By any measure, Ken Jennings had a hell of a run over the last 13 months.
The Seattle author and game show personality started the stretch by winning the $1 million “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament in a flashy, no-contest manner. He then dropped the mic and announced his retirement from the game.
Not so fast, though — they brought him back as a consulting producer and then, after the death of beloved host Alex Trebek, gave him the honor of being the show’s first guest host, a six-week run that ended last month. Along the way, he was nominated for a Grammy Award and starred in the ABC game show “The Chase” with some of his “Jeopardy!” pals.
“I was just doing my taxes and one of the expenses is a New York City Metro card,” Jennings said. “And I was like, ‘Wait, I was on a subway in 2020?’ And I remembered I was in New York to do the publicity for the ‘GOAT’ tournament. Wait, that was a year ago? I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a decade.”
It’s all over but the waiting now. He’ll find out about the Grammy Award on Sunday, when the awards are handed out in Los Angeles. And then later this year, he’ll learn about his future on television when producers announce whether “The Chase” will return for a second season and who will succeed Trebek as permanent host of the incredibly popular “Jeopardy!.”
Jennings took a few moments recently to discuss his unexpected Grammy nomination, his run on “Jeopardy!” and that modern-day peril of celebrity social media.
Up against Meryl Streep for a Grammy
Jennings is up for best spoken word album at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards, and with all due respect to Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, this might be the most cutthroat category at the ceremony.
Jennings’ work on Trebek’s “The Answer Is …” autobiography is up against Meryl Streep’s work on “Charlotte’s Web,” Ronan Farrow’s “Catch and Kill,” Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Flea’s memoir, “Acid for the Children,” and Rachel Maddow’s takedown of the Trump administration, “Blowout.”
“I don’t think I’m such a draw compared to Meryl Streep or Ronan Farrow for the book that took down Harvey Weinstein,” Jennings said with a laugh. “This is not going to happen for me.”
Nevertheless, he will tune in to the pre-ceremony awards on Sunday afternoon (the bulk of the awards are given out via livestream earlier in the day) and enjoy the ride. If nothing else, he’ll always have his nominee’s medallion. And, yes, such a thing exists.
“It’s a medallion kind of thing with a picture of the Grammy,” Jennings said. “So I don’t think I’m going to win a Grammy, but I will always have a weird medal with a picture of the Grammy. So, thanks to Alex.”
Unfortunately, should Jennings pull off the upset, Trebek will not earn a posthumous Grammy Award. Though publisher Simon & Schuster submitted Trebek’s name as part of the nominating process, it was left off because Trebek, fighting pancreatic cancer at the time, did not read at least 50% of the book.
“Which is kind of a bummer, because the reason why Alex couldn’t read his own audiobook is because his health was not great and he was saving his voice for ‘Jeopardy!,’” Jennings said. “He wanted to do the show as long as possible, so he wasn’t taking any chances. So I was just a pinch hitter.”
Guest hosting “Jeopardy!”
In the space of a few recent weeks, Jennings’ run on television ended when his stint as the first replacement host for Trebek ended and the last episode of the first season of ABC’s “The Chase” came to a close (stay tuned for a possible renewal notice).
Jennings was pleased with both, especially his run on “Jeopardy!,” where he was asked to do the impossible: shepherd the show into a new era after 37 years with Trebek at the helm.
“I was incredibly relieved at the reception,” Jennings said. “For the most part, people were very understanding. They were kind to a new host stepping into really a pretty tough situation. I was very hesitant about being the first face of ‘Jeopardy!’ without Alex Trebek because I’m missing him, too. We’re all missing him. Nobody wants to see ‘Jeopardy!’ without Alex.
“I was really nervous. That show means a lot to me and I wanted it to be right.”
Jennings began his run with a touching tribute to Trebek, a hero who became a mentor for the 46-year-old. Jennings said he took a walk along the beach in Marina del Rey, California, while coming up with what he wanted to say and fleshed it out with producers, who were just as emotional. As time went on, Jennings said he got into a groove and felt less like an impostor in Trebek’s role, and more like a game show host.
“It was six weeks of shows, but really that means I did it over six days,” Jennings said of the show’s rigorous taping regimen. “So there’s not a lot of runway for a learning curve, you know? But I did feel like, by the end, I was kind of loosening up and maybe almost enjoying it. And I think that did come across. Whatever else you can say about me not being a polished or experienced host, I really do love ‘Jeopardy!.’ And it was just such a thrill to be on the other side of that lectern. And I hope that came across.”
Jennings thinks it will be some time before we get word of a permanent host. There’s a long list of guest hosts due to appear in the coming months — “America’s finally going to get to see Aaron Rodgers host ‘Jeopardy!,’ which I’m sure he is going to do like a hundred times better than I would behind center for the Packers” — and there’s no word when a decision will be announced.
Jennings said he wasn’t sure how he felt about hosting at first, given the emotion of the situation. But as he interacted with guests, delivered questions and began to smile more and more, he felt his affinity for the opportunity grow.
“One thing I did learn as the host, which I didn’t know going in, is that gradually I got to where I could do it,” Jennings said. “You know, that was the thing. I didn’t know. How can I say I want a job when I don’t know if I could do it? And I learned by the end that I was kind of starting to figure it out. It made me think, ‘Oh, well, I guess I’m a candidate for this job,’ which I really never wanted to think before because I didn’t know if it was true.”
Changing philosophy on social media
The one fly in all the fun for Jennings has been Twitter, where a past comment considered ableist and the brief but intense furor over comments made by his friend and podcast co-host John Roderick ensnared him in controversy.
Jennings said that as a result, his philosophy on social media has changed. Where once he saw himself as a solo act on social media, roaming the internet free from his association with “Jeopardy!,” he no longer thinks that’s true.
“All the stuff I wanted to do relied on being seen as my own person and not just associated with being on ‘Jeopardy!’ for a few months in 2004,” Jennings said of his initial 74-win run. “So I could really just swing away and say whatever. And I thought it was fun when Elon Musk would get mad at me on Twitter or Blue Jays fans would get mad at me on Twitter or whatever. It was fun to poke the beehive a bit.
“But the difference now is I am more closely associated with the show, which I did not foresee back then. Now ‘Jeopardy!,’ this venerable TV property, is associated with me, and then they get the phone call if someone’s yelling at me on Twitter. … So, no, they shouldn’t have to be associated with that. I love ‘Jeopardy!.’ I don’t want them to have any stigma just because I’m a consultant on the show now.”