Who might be Alex Trebek’s successor? Ken Jennings? Anderson Cooper? LeVar Burton? Dane Cook?!
If the question is How do you replace the irreplaceable? the answer is obvious: You can’t. Alex Trebek was a singular presence—on Jeopardy!, on television, perhaps in your home. A month after his death, his passing after nearly 40 years of answers and questions still feels shocking.
But Jeopardy! will go on, as Trebek himself often said that it would. The show has announced that, after Trebek’s final episodes air the week of January 4, it will turn to “a series of interim guest hosts from within the Jeopardy! family.” Ken Jennings—the 74-time champion and recently named consulting producer—will be first up; last week was his first in the Jeopardy! studio as interim host.
“It’s just so hard to imagine it without Alex,” says Jon Cannon, who was a member of the Jeopardy! Clue Crew from 2005 to 2009. “The show has been reliably good for a generation. So to imagine it as being anything other than what it’s been is difficult to do. But one of the things that Alex always said that I think is true is that the real stars of the show are the contestants and people who tune in to watch and to play along.”
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Jeopardy! and sister show Wheel of Fortune to Sony Pictures, which owns and produces both. The pair of game shows—which tape on adjacent soundstages on Sony’s studio lot and share an executive producer and much of their respective crews—are consistently among the top-rated syndicated shows on TV, and together bring in a reported $125 million in profit each year. Sony’s television business produces “substantially higher” profits than its movie arm, according to Ben Fritz’s 2018 Sony deep dive, The Big Picture. Wheel and Jeopardy!, Fritz wrote, “have made total profits of $2 billion and $1 billion, respectively, over their decades on the air.”
Jeopardy! is thus a significant and reliable profit machine for Sony, and major decisions about the show matter greatly to the parent studio—few of which could have more bearing on the future than the selection of a new host. The search for a successor will involve both Mike Richards, who took over as executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel earlier this year when Harry Friedman stepped down after nearly 25 years on the job, and a constellation of senior Sony executives. Top suits are often involved in significant Jeopardy! developments: January’s ratings-busting Greatest of All Time tournament, for example, came about after an ABC exec floated the idea to current Sony Pictures Television president Jeff Frost and Sony TV head of alternative Holly Jacobs, who then brought it to Friedman.
In early 2019—before Friedman’s exit from the show or Trebek’s cancer diagnosis—I asked Friedman what the powers that be might look for in a future host. “I think someone who’s going to be as diligent about the integrity of the material and who has the same work ethic that Alex does,” he told me.
We know some of what the studio might be thinking: In 2014, Steve Mosko—then the head of Sony Pictures Television—sent an email to Anderson Cooper, later made public in that year’s Sony hack, to check in about “our favorite quiz show.” “Last i checked alex is alive and kicking so…let’s stay in touch,” Mosko wrote, a hint if there ever was one. Cooper wrote back: “Great to hear from you. I’m definitely interested, as always.”
Times have changed, of course. Cooper has only seen his star rise higher at CNN; last month, Variety reported that he was “not currently pursuing the position” of Jeopardy! host. Mosko, for his part, left Sony in 2016.
Trebek had thoughts of his own. He was fond of joking that he hoped his successor would be Betty White—who, it’s worth noting, won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host for her work on Just Men! (She’s also a month shy of her 99th birthday.)
I asked Trebek once what he thought Jeopardy! might look for in the next host. “Obviously they’re going to look at somebody younger, somebody personable, someone who appears to be intelligent, who appears to be friendly and kindly disposed towards the contestants,” Trebek said.
In 2018, he offered two names during an interview with TMZ’s Harvey Levin when Levin asked Trebek for candidates he thought would make for “a good, solid host”: LA Kings play-by-play announcer Alex Faust (whom Trebek said he had “mentioned to our producer”—presumably Friedman—as someone to keep in mind) and Laura Coates, a radio host and cable news legal analyst. Both Faust and Coates seemed taken aback by Trebek’s endorsement.
Together, these glimpses into Sony and Jeopardy!’s thinking illustrate what the studio is likely to consider. The apparent pursuit of Cooper—not to mention rumors that, in 2013, the show also considered then–Today show host Matt Lauer—suggests that someone with a broadcasting background was appealing. TV news chops mean more than just on-screen ease and reps pronouncing names and places on air: Those who master the form often gain a Cronkite-ian air of scholarly authority and gravitas that is central to the appeal of Jeopardy! Trebek, after all, got his own showbiz start as a radio and then television newscaster in Canada.
Youth matters, too: The show is doubtless looking for someone who will remain at Jeopardy! for the long haul—perhaps not for 36 years, but at least long enough that a show whose appeal is its lack of change doesn’t suddenly become one that changes frequently. That same point might be a strike against flashy celebrity hirings—Leslie Jones and Jimmy Kimmel have been exciting additions as hosts of the rebooted Supermarket Sweep and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, respectively, but it’s hard to imagine that either will still be hosting those shows five years from now, much less three decades. (Drew Carey, who took over The Price Is Right in 2007 after Bob Barker retired, might be the exception to that rule.)
