Presiding over this show was, of course, Alex Trebek, whose last message, released posthumously after his death from cancer in November 2020, was a call for kindness and community
in the middle of our great global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. In his grace and dignity, especially during the first pandemic winter and the second surge of cases and deaths, his voice and his passing came to mean much more than I ever would have expected from a game show host. Besides, we were all mostly stuck at home, looking for things to watch, chatting with each over over social media and group text about our shows.
How could such a man be replaced, we all wondered after Trebek passed on. Could the show stay relevant?
As a Minnesota Vikings fan, I grudgingly admitted that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was surprisingly good — no doubt in part because of his lifelong love of the show
. And of course Trebek himself had recommended
that CNN legal analyst Laura Coates replace him.
Then, in summer 2021, came the kicker. Mike Richards, the executive producer of the show, was named the permanent main host (with Mayim Bialik as a host for special events). For fans, it felt like a painful charade, that having searched for a replacement for Trebek, Richards found only himself.
It only got worse
when revelations surfaced about allegations of sexual discrimination on “The Price is Right,” where Richards had previously been an executive. A lawsuit which was filed by a model on the game show in 2010 was settled in 2016. Richards himself addressed it this way: “These were allegations made in employment disputes against the show….The way in which my comments and actions have been characterized in these complaints does not reflect the reality of who I am…”
Soon after, however, an investigation from Claire McNear of “The Ringer” raised concerns about the racist, classist, ableist, and sexist content on a podcast
that Richards hosted a few years ago. He commented at length about women’s bodies, including making derogatory remarks about his co-host Beth Triffon. He used disability slurs to mock both Triffon and actress Kristin Chenoweth, joked about Jewish noses and Asian height, suggested that giving money to unhoused women would result in them buying crack, and just generally verbally punched down at others regularly.
“Jeopardy!” producer Sony declined to comment to “The Ringer,” and Richards said in a statement
: “It is humbling to confront a terribly embarrassing moment of misjudgment, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity from nearly a decade ago. Looking back now, there is no excuse, of course, for the comments I made on this podcast and I am deeply sorry.”
What made Richards’ alleged behavior all the more intolerable in a potential “Jeopardy!” host was imagining who should be standing in his place. Americans, and many around the world, are still struggling with the effects of trauma and isolation. Our lives are different, our homes are different, and we miss the comforts of things like “Jeopardy!” Fans — indeed, all of us — deserve a host who understands the social power and potential for good embodied in that role.
If Trebek was the convener of community of us weird nerds, and a man who you believed might have known the answers, Richards is just a typical media bro who told mean jokes and can read cue cards. He represents the worst kind of toxic masculinity that so dominates media, eager to elevate himself at the expense of others.
There’s no place for that in my media consumption, and I certainly would never have watched the show with him on it. Clearly enough people felt similarly, because now Richards has stepped down
and the show sits in limbo. Richards has apologized for
“for the unwanted negative attention that has come to ‘Jeopardy!’ over the last few weeks and for the confusion and delays this is now causing. I know I have a lot of work to do to regain your trust and confidence.”
Richards is remaining as executive producer, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in what comes next. For me, the kinds of remarks he repeatedly made only a few years ago on his podcast suggest a person ill-suited to run this show or pick its public face. I hope he, his colleagues and Sony Pictures take some time to consider what exactly made Trebek so special as a host. I think it was his kindness and humility. He stepped aside to make winners seem brilliant, without ego, but could also encourage losers to be good sports and understand that whatever happened in the game, knowing things was pretty cool. In moving past this debacle, the show has a second chance to reinvent itself around its unique strengths.
It doesn’t have to find another Trebek — that’s not going to happen. But it does need to recognize that a show about knowing things, a show that is still watched by everyone from kids to elders, is special. This is not a place for a bland game show host in a nice suit, but a real person with whom viewers can connect. It’s an opportunity to entertain, but also project the value of learning.
There may be lots of people who fit that description and I hope “Jeopardy!” finds one or more as they continue their process. For me though, of course, the answer is still, “Who is LeVar Burton?”