Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way right here at the start: Nobody can replace Alex Trebek.
The longtime “Jeopardy!” host, who died at 80 on Nov. 8 more than a year after he announced that he had advanced pancreatic cancer, was one of the last universal celebrities from yesteryear in American pop culture — known, loved and respected by so many.
“I personally feel that, maybe 20 years ago or more, you could have replaced Alex Trebek,” said Ryan Fenster, one of a handful of Seattle-area “Jeopardy!” champions who’ve been following the hot-stove debate over the show’s future. “But after so long at the helm, ‘Jeopardy!’ really is, in many ways, ‘The Alex Trebek Show.’”
Here’s the rub, though: Someone’s going to have to do it. “Jeopardy!” is one of the entertainment industry’s most bankable institutions, a syndication juggernaut that’s seen by 10 million or more people each day and has moved into the streaming world as well with Netflix and Hulu deals.
So the show will go on and someone will replace Trebek after 37 years, even if no one can replace Trebek.
“They’re going to have to find a way to transition into something new,” said television producer Scott Manville, once head of development for the company that created “Jeopardy!” “The bulk of their audience obviously are baby boomers. It’s a huge audience. They’ve been loyal for decades. It’s the kind of thing where you can be around the corner in the kitchen cooking and recognize the Alex Trebek voice … and it’s comforting. That’s what they’re used to. So you can’t replace it. It simply has to grow into something new.”
What that new thing is probably won’t be revealed until next year — the show has said it’s not announcing plans for a new host right now. Trebek prerecorded episodes that will air through Dec. 25. After that, the selection of the new host will be one of the most talked about — and watched — events of the year.
The list of potential candidates starts with a familiar name at the top: Seattle resident and “Jeopardy!” GOAT Ken Jennings. Not only does Jennings seem to be the sentimental favorite among the large community of “Jeopardy!” alumni who commune in shared Facebook groups and in the Twitterverse, he also is the betting favorite with oddsmakers, laying even odds he’ll be the new choice — ahead of a lot of very famous people. (More on Jennings later.)
Before we get too far into discussing who should succeed Trebek, though, let’s talk a little bit about what those who love the show might be looking for in a new host. Trebek had an unusual personality for the game show world. He was no huckster hectoring contestants into one more spin. The word that often comes to mind for those who watched him the most is “grandfatherly.”
“Even at the very beginning in the 1980s, he had a sort of grandfatherly air about him,” Fenster said.
“I think Alex really made it an institution,” former champion Sally Neumann said. “And he did that by really not making it about himself. He’s incredibly humble. He’s not like Steve Harvey, who’s hilarious (on “Family Feud”), but that show’s about him, you know? Alex really makes it about the contestants and he’s super, super graceful, but he’s also silly. And I think that’s a hard combination to come across. He really respects the game. He respects trivia as a sport.”
He also valued the players, rarely calling one out or putting one on the spot.
“It’s like we’re all the nerds,” former champion Laura Brown said. “All of us who were on the show, we’re the kids who were bullied for being the nerds for being too smart. And so it has to be somebody who thinks that it’s kind of cool that we’re the smart kids.”
Brown, like many former contestants, is passionate about the show and has been for decades: “I’m not just a ‘Jeopardy!’ champion, I’m a ‘Jeopardy!’ watcher.” She thinks the new host will need a long list of attributes: noncompetitive, respectful, calm and cool when someone makes a mistake.
Like a Double Jeopardy! category, it’s a high-stakes choice for producers. In a 2019 poll conducted by market research company Morning Consult, when speculation Trebek might retire was rampant, 50% of respondents said they can’t imagine watching “Jeopardy!” without Trebek, while 70% of respondents closely associated the show with its host.
Even Brown, who has watched since childhood, says her allegiance to the show is conditional. Watching Trebek host while obviously sick from cancer, and his treatments over the last two years, only cemented that.
“I could see how sick he was,” Brown said as she began to cry. “We all could see that. But it’s been this lovely, poignant thing — I’m sorry, I get teary — to watch him show up. And he’s been an inspiration, I think, to all of us living with cancer and the classiness with which he did. And if they get someone who’s competitive or smarmy or not classy, then I probably will stop watching.”
That’s why she thinks Jennings, a 46-year-old Seattle author and the richest player in game show history with more than $4.5 million in career earnings, should get his shot.
