In his autobiography released in July 2020, Alex Trebek said he wanted to be an announcer because he won a public-speaking contest in third grade. It was a long way, in every possible sense, from there to his eventual role as the mustachioed font of gravitas behind the host’s podium on Jeopardy!.
Trebek died last November. Per IMDb, he began his career on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show called Vacation Time. He co-hosted a bit. Its theme song was “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” and it was, basically, a children’s variety show. (In the United States our kids’ variety shows were hosted by Bozo the Clown; in Canada they got Alex Trebek.) Trebek later hosted a Toronto-based show called Music Hop before breaking into game-show hosting with one called Reach for the Top, a quiz bowl–like show for Canadian students.
Trebek moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s to host a game show called The Wizard of Odds. (Per Claire McNear’s Answers in the Form of Questions, Alan Thicke was a producer and gave him the job.) He hosted a bunch of other, long-forgotten game shows in the United States in the 1970s: High Rollers, Battlestars, Pitfall. He was even a contestant on Celebrity Bowling. He had a big curly afro at the time, like Bert Convy; scouting a few clips from those shows available online, it seems he also got handsy with female contestants, like Gene Rayburn. The later, more dignified Trebek was not easy to spot in these early roles.
When Trebek was chosen to host the revival of Jeopardy!, which premiered in 1984, some people were not happy. Art Fleming was host of the show’s original run, and did not return due to “creative differences.” Fleming was a well-liked host, and Trebek was seen by some critics as eye candy for morons. One review, syndicated across Knight Ridder newspapers in September 1984, was especially harsh. It called Trebek “one of the generation of game show host clones.”
“The new Jeopardy is a disgrace,” Mike Duffy wrote to open his story. “It may get ratings, but it deserves no respect.… The brainless, shrieking bozos who usually serve as contestants on many game shows just don’t fit the Jeopardy format. But the three bland ciphers who competed for money and prizes on the recent premiere sure didn’t sparkle with anything resembling quality gray matter.” Calling the show a “remedial version of Trivial Pursuit,” Duffy said that “if you watch a lot of TV and read People magazine, you’re set.” Ouch!
The story ran in papers with the headlines “New ‘Jeopardy!’ insults viewers,” “‘Jeopardy!’ is an insult to intelligence,” “New ‘Jeopardy!’ is a pitiful echo of its former self,” “Slicked-up Jeopardy! a mere shadow of the original,” “The New ‘Jeopardy!’ is for vidiots,” “Jeopardy show termed disgrace,” and “New Jeopardy is downright disgrace.” (This last one ran directly above an ad for a porno theater.)
I don’t really know how prevalent this opinion was at the time, but a lot of people would’ve seen this negative review. The next year the Los Angeles Times ran a letter saying Trebek “lacks enthusiasm and charisma,” though Trebek had his defenders in that section as well. But it does seem clear that at least some people thought the new Jeopardy! was a joke, and that Trebek was a doofus.
Oh, how things would change. Jeopardy! constants are now viewed as savants—even (or especially) the annoying ones. The show has a decent-sized daily audience. A quarter-century later, Alex Trebek was complaining about how other game shows were too stupid. “You have to wonder about some of the contestants on that program,” Trebek told students in Georgia in 2000. He was talking about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? He then did a Regis Philbin impression, saying a question on the show would be something like, “What’s the usual color of Post-its?” He said Philbin finished last on Celebrity Jeopardy twice. He said that Jeopardy! contestants were smarter than their Millionaire counterparts, that they were there not for money but “for glory, to show off their intellectual prowess.” A far cry from the vidiots of the mid-1980s.
I thought of this when news broke yesterday, via Variety, that the new host of Jeopardy! will likely be Mike Richards. At first, I was happy that the former hockey player had found a new career. But then I learned it was a different Mike Richards, a guy who guest-hosted Jeopardy! early on in the 2021 “guest host” era for the show. He is the executive producer for the show and was, at least in part, responsible for picking the new host. And he picked himself! Simply incredible.
In May, Richards told the trade mag Broadcasting & Cable that he never planned to be a host. “As for me hosting, I was never meant to be a part of that process—I was just meant to manage—but COVID had other plans,” he said. “Sony will ask me how people are in the studio and how their days on set went so I will be part of that conversation but there’s a bigger group of stakeholders who will weigh in. My job is really to make everyone really good at this.… We give everything we can to them to let them shine and then we serve it up.” Now his job is really to make himself really good at this!
