When Zach Newkirk arrived at the Jeopardy! studio on March 11, 2020, little about the experience dazzled him like getting to meet Alex Trebek, then well into his 36th year as Jeopardy!’s host.
“The first time I rang in, he said ‘Zach,’ and I distinctly remember being like, Oh my God, he knows my name,” Newkirk says.
By the time Newkirk left the Culver City lot that day to catch a redeye flight home to the Washington, D.C., area, he was a four-day champion with $85,669 in winnings. Jeopardy! records five games each on back-to-back tape days roughly twice a month, so Newkirk was due to come back to defend his winning streak in two weeks.
And then, well, 2020 happened. The coronavirus pandemic brought an early end to Jeopardy!’s season, and when production cautiously restarted in late July, cross-country travel remained a source of concern; the show opted to begin the season with contestants within driving distance of the studio.
Newkirk finally returned to defend his streak in December. Trebek had passed away the previous month at age 80, a year and a half after being diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. Production paused briefly and then resumed to keep the flow of episodes coming.
This time, Newkirk found Ken Jennings behind the lectern. The 74-time champ and recently named consulting producer was midway through a six-week stint as the first of Jeopardy!’s rotating guest hosts. But while viewers watching these episodes air in January and February might have begun to get used to someone else holding court onstage, in December it still felt very new to everyone in the studio. In terms of Jeopardy!’s production calendar, says Newkirk, it was just “the third day after Alex.”
It certainly felt that way when, during one of the show’s midgame Q&As between Jennings and contestants, Newkirk accidentally invoked Trebek. “He said, ‘So you’re a voting rights attorney?’ and I said, ‘That’s right, Alex,’” Newkirk says. The mixup was edited out and retaped.
“I felt really bad and embarrassed, but he was such a great sport about it,” Newkirk says. “He said, ‘If there’s anyone I could hope to be compared to, it would be Alex Trebek, so it’s really an honor.’” In the version that aired, Newkirk says, “That’s right, Ken.” When a crew member also slipped up later in the day and called Jennings “Alex” without seeming to notice the mistake, Newkirk says Jennings turned to him and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, See?
As the search for the next host of Jeopardy! continues, the rotation of interim guest hosts has carried on. Currently at the helm is Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback who won a game of Celebrity Jeopardy! back in 2015. In between, we’ve seen two weeks each from Mike Richards, Katie Couric, and Mehmet Oz. Anderson Cooper, Bill Whitaker, Savannah Guthrie, Mayim Bialik, and Sanjay Gupta are also scheduled to appear, with other possible additions toward the end of the season, which Jeopardy! confirmed to The Ringer will have its season finale on August 13. Assuming Guthrie and Gupta (the only of the announced guest hosts whose dates have not yet been confirmed) each get two weeks, that would leave a total of seven weeks still in need of a host, including a two-week window in May that is rumored to be set aside for the Tournament of Champions.
The carousel of fresh faces on a show that has proudly rebuffed change, big and small, for decades has not been without its detractors. Last month, The Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson suggested that the show was “on the road to ratings suicide by compromising its brand [and] alienating legions of loyal fans” thanks in part to “a string of uneven guest hosts.” The column prompted Murray Schwartz, the onetime head of Merv Griffin Enterprises, to pop up in the comment section: “Make a decision please,” he wrote of the host rotation. (This season’s ratings are down, though it’s difficult to say whether that’s because of a weary public or because of an unusually large audience for the Trebek episodes that aired as he was receiving treatment.) For those growing tired of the process, the end is in sight: Jennings recently confirmed that the show will have a permanent host in time for next season, which typically begins airing in September; previous reports suggest that an announcement of who that host will be will come sometime this spring. While the show has been clear that the guest host postings are not necessarily auditions—Couric, for one, said she wasn’t interested in the permanent job—Jennings also said he hopes to “get another chance,” which may or may not be a hint that he remains in the running. Rodgers, meanwhile, told The Ringer last week that he viewed his visit as a tryout for the permanent gig, which he insisted he could balance with his NFL duties.
But in the meantime, the guest host experiment continues, offering a window into the nuts and bolts of a television institution. For Jeopardy!, it has required a fundamental rethinking of how the game show is made and, for contestants, a realignment of how to play in the first place.
Jeopardy! is a uniquely challenging program to host, says Richards, who last year took over as the executive producer of both the quiz show and Wheel of Fortune. “Jeopardy! for the host is nonstop intensity,” he says. “There’s never a break in the taping.”
