The former champion turned guest host returns to “Jeopardy!” Monday, the first anniversary of Alex Trebek’s death, for a three-week run that marks his first appearance as host since February. But he didn’t know his episode would air on the commemorative date.
He was the stopgap host after Trebek died at 80 from pancreatic cancer. But the drama would continue for months, as 15 celebrities and former players took turns in what many considered tryouts for the show, only to see executive producer Mike Richards get the job and quickly exit, as both host and producer, following resurfaced derogatory comments he’d made on a 2014 podcast.
Jennings says producers deliberately shielded him from the intel that his first new episode would air as viewers mourned Trebek’s death one year ago, on Nov. 8, 2020.
“Apparently, everyone was aware that we were going to air (my first episode) on the anniversary and nobody told me,” Jennings says. “They didn’t want to put that in my head. So I was not told until after that it was the Nov. 8 show.”
Jennings’ return to ‘Jeopardy!’ was ‘like getting back on a bike’
What was it like coming back? “You would like to say just like getting back on a bike,” Jennings says in an interview.
“But it’s a very tricky job. The mechanics of hosting ‘Jeopardy!’ are daunting. There’s a lot going on at once, and Alex made it all look so easy. But I can tell you firsthand, it’s not easy.” Returning to tape new episodes in September, Jennings “felt rusty; I hope I don’t look rusty, but honestly it was just such a delight to be back on that stage.”
Last year, “I was just terrified, and I think rightfully so. I mean, Alex had just barely passed, and really no one else had hosted the show since 1974; like, literally, in my lifetime,” says Jennings, 47.
“I knew that it was going to be a very difficult task … much less the idea that you’re trying to step into the shoes of Alex Trebek, which is impossible. This time, we’re kind of a year removed or more from all that, so I’ve had every possible emotion now related to ‘Jeopardy!’ “
Though there will be “a lot of celebration of Alex’s life and his ‘Jeopardy!’ career on ‘Jeopardy!’ social feeds, and possibly a (title) card on the show,” the milestone goes unmentioned on Monday’s episode.
“I did wear Alex’s cuff links that week, that his wife, Jean, had been kind enough to leave for me,” Jennings says. “So I do have a little kind of souvenir.”
Trebek was never far from Jennings’ thoughts: “You can’t stand on that stage and say those things without thinking about him. Every time I’m up there, I’m doing Alex. Not just because he perfected it, but because that’s the only way I’ve ever seen it done.”
When will Mayim Bialik return?
Jennings will host the next three weeks of episodes, to be followed by a tournament. Although “Jeopardy!” officials won’t say which one, the show last summer aired promos urging college professors to take an online test. (The show has aired teachers tournaments for years, but never one just for college educators.)
Mayim Bialik and Jennings will rotate as hosts for the foreseeable future, Jennings says, to work around Bialik’s commitment to taping her Fox sitcom “Call Me Kat,” which returns in January. But Jennings is a fan and calls Bialik, 45, a “delightful” host.
Jennings says her shows have “kind of a fresh and authentic feeling, like somebody just kind of discovering ‘Jeopardy!’, which is not what you’re gonna see from me; I hear Alex’s voice in my head every time I’m out there.”
Does Jennings want to be permanent host?
At first, he sidesteps the question: “I am really enjoying hosting, just because ‘Jeopardy!’ means so much to me, but right now, all I’m thinking about is how the show is doing as a workplace, as a TV institution,” he says. As the drama over the hosting search and Richards’ eventual ouster showed, “it means a lot to people in a way that almost no other TV show does.”
But when pressed, he concedes.
“If my country called upon me to host ‘Jeopardy!’ I would happily do my patriotic duty. That show is my first love. I, even as a little kid, I would run home from school every day to watch. It’s just a big part of who I am and the person I became, even before I was on the show. So it’s just enormously flattering to be in the mix. And I feel like the show is in good hands, at this point, no matter what happens.”
In a seeming rebuke to others, such as LeVar Burton and Aaron Rodgers, who lobbied publicly for the job, he says, “You’re not going to see me in the papers talking about how important it is that I ended up hosting. I would love it, but I honestly feel like, deep down, ‘Jeopardy!’ is going to be OK either way.”
The guest-hosting derby burnished memories of Alex Trebek
The campaigning, and the steady stream of new guest hosts, added interest to the show, but Jennings felt it risked distracting from Trebek’s legacy.
“He just made it look graceful and effortless. And it didn’t seem like there was enough of that kind of talk when the hosting roundtable was going on. It was all about, ‘This host deserves it because of this,’ ” he says.
Ultimately, Jennings says, the parade of guest hosts demonstrated what Trebek often said: “Jeopardy!” is more about the game than the host.
“The virtue of that kind of rotation was people could see firsthand, maybe for the first time, that ‘Jeopardy!’ was still ‘Jeopardy!’, even if we’d lost Alex. He was such an integral part of the show that it was just impossible to imagine it without, him. And we still missed him, of course.”
Matt Amodio and the power of a long-reigning champion
Until Matt Amodio, a Yale grad student from Medina, Ohio, came along, months went by without a long-running champion, and Jennings holds the record, with 74 consecutive wins.
“I like being able to get to know someone on ‘Jeopardy!’ So I liked seeing a champ who’s on for a week or two, or in Matt’s case even longer.” (Amodio lasted 38 episodes.)
“I was really rooting for Matt. … I know firsthand, there is kind of a plateau where you just start to glide up there and I think somebody is going to beat my record, the 74 games,” Jennings says. “I think that (record) can fall, and so I’m always very invested.”
Jennings recalls James Holzhauer, whose aggressive betting style made him a long-running champ. “He’s a professional gambler, and he’s comfortable with the losses as long as there’s more wins than Iosses. Jennings remembers “feeling very uncomfortable betting the price of a new Volvo on a single trivia question, sight unseen. I just did not have the stomach for it.”