Because it’s a thing that happened (or, well, is about to happen) people are pissed. They wanted one of the guest hosts: Ken Jennings, Mayim Bialik, Anderson Cooper, whoever. A marketing research firm said Jennings was the top choice they polled. Aaron Rodgers went back to the Packers, so he’s out. LeVar Burton has been openly campaigning for the role, and has attracted the most attention online, but his many Emmys aren’t going to impress a show that has won 41 of them.
I thought all the guest hosts did pretty well, honestly. No one was bad. (My least favorite was Katie Couric, who I normally like! My favorite was Jennings, who was naturally witty in the host role.) But all the hosts did so well it made me think hosting Jeopardy! might be an easy job. Richards says it isn’t—“Jeopardy! is maybe the toughest show on TV to host,” he told Broadcasting & Cable—but none of the hosts seemed like they were struggling with it. It might just be that Jeopardy! has been on for nearly 40 seasons and runs like a well-oiled machine, and they really do put hosts in the best position to succeed and the behind-the-scenes Jeopardy! staff impact winning. But Trebek’s legacy demands that the host needs to be more than merely competent. They should be beloved.
Richards was previously the host of the CW’s Beauty and the Geek and a Game Show Network revival of Pyramid; he was also reportedly considered as a replacement for Bob Barker on The Price Is Right before Drew Carey got the role. He joined TPIR was a producer in 2008 and moved to a producer role on Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! last year. McNear, who wrote the recent Jeopardy! book, says he was “not well liked by the more diehard Jeopardy! community.” (Thanks to her for doing the research, so I did not have to wade into that pool.)
He wasn’t particularly liked by some fans of The Price Is Right, either. I found a group titled “Fire Mike Richards From The Price Is Right.” The person who posts there seems mostly angry that Richards “ruined” the show—longtime TPIR producer Roger Dobkowitz was pushed out—but Richards was also named in a lawsuit by one of the show’s models. Model Brandi Cochran said the show’s producers retaliated against her for getting pregnant. She won millions, but the verdict was thrown out by a judge and she later settled privately. Richards was also sued by another former model who said he demoted her in favor of a model he was having a relationship with, among other things. (That other lawsuit also named another producer, Adam Sandler—not the one you’re thinking of—and Richards was dropped as defendant in 2013.)
Alex Trebek hosted Jeopardy! for 36 years. A certain portion of the audience is going to hate whoever is the new host, since that host necessarily won’t be Alex Trebek. But there’s not anything intrinsically wrong with picking a game show host to host a game show.
Was Alex Trebek a genius? He sure came off as one on the show, and certainly would’ve had a knack for trivia after decades hosting the show. But Trebek didn’t have to be brilliant so much as he needed to seem authoritative within the context of the show he hosted. He did not always fare as well outside that context, and while he somehow avoided any blowback for participating in this awful interview at WrestleMania 7, he did do a horrible job moderating a Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate in 2018 and was criticized appropriately for it. This isn’t to say Trebek was dumb, of course. But he was just a person, or more specifically the type of person who can play the lead role on a game show. He wasn’t some sort of super trivia computer. He was a game show host who hosted a game show for three and a half decades.
Mike Richards may not be the best choice, but something Trebek wrote in his memoir made me realize it could end up working out just fine anyway. Trebek was also a producer of the show for its first three years. (Merv Griffin was “cheap,” Trebek wrote, and wouldn’t pay him enough, so he also took on a producer role.)
“In addition to hosting, I produced Jeopardy! for the first three years,” Trebek wrote. “I made one significant change after the first season, which we’ve kept up all these years. That first season, contestants could ring in immediately when they saw the clue. It caused a lot of confusion among viewers at home. They would be watching and they’d see a contestant’s light come on, but I would call on another contestant because their light had come on first and had gone off before the camera turned from the clue to the contestants. It drove the audience nuts. So I changed that. Now, a contestant cannot ring in until after I’ve read the clue in its entirety.”
This, to me, is the correct response to what makes Jeopardy! the best game show. It’s ideal to play along with—it gives you a chance to answer before the contestants. Trebek was the one who came up with that wrinkle. If Richards really does replace him, his hosting chops may matter less than whether he has great ideas, too.
Correction (3:29 p.m. ET): The original version of this article stated that Alex Trebek’s autobiography was released posthumously. It was actually released in July 2020.