It’s telling that neither Faust nor Coates is a household name nationally. Trebek wasn’t anonymous when he took the reins at Jeopardy! in 1984, but he was not a name-brand hire. A 1974 story in The Montreal Gazette (then just The Gazette) characterized him as “a fast-rising but not-quite-famous staff announcer and TV host” at the end of his 12 years with the CBC, when he decamped for Los Angeles and began his game show career. Those early shows—The Wizard of Odds, The New High Rollers, Double Dare—didn’t exactly catapult him to stardom; when Jeopardy! came along, he’d been out of work for a year. For Trebek, Jeopardy! was what transformed him into a celebrity, and he, at least, clearly didn’t think that fame was a prerequisite for the post.
Fans have taken to reading the tea leaves. Was Ken Jennings, who lives in Seattle and has long been seen as a frontrunner, hinting at a permanent move to L.A.? (Full disclosure: He wrote the foreword to my book about Jeopardy! During the 2019 All-Star Games, I asked him if he had ever thought about hosting the show. “If I were called upon to fill it, I would obviously have to serve my country and my game show,” he replied.) Is LeVar Burton actually campaigning for the gig? Would Jane Lynch say she was interested if she were really in the running? Are those George Stephanopoulos rumors for real? And hey—what about the Cash Cab guy?
Then, of course, there’s the Clue Crew, whose two remaining members, Jimmy McGuire and Sarah Whitcomb Foss, have four decades of Jeopardy! experience between them. (Cheryl Farrell departed the Clue Crew in 2008, while Kelly Miyahara left last year. Neither they nor Cannon were replaced.) While viewers might think of the Clue Crew mostly as globe-trotting clue dispensers, many of the pair’s duties are in-studio: It’s McGuire, for example, who typically stands in as host during the morning’s untelevised practice game for contestants.
“I would love it if either Sarah or Jimmy got a shot at hosting,” says Cannon, who is now a teacher in New Hampshire as well as the host of the annual Granite State Challenge. “I would just glow with happiness.” Clue Crew training might offer an advantage that other public-facing candidates wouldn’t have, Cannon adds: Because spoken clues must precisely match the actual written clue that will appear on the board—which the writers carefully word for clarity and length—it’s surprisingly important on Jeopardy! to turn off ad-libbing and recite the words exactly as they’re written.
The interim posts offer their own riddle. A reasonable guess would be that Jeopardy! will use interim hosts for the remainder of the current season, which typically tapes through early April and airs its final episodes in July. Trebek taped the first 75 of the season’s usual 230 episodes, and another 10 episodes will be filled by the two weeks of greatest hits the show has scheduled to begin on December 21. We don’t yet know how long each interim shift will be: Jeopardy! films five games on each of its tape days and typically has two back to back in each of its 23 recording weeks a season. It seems unlikely, then, that we’ll see less than two weeks for each host—though the comedian Dane Cook claimed last month that he had been invited to guest host “an episode,” so (assuming there’s some truth to what would be a decidedly left-field posting) it’s possible that some of the interim shifts might be brief.
That leaves the question of who exactly the show might mean by “the Jeopardy! family.” Pat Sajak, the longtime host of Wheel of Fortune, is a likely candidate: He is the only other person to ever host an episode in the Trebek era, stepping behind the lectern for a single episode of Jeopardy! on April Fools’ Day in 1997 while Trebek took his place at Wheel. And veteran announcer Johnny Gilbert has had some practice reading clues, both in special categories and in a Jeopardy! video game edition (though it’s worth noting that at 96 years young, he has spent the current season working from home).
And there’s always the possibility that the show might turn to contestants other than Jennings: Brad Rutter, the all-time-winningest contestant in Jeopardy! history, could appear, as could a range of other favorite players from recent years. (See: Pam Mueller.) Might the show turn to notable celebrity champs like Michael McKean, Andy Richter, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Cheech Marin? (Or—gulp—Wolf Blitzer?) Will Ferrell has had some practice with a, uh, version of Jeopardy!—one the real host was vocal about enjoying. Or maybe our robot overlords will get their chance: In 2011, when IBM Watson faced off against Rutter and Jennings, Trebek himself supposed that it couldn’t be too much longer before he might find himself replaced by the supercomputer.
For Sony, who the next host will be likely matters less than a central enigma: How much of Jeopardy!’s success was dependent on Trebek himself holding court each night?