Richards’s two-week shift was not his first time emceeing a game show: In 2012, he hosted Game Show Network’s The Pyramid and was later a candidate to replace Bob Barker as the host of The Price Is Right, which he spent a decade executive producing along with Let’s Make a Deal. (He is also reportedly in the running to be the permanent host of Jeopardy!)
But few other games can match either Jeopardy!’s pace or the extent to which the host is involved in the action. On Jeopardy!, the only part of the program that the host isn’t actively steering is the 30 seconds of Final Jeopardy! while the “Think!” music plays. Otherwise, they’re juggling keeping track of the three players’ standing, how much of each category and round remains, when to cut to commercial, and whether a slightly off response is acceptable—all while managing the small matter of getting through 61 clues that the writers have a tendency to load with twisty, punny writing and complicated names. The host is “the giver of the clues, the person who calls on the person who rings in, and the arbiter of the game, and is keeping track of where the game is and building the momentum,” Richards says. It is, in other words, a lot.
“I believe that every great game show has a story line, and a great host helps build out the story line. Jeopardy! will have multiple story lines throughout the half hour,” Richards says, referring to the contestants’ respective performances, plus any unusual records, gutsy wagers, or come-from-behind action. “It’s very difficult to keep track of.”
This season’s guest hosts begin their run with a full rehearsal day on the Jeopardy! set, where they go through the show’s schedule and blocking. This includes hosting full games of Jeopardy! with the typical host broadsheet of all the board’s clues—only these are games that already appeared on recent episodes, and the trio of contestants vying to ring in are not starry-eyed trivia whizzes but members of the show’s writing and research staff. “Turns out they really know the material,” Richards says.
While all the hosts have been introduced during their episodes by Johnny Gilbert, the show’s legendary 92-year-old announcer, they don’t actually meet: Gilbert tapes his introductions remotely at the recording studio Jeopardy! engineers constructed at his home earlier in the pandemic. (The recent tribute to Gilbert that showed him waving from his usual station beside the judges’ table featured old footage.) In lieu of pay, an amount equal to the total winnings accrued during each guest host’s stint is donated by Jeopardy! to a charity of the guest host’s choosing.
Richards’s own guest host stint came with short notice: With the tapings scheduled for just after the holidays and with coronavirus cases in Southern California soaring, other planned options fell through; he knew just days in advance that he would be the one taking the reins. As the show’s executive producer, he had a tendency to be hard on himself. During his rehearsal day, Richards realized he kept repeating himself to his stand-in contestants. “I’d say ‘Correct!’ to every response, which gets really tiresome,” he says. “You want to get from chasing the train to trying to lead the train.”
Richards’s unique vantage point led to some gallows humor during the actual tapings. David Maybury taped with Richards and remembers the host-EP getting frustrated during “pickups”—short, rerecorded segments to fix mispronunciations or game flow errors. “In the post-game chatter I joked about wanting to host the show—OK, half-joked—and he immediately went to, ‘What are you doing in half an hour?’” Maybury says.
Pickups are not as simple as just saying the words over again: “What struck me is that it took some acting chops to replicate the emotions of ‘I’m sorry, it was Louis XIV, not Louis XVI. Select the next clue,’” says Alan Johnson, who taped with Jennings.
The show has gravitated toward candidates with extensive television experience. But even with years in front of a camera, Jeopardy! can still be a tricky beast. The quiz show has shifted its tape day schedule to allow more time for pickups; instead of three games before the daily lunch break, just two are played. Tapings of the second batch of games have regularly extended past 8:00 p.m.—hours beyond typical tape days with Trebek.
Each host arrives at the show with their own idiosyncrasies. “Aaron Rodgers came in so prepared it was unbelievable,” Richards says. “He approached this like he was breaking down game footage. He watched a ton of episodes and he came in with questions like, ‘Now if this happens, how do I deal with it?’ And I was like, ‘Well, that doesn’t really happen.’ And he said, ‘I saw one! I want to know because I want to be prepared.’ He came in prepared like an MVP quarterback would for a huge game.”
Indeed, Rodgers prepared with film study—and lots of it. He pulled up episode after episode of Jeopardy!, watching each on mute as he stood in as host in front of his TV. “You’ve got to learn the form,” Rodgers says. “It’s looking down to read the clue and then looking up to call on a contestant, and also understanding what the answer is in case none of the contestants get it right, and then realizing at that point that you’ve got to work on your posture and where you’re looking and know who you’re talking to when you give that response.”
The quarterback was, it seems, a hit, even with the staff. Jimmy McGuire of the Clue Crew weighed in, says Lindsay Wilcox, one of the contestants who played with Rodgers. “He said Aaron Rodgers was the best guest host they had seen so far.”