Jennings is a lot like Trebek — confident but humble, quick-witted and funny. And there’s no question he knows the game. He owns the all-time record with 74 straight wins, he won last January’s $1 million “Jeopardy!: The Greatest of All Time” tournament over equally likable rivals James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter in dominant fashion, and was recently named a consulting producer for the show with duties that include putting together categories and occasional appearances.
He has earned a lot of fans in the “Jeopardy!” world over the years, including a very important one.
“Alex Trebek spoke of him as his favorite contestant,” Neumann said. “When he was taping ‘Jeopardy!,’ Alex comes out and talks to the audience. And one of the things people would ask him is who is his favorite contestant. And, you know, I’m sure partially he says it because it’s no contest, because he’s been on the most episodes. But he just kind of like sings Ken’s virtues. I think that’s nice.”
Jennings hasn’t spoken publicly since Trebek’s death, though he did issue a tweet. A show publicist said last week he wasn’t available for an interview. But he good-naturedly downplayed the talk of taking over the lectern when the show announced his production role in September.
“I think that’s reading too much into it,” Jennings said in an interview then with The Seattle Times. “I mean, Alex is going strong. That’s what makes me very happy because it’s pretty hard for me to imagine a version of ‘Jeopardy!’ without Alex. He’s always going to be my ‘Jeopardy!’ host.”
Also of note: Jennings is going to be busy with “The Chase,” a quiz show recently picked up by ABC that debuts Jan. 7. The remake of the British game show features the “Jeopardy!” GOAT trio of Jennings, Holzhauer and Rutter taking turns squaring off against regular contestants in a rapid-fire format.
Though you might think Jennings is a longshot for the job, especially when Hollywood industry trades trot out names like professional TV personalities Anderson Cooper of CNN, George Stephanopoulos of ABC and Pat Sajak, the longtime host of “Wheel of Fortune,” it’s really not so far-fetched. And it’s not just oddsmakers who think so.
Manville, the Los Angeles-based producer who was head of development for Merv Griffin Entertainment from 1997 to 2004, said there is precedent for an out-of-left-field hire. Griffin, who created “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune” and other iconic game shows, was known for casting little-known personalities in the past. That’s exactly what he did when he hired Trebek to replace Art Fleming on the rebooted “Jeopardy!” in 1984.
“You know, the funny thing is I think Ken Jennings probably has a better shot than Stephanopoulos because they have to assume that he’s going to be too polarizing, just because of politics that come into play,” Manville said. “They would rather have somebody who’s not been in the machine. Merv loved to cast unknowns. He did it with Ryan Seacrest (on ‘Click’). I was in the room and it was simply based on the kid’s energy that matched what that format was.”
Five years later, Seacrest was hired to host “American Idol,” and the rest is TV ratings history. Like Seacrest, Manville said Jennings “has certainly earned his shot.”
“I think at the very least they should have him do it for several episodes — maybe it’s three or four episodes and it’s a test run and we’ll find out,” he said. “And I think that it would also satisfy people who want to see him have that shot, and ultimately the public would have their own opinion. Maybe this is something where the casting process shouldn’t be so secretive, but should be an open process where like, on many of the talk shows, they try people out.”
Jennings’ list of rivals grows by the day, if you believe internet speculation. Beyond Stephanopoulos (the No. 2 betting choice for at least one oddsmaker, at 7-2 as of this writing), Sajak (No. 4 at 16-1) and Cooper, others mentioned for the job include physicist and supernerd Neil deGrasse Tyson (No. 3 at 14-1); actor, comedian, writer and producer Mindy Kaling; actor, comedian and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” host Aisha Tyler; late-night and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” host Jimmy Kimmel; TV news personality Katie Couric; “Reading Rainbow” star and national treasure LeVar Burton; and an odd assortment of others that includes CNN’s Laura Coates and Los Angeles Kings play-by-play announcer Alex Faust — two candidates Trebek mentioned as potential replacements in 2018.
If Jennings doesn’t get his shot, Neumann said she’d like to see the show’s producers take another cue from Trebek.
“He also spoke (with contestants) about really having an issue with diversity in the trivia community,” she said. “And it is traditionally sort of an older, white man’s game. And it would be nice to change that a little bit and have a woman or a woman of color — somebody in the limelight that doesn’t foreclose the sport to people other than white men.”
Fenster said he’d take a more radical approach initially and put the show on hiatus to give us time to mourn Trebek and prepare for a new direction.
Unless producers pick LeVar Burton. He’s 100% down with the former “Star Trek” and “Roots” star.
“I can’t think of a better fit than LeVar Burton,” he said.