailed report on the chaos inside Sony as they try to name a new permanent host. Adalian notes that industry insiders typically revel in this kind of drama, but not in this instance:
“‘Jeopardy! is an American institution,’ one told me. ‘For them to sully its mark on society with this sort of embarrassment, to put it through this, and tarnish its reputation? It’s a crime.'”
As I researched this article, I was moved by a recent piece by NBA great and all-around Renaissance man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The former basketball pro and current columnist at The Hollywood Reporter competed on Jeopardy! on four separate occasions and makes the case for why the host of the show matters.
He explains that most other contemporary game shows center on greed, whereas Jeopardy! celebrates knowledge and accomplishment. In a time when facts and expertise are regularly devalued, the show truly matters. Of the next host, Abdul-Jabbar writes:
“The ideal host for Jeopardy! should embody what the show means to its viewership: a passion for knowledge and a respect for a diverse community.”
Related Topics: Brief History