For contestants, who happens to be behind the lectern during their game matters a great deal—and in ways that go far beyond nostalgia. The host’s cadence and diction play directly into a vital piece of the show’s gameplay: buzzer strategy.
Jeopardy! is not simply a battle of the brains. Last year, 150,000 people took the show’s famously tough contestant test for a chance at one of the roughly 400 slots available in each season. Given how steep those odds are, those who make it to the stage tend to be a fair way beyond your average pub trivia ace. Practically, this means that all three players routinely know a given clue’s answer, and so instead of being a pure knowledge contest, Jeopardy! becomes a race to ring in first.
Enter buzzer strategy. On Jeopardy!, the mechanics of the signaling device are mostly hidden from viewers at home. As the host reads each clue, researcher Michael Harris looks on from the offstage judges’ table. At the precise moment that the host finishes the clue’s final word, Harris flips a physical switch that simultaneously activates the contestants’ buzzers and illuminates a row of blue lights along the outer edges of the Jeopardy! game board. If players buzz in before Harris flips the switch, they’re locked out of the system for a quarter-second.
Different schools of thought have arisen about the best way to tackle the buzzer: Some old-school players prefer to listen to the host’s voice and predict the buzzer activation by sound, while many newer contestants—especially those who follow the gospel of buzzer guru Fritz Holznagel, like 32-time champ James Holzhauer—prefer instead to stare at the board and ring in as soon as they see the blue lights illuminate. But in either case, the host ends up being a significant part of the strategy: Predicting their cadence can help a player get an edge on their opponents.
This, of course, was much easier to do with Trebek: A contestant preparing for their trip to Culver City had decades of archival footage to pore over. Now, contestants don’t even know who their host is going to be until they arrive at the studio to tape their episode. “For me, I had never seen any questions done, really, by anyone else except Alex and a handful of individual categories,” Newkirk says, referring to Clue Crew or guest categories that have long bedeviled timing-obsessed players. “I was super not prepared for a host that wasn’t Alex when I went back the second time.”
One contestant whose episode has not yet aired remembered McGuire telling those assigned to the tape day’s later games that it might offer an advantage. “He was like, ‘You guys are in luck that you get to sit through another game, so you can be listening for [the host’s] cadence.’”
It’s a fresh challenge for Harris, too. After years of flipping along to a Trebekian tempo, he must now recalibrate with each new host. He, at least, gets some practice before showtime: As the new host works out their delivery kinks during their rehearsal day, he’s on hand to perfect his own. Whether because of cadence variability or other reasons, the guest host period has seen surprisingly few lengthy streaks by contestants: Last week, when Brandon Deutsch retired as a three-day champion, was the first time a player had won more than two games in two months. Only three other players—Lucy Ricketts, Brian Chang, and John Focht, who all played with Jennings—have managed three or more victories with a guest host.
Jeopardy! has treated the details of this season’s guest host rotation as something bordering on a state secret. Even those contestants who are returning from a previous taping—that is, the current champion and any alternates carried over from the previous day—are sworn to secrecy among the next day’s taping cohort, leading to occasional guessing games before producers make the formal announcement. At Wilcox’s taping—which she knew was the final day of the guest host’s residency—she and the rest of the day’s contestants began their morning by trying to work out among themselves who would be waiting for them onstage. “The returning champion came over and was just listening to us at first,” she says. “We started naming people that we would want to be the host, and as soon as we said Aaron Rodgers”—who by that point had broken the news of his own impending hosting duties on The Pat McAfee Show—“the returning champ gave us a little wink. And then we proceeded to freak out.”
Wilcox knew she would have to rely on the signal lights to dictate her buzzer timing; the sound strategy, she says, has been “zeroed out” this season. “The host is new every time, and the only opportunity you have to get used to their voice is right there on the set.” With her attention fixed on the lights, she says, “I was just able to listen to this incredibly attractive man read me some trivia clues and try to get as many of them right as possible.”
In her interview segment, Wilcox recounted how, for reasons unbeknownst to her, people frequently call her “Ashley” instead of her actual name, Lindsay; later, Rodgers continued to call her Ashley in all their subsequent off-camera interactions. Wilcox, who is a teacher, says, “I’m very excited to impress all these middle schoolers that Aaron Rodgers and I basically have an inside joke.”
The surprise of who the day’s host will be is not always a positive one.
