As I have, in the last year, pretentiously weighed in on some of the more pressing issues of the Covid Era, any speculation about the future of Jeopardy might well strike my readers as frivolous. I totally agree.
Nonetheless, I ask that you indulge me as I veer off my beaten track to acknowledge this fraught crossroads in American cultural history.
Let’s be clear about the stakes here. Whoever replaces the late Alex Trebek might well take up a space in your living room — and your 7 p.m. time slot — for the next thirty years.
So who will it be? Who will feed us the “final jeopardy answer” going forward? Who will lend sufficient gravitas to making the daily double a true one? These are not small matters.
Because in an age of toxic know-nothing-ness — a time of arrogant ignorance and educational dysfunction — Jeopardy is unapologetically intelligent.
Unlike any other regularly scheduled event in our culture, Jeopardy celebrates the know-it-all. It’s a safe space for eggheads, smart-asses, and those strange kids who pay attention in class. It’s for people who know stuff for the sake of knowing stuff.
How many shows can say that these days? Yes, there is real intellectual content on TV, but it needs to be looked for, it rarely gains mass acceptance, and it tends to disappear sooner than the crap around it.
But Jeopardy is a unique institution, with a generous and inclusive agenda. It invites everyone to play. All demographics — all races, religions, sexual preferences, education levels, political persuasions — all are welcome to match wits with our current champion.
The show values its intellectual credentials and it won’t stoop to anyone’s level. The answers are rarely easy, which is why you always feel good when you get one right — putting it, of course, in the form of a question. And Alex always made you feel okay about getting it wrong, which was one of his gifts.
So Jeopardy is dealing with an interesting business problem. How do you maintain and perpetuate a known winning formula once the iconic personification of that formula leaves the scene?
Alex’s death has left a vacuum, and it shows. Especially in the writing. There have now been a half dozen or so “guest hosts,” each one a known and estimable personage, each one coming up short. They’ve all had their own two-week run, reading lines that were quite obviously written for Alex.
The results range from okay (Katie Couric), to bland (Ken Jennings), to controversial (Dr. Oz), to WTF (Aaron Rodgers). But nobody has stood out as a real contender.
To the producers' credit, they’re moving slowly. They’ve found ways to keep our interest as the process plays out. As of now, they’re accentuating the politically correct, giving us a veritable cavalcade of diversity. So far, we’ve seen a woman, a gay guy, a Black newsman, a Muslim doctor, and a star quarterback.
The preponderance of TV newscasters — three, at last count — makes sense, at least in the short term. All three have mastered the knack of speaking on-camera while listening in their earpiece — a crucial element of the host’s skill set — which can’t be easy to learn on short notice. Even so, they’re all struggling with it — even the newscasters, judging from the awkward pauses — which speaks to the difficulty of the job. Aaron Rodgers in particular seemed way over his head, and seemed to know it.
But the bigger problem is that Alex’s style is so ingrained in the heads of the writers — and no doubt the entire production staff — that all the guest hosts are coming across as Alex Lite.
The eventual winner will have to be someone who can break that mold, who can take the show in a new direction.
The show, not the game itself. The game is set in stone. It will stay exactly as Merv Griffin envisioned it, over half a century ago. You don’t mess with that kind of success.
But everything else is up for grabs — the production design, the sets, the color palette, the soundscape — even the announcer, Johnny Gilbert, who is well into his nineties. It won’t be the show’s first makeover — it’s been done many times before — but it will be the most consequential.
So when it comes to choosing a new host, the producers will need to think outside the box. Sort of like turning The Price Is Right over to Drew Carey.
Personally, I would give the gig to Harvey Fierstein, sight unseen. Besides being a unique visual, he has that one-of-a-kind voice, a low, raspy growl that drips nuance and innuendo into every sentence. In three episodes, we’d forget all about Alex.
Okay, I admit he wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice. But how about Ru Paul? Or Samantha Bee? Eddie Izzard? Wanda Sykes? There’s no shortage of quirky personalities with the chops to take the show in another direction.
Remember, it’s virtually a lifetime gig, with the kind of money and job security that would be extremely attractive to any entertainer who’s not a major star. So the choices are many.
Of course, Jeopardy can continue doing what it’s doing currently, at least for a while, with a new host every two weeks. The producers could make it a thing, a cultural phenomenon. They could build up the anticipation and involve the public in rating the hosts.
This could work for a while. It certainly comports with the zeitgeist, with our need, as a society, for constant and unending novelty.
But at some point, that approach will get old. At some point, the ratings gods will weigh in and tell the producers that naming a permanent host can’t wait any longer.
By which time, hopefully, the answer will be obvious. And in the form of a question.