Trebek, of course, was not the first host of Jeopardy!: The original Jeopardy! aired in the 1960s and ’70s with Art Fleming as host and Don Pardo as announcer. It was a different show in many respects, from its network home (NBC instead of the current show’s syndication) and its filming site (New York City) to rule differences around the buzzer and prizes—and, especially, the era in which it aired. Game shows today carry an air of retro entertainment; no-nonsense half-hour trivia contests don’t generally make for smash-hit television these days. There is some magic to Jeopardy! in 2020. The deep anxiety for those who love it is that Trebek himself might have been the one casting the spell.
The current edition of Jeopardy! has made three spinoff attempts over the years: Jep! with Bob Bergen (1998-99), Rock & Roll Jeopardy! with Jeff Probst (1998-2001), and Sports Jeopardy! with Dan Patrick (2014-16). Their collective failure to catch on has been linked to a number of causes, from overspecificity and narrow audience (Jep! was later folded into the main Jeopardy! show as the recurring Kids Week tournament) to the platforms on which they aired (Sports Jeopardy! debuted on the relatively obscure streaming service Crackle).
Both Bergen and Patrick remember the surreal experience of finding themselves suddenly in control of that iconic blue set. “I will tell you, it is one of most difficult jobs in the world to host a game show,” says Bergen. He still recalls his shock when he realized that the boop-boop-boop tone that sounds when contestants don’t ring in wasn’t automated—the host, be it him or Trebek, had a button in front of him to manually trigger it. “The very first day, Harry”—Harry Friedman also oversaw the trio of spinoffs—“is showing me the podium with the button. I said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s no set time? Do you edit it down so people don’t go, How come he had ten seconds and he had four?’ He said, ‘Nope, and nobody in the history of the show has ever questioned it.’”
Bergen knows a thing or two about reinventing a beloved cultural institution. “There was an original voice of Porky Pig,” says Bergen, who succeeded Mel Blanc as the voice of the iconic Looney Tunes character 30 years ago. “Things go on. Franchises go on. Characters go on. Programs go on. They’re never, ever going to be the same,” he says, but they go on. Just differently.
Patrick’s first brush with Jeopardy! came in 2011, several years before Sports Jeopardy!, when the longtime SportsCenter host says Mosko contacted him to ask if he might be interested in succeeding Trebek, who Sony thought at the time might retire. (Yet another indication that Sony leadership might lean toward a well-known broadcaster.) Trebek, of course, ultimately opted to renew his contract, tabling the discussions.
After Patrick came aboard at Sports Jeopardy!, Trebek left him a message inviting him to dinner. The message began, with that famous Canadian directness, “Dan, Alex Trebek.” “It’s like I was on Jeopardy!,” he jokes.
They ate early, in deference to Patrick’s morning radio commitments. “It was just Alex and I in a restaurant at 5—no one else,” Patrick says. “He could not have been more of a gentleman, more gracious. He just wanted to allow me to pick his brain on how to do it.” Trebek gave him one of the grease pencils he favored to mark up his copy of the board during games (and keep track of Daily Double hunters and Forrest Bouncers), which Patrick still has today. He keeps the message from Trebek saved on his phone.
While some Jeopardy! fans have theorized that the show might turn to Patrick as an interim host, he tells me that he preemptively told his agent he wasn’t interested in one of the guest shifts. Nor is he interested in the permanent post, at least for now. “I don’t want to be the guy who follows the legend,” he says. “I want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend.”
This spring, as I was in the midst of work on my book about Jeopardy!, I called Meredith Vieira. In 2002, Vieira, then best known as a moderator at The View, was named as the new host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which was coming off a three-year media frenzy—and eventual ratings crash—with Regis Philbin as host.
“People would say to me at the time, ‘Those are big shoes to fill,’ and my attitude was, well, I’m not trying to fill his shoes,” Vieira told me. “I’m trying to feel comfortable in my own. Nobody else is going to be Regis, but by the same token, nobody else is going to be me, so I had to just bring to that show whatever my particular strengths were.”
“I think he sees this is a show, as they say, with legs,” Vieira, who spent 11 years at Millionaire and currently hosts 25 Words or Less, said of Trebek. “I don’t think any host is bigger than the show, and any good host doesn’t want to be. It’s about the game.”
Vieira, for one, did not think Jeopardy! needed to worry. “I don’t know why it would ever go out of fashion, because people love trivia,” she said. “I could see this game continuing forever—it’s timeless, and a formula that works. You know: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Indeed, Bergen says that he hopes the show will follow the same advice that Trebek gave him years ago: that at the end of the day, the most important thing is the game itself.
“They need to find somebody who isn’t Alex Trebek, who can come in there with their own personality, with their own style, and find that perfect marriage between new host and old brand. It’s possible—of course it’s possible,” Bergen says. “But it can’t be something that is done as a gimmick. It can’t be done as ‘Let’s try somebody so different that we’re taking Alex’s taste out of everybody’s mouth,’ because that’s going to make it all about the host. It’s not all about the host—it’s all about the game.”