The announcement that Dr. Oz would be serving as a guest host prompted outcry from fans and contestants alike. More than 600 former contestants signed an open letter addressed to Richards, in which they wrote that Oz had “used his authority as a doctor to push harmful ideas onto the American public.” At Variety, critic Daniel D’Addario wrote that the choice represented “a black eye for Jeopardy!”
When Emily Seaman flew to L.A. from her home in Houston to tape her episode, Oz’s name had not yet been announced. It was a surprise, then, when his identity was unveiled to the day’s contestants. “I actually asked the person sitting next to me if Oz was a real doctor or not,” Seaman says. “I always mix him up with Dr. Drew.”
“They went so far with the COVID protection,” she says, ticking off the various measures she encountered as a contestant: two COVID-19 tests (one from just before her flight and another at the studio prior to taping), N95 masks provided to all contestants, self-application of makeup, careful spacing. “There were so many precautions, and then they had this guy who touted hydroxychloroquine.”
Like many of Jeopardy!’s guest hosts, Oz struggled with pickups. Seaman recalls Final Jeopardy! of her second game, which, under the category “Antidisestablishmentarianism,” asked, “A real-life antidisestablishmentarian, William Bridgeman opposed the 1920 disestablishment of this in Wales.” Oz struggled to get the pronunciation of antidisestablishmentarianism right, rerecording “seven or eight times,” Seaman says. “He just couldn’t get it. And more than that he couldn’t get it, he didn’t know when he hadn’t gotten it, so it kind of seemed like the producers were like, Are you gonna tell him that we’ve done this six times and he didn’t get it? Everybody in the audience”—the day’s other contestants—“was like, That’s not how you say that ...” (The answer: What is the church?)
In another game, Seaman almost ran a category; time ran out before she could get to the last clue. Then, she says, something strange happened: “I heard him making fun of it to one of the producers. Like, ‘I can’t believe they didn’t get this one.’ I was like, cool, bro, let’s see you do this.”
“It was just odd,” Seaman says. “I don’t think he likes Jeopardy!”
Jeopardy!’s announcement that Oz would host the show prompted many fans to say they would boycott the two weeks he was on the air. Seaman says she has seen viewers wonder why contestants didn’t walk out of the studio when they learned who their host would be. “You’re not getting a call back if you do that,” she says. “You walk out of there and that’s your one chance.” Many people spend years trying to get on Jeopardy!, taking the entry test year after year in the hope of receiving an invitation to an audition—and that’s to say nothing of the fact that players pay for their own flights and hotels.
Still, Seaman says, she thought of a scene from Harry Potter as she found herself standing onstage with Oz—the moment when an incensed Potter cries out to a newly promoted Severus Snape about the departed Albus Dumbledore: “How dare you stand where he stood?”
I asked Richards about the criticism over Oz. “I have seen positive and negative about everyone we’ve announced, beginning with Ken,” he said. “I hope people find kindness as each person comes through, because there’s been backlash with everyone, and so based on that, we’d never have anyone. I think it will be really interesting to see once the shows start airing. I think things in the abstract are way worse than in the concrete.”
Richards mentioned criticism of Katie Couric, whose episodes were on the air when we spoke. “I think there was backlash with many of the people, including Katie, and what I’m seeing is that people thought she did a good job,” he said. “I think politically, the country is incredibly divided and that makes me sad, and I really have always thought that Jeopardy! is a great uniter that way. It is apolitical and there’s no place for divisiveness on it in any way, and that is what I want it to be going forward.”
However this season proceeds, and whoever is named permanent host, Jeopardy! is unlikely to stop feeling like Trebek’s show any time soon.
Newkirk jokes that in the first half of his winning streak, he experienced the full range of classic Trebek moments. He got a polite correction when he slightly mispronounced the name of the novel My Ántonia. He got ribbed when he—a lawyer by trade—rang in correctly on a legal clue. (“Yes, you got that one; good for you,” Trebek said.) He got to trade banter with the host in the midst of a clue—one about badgers parachuting, which they agreed was weird. He ran a full category. He got to say the magic words: “Let’s make it a true Daily Double, Alex.”
And he got to witness the longtime host’s mastery of his art. Back at that taping in March 2020, coronavirus concerns had prompted Jeopardy! to close its audience to the general public, meaning that half the gallery was left empty. Trebek long used the show’s commercial breaks to take questions from spectators, but on this day, with many of those in attendance players nervously awaiting their turn onstage, the group fell silent.
So Trebek took matters into his own hands. “He started pretending that people on the empty side of the audience were asking questions,” Newkirk says. “He would be like, ‘You in the back, with the red sweater! What do I like to do for fun? Oh, I like to work around the house ...’ It was almost like a one-man show.”