Seattle’s Ken Jennings has passed the first-impression test in his bid to succeed Alex Trebek as the host of “Jeopardy!”
On Monday night, Jennings seemed accessible, authentic and on the ball in his first appearance as interim guest host of the popular quiz show, even choking up during a tribute to Trebek, the beloved longtime host who died late last year of pancreatic cancer at age 80.
“Like all ‘Jeopardy!’ fans, I miss Alex very much and I thank him for everything he did for all of us,” Jennings said at the top of the broadcast. “Let’s be totally clear: No one will ever replace the great Alex Trebek. But we can honor him by playing the game he loved.”
And with that, Jennings ably ushered “Jeopardy!” into a new era. Trebek’s run ended last week with the last of the prerecorded shows he made before his death on Nov. 8. Jennings enters the stint as something of a sentimental favorite among the show’s fans and large roster of former contestants.
Already the show’s winningest player, the author and professional game-show contestant secured his reign as king of the nerds when he won the “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” tournament a year ago. Good things came quickly after that.
The 46-year-old was named a consulting producer on the show in September, with regular appearances curating his own categories. He announced his participation in ABC quiz show “The Chase” with his “Jeopardy!” rivals James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter. And then came news two weeks after Trebek’s death that Jennings would be the first interim guest host while producers decided what to do with the job.
In essence, the producers gave Jennings home field advantage and the chance to wow fans from the jump. Did he do it?
On the surface, yes. Jennings was as confident as you would hope, smooth in his delivery of questions and guided contestants through the intricacies of the game with the kind of knowing support you might expect from someone who has been in their shoes.
Is it enough to overcome some social media faux pas that have marred the run-up to his tryout? That remains to be seen — who can predict the internet, after all? USA Today reported Monday that Jennings recorded a robust six weeks of shows in November and December and cited a Los Angeles Times report that former “Today” show host and “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric recorded at least a week’s worth of episodes.
Couric or any of the other reported candidates for the job — including names like “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak, ABC anchor and host George Stephanopoulos, CNN host Anderson Cooper and even super nerd Neil deGrasse Tyson — would certainly bring star power to the job. But would they bring the same level of appreciation, understanding and care that Jennings — a trivia nerd’s trivia nerd — has developed over the years? Probably not.
Jennings first appeared on the show in 2004, winning 74 straight contests and more than $2.5 million during the run. He’s now the winningest game show contestant in U.S. history with more than $4.5 million in earnings. He has also won one of the great opportunities in American entertainment, something he acknowledged as he lovingly paid tribute to Trebek.
“Sharing this stage with Alex Trebek was one of the greatest honors of my life,” Jennings said as he opened the show. “Not many things in life are perfect, but Alex did this job pretty much perfectly for more than 36 years. And it was even better up close. We were dazzled by his intelligence, his charm, his grace — really, there’s no other word for it.”
After navigating arguably the most important 30 minutes of his professional career, Jennings invited fans back for another night of answers and questions, then signed off in the only way that seemed fitting.
“Thank you, Alex,” he said.