After 16 guest hosts and seven months of a raucous, occasionally fractious hosting carousel, Jeopardy! is in advanced negotiations with a new permanent host: the show’s executive producer, Mike Richards, according to a Wednesday report in Variety.
Richards was the second of this season’s guest hosts, emceeing for a two-week period beginning in late February. That stint, in addition to his recorded message at the start of the first episode broadcast after Alex Trebek’s death in November, made Richards much more visible to the public than most game-show producers. “We will air his final 35 episodes as they were shot,” Richards said in that message of the matches Trebek taped before his death. “That’s what he wanted.”
Richards stepped up to the lectern after the last of Trebek’s episodes and six weeks with 74-time champion Ken Jennings as the inaugural guest host. Richards told numerous media outlets, including The Ringer, that his presence was a last-minute decision: The intended host had fallen through, he said, leaving him just days to prepare. “I was never meant to be a part of that process,” he later told Broadcasting + Cable. Audiences warmed to what was widely viewed as the-show-must-go-on panache, an echo of the departed host of more than 36 years.
But two sources close to Jeopardy! tell The Ringer that that’s not an accurate depiction of how Richards came to host. Instead, a planned host had a minor conflict during one of the show’s upcoming tape days. Jeopardy! staff and crew told the host that they could work around it—only for Richards to step in and insist on hosting himself, according to the sources, one of whom described feeling surprised that Richards characterized his presence onstage as an emergency substitution. Contestants present during Richards’s resulting host stint recall the executive producer as pleasant and occasionally apologetic as he prepared to tape, at one point taking over the traditional off-camera player practice round, usually conducted by the Clue Crew’s Jimmy McGuire, to get more practice hosting. But the rescheduling incident, and Richards’s public explanations after the fact, raised some eyebrows internally. A spokesperson at Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent studio of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, declined to comment.
This spring, Richards spoke to The Ringer about his experience as a guest host and the unique challenges of a show like Jeopardy!, with its demanding pace and intentionally beguiling material. “Jeopardy! for the host is nonstop intensity,” he said. “There’s never a break in the taping.”
Richards’s move from behind the scenes—or, rather, the offstage judges’ table—to the quiz show’s forefront would be a plucky one. While many of Jeopardy!’s key staff members have worked on the show for decades, from the producers who manage the show’s day-to-day to the writers who dream up more than 16,000 clues a year, Richards is a newcomer. In August 2019 he was announced as a replacement for Harry Friedman, the longtime executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, and Richards was not a regular presence in the studio until early 2020, when he began to shadow Friedman in what were meant to be his final months as the shows’ chief. Instead, COVID-19 forced an early end to the season. When Richards finally assumed the reins last summer, the shows returned with a raft of safety restrictions; a number of Jeopardy! staff members spent all of the 2020-21 season working from home. Within the long-tenured ecosystems of Jeopardy! and Wheel, Richards remains a fresh face.
Richards, 46, arrived at Sony with a decorated game-show CV. He executive-produced The Price Is Right for 11 seasons and helped revive Let’s Make a Deal, which he also executive-produced. The Burbank native has made little secret of his interest in being in front of the camera: Before becoming The Price Is Right’s EP, Richards was in the running to replace Bob Barker as the show’s host; that job went to Drew Carey. Richards also hosted The CW’s Beauty and the Geek from 2006 to 2008, as well as a season apiece of GSN’s The Pyramid and Divided.
Though in informal polls Richards routinely ranked in the top five of Jeopardy!’s guest hosts this season, he has his detractors among the show’s fan base. It is an inevitable result of Sony’s decision to play up the guest host rotation as a series of auditions for the permanent role. While the specifics of how the permanent host was to be chosen remain opaque, Richards said this spring that it came down to some combination of analytics—including broadcast ratings and social media data—and focus group response. Also unknown is exactly how much of a role Richards himself has played in selecting the permanent host, a process that has also involved some of the most senior figures at Sony Pictures, where Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune have long been reliable cash cows. “Our passionate fans are telling us what they like, and we are listening,” Richards said in a statement earlier this year. Given the intensity of the response to other guest hosts—particularly LeVar Burton, whose own stint came after an online petition to nominate him topped 250,000 signatures—the fans who supported other candidates will undoubtedly feel let down.
Richards struggled, in particular, to win over many of the show’s most die-hard fans; on the bustling Jeopardy! subreddit, it became a common refrain that he would be better suited taking over Wheel of Fortune, where Pat Sajak has held court since 1981. To many such fans, Richards’s game show experience is regarded with suspicion. Jeopardy! aficionados tend to view the show as belonging to its own class of game show—one where glitz, gimmicks, and excitable contestants are abandoned in favor of rigid trivia and no-nonsense nerds. In that light, Richards’s bona fides at The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal aren’t selling points—they’re hints that the person now possibly taking center stage might have something truly dreadful in mind for their beloved, stodgy quiz show: something flashier, or perhaps even—heaven forbid—fashionable.
“I think that most of the other guest hosts had more of the intellectual credibility required for the job,” said Andy Saunders, who runs the blog The Jeopardy! Fan and has been a vocal Richards detractor this year. Half of this season’s guest hosts work in broadcast news, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper—for years seen as a favorite for the hosting job—and surprise hit David Faber of CNBC. The others ran the gamut, from Burton to former champs Jennings and Buzzy Cohen—another of this season’s fan favorites—to actress Mayim Bialik and (still) Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who kicked off his stay at the lectern with a noisy campaign to become the permanent host. Despite his position with the show, Mike Richards was the least recognizable figure named as a guest host.
As Variety’s report of Richards’s likely selection circulated, a common reaction on social media was to compare him to Dick Cheney, who famously led George W. Bush’s search for a vice presidential running mate before being named to the position himself. Even Jennings, who was named one of Jeopardy!’s consulting producers last year, offered a bit of spice this week before the report was published. In the Tuesday episode of Omnibus, his oft-irreverent podcast with John Roderick (a.k.a. Bean Dad), Jennings discussed the process of identifying the next Dalai Lama. Upon the death of the Dalai Lama, a regent—“one of his monastic disciples, one of his closest advisers,” he said—is appointed to lead the search.
“Is it ever a situation where the assistant to the Dalai Lama, in the process of searching for the new Dalai Lama, discovers it’s him?” asked Roderick.
“Like Dick Cheney?” Jennings said, chuckling. “Or Mike Richards.”
Should Richards be named host, many questions remain, such as whether he will continue to serve as executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. When Jeopardy!, which aired on NBC in the 1960s and 1970s with host Art Fleming, was rebooted in 1984 with Trebek, the new host convinced Jeopardy! creator Merv Griffin to make him the show’s producer as well. It was a gambit by Trebek to boost the size of his paycheck and burnish his résumé with a new set of skills at a time when he was wary of spending the rest of his career as a game show host. But Trebek—who oversaw just Jeopardy! and not Wheel—gave up producer duties after his third season on the job, spending the rest of his tenure purely as the host. “Merv had definitely put my life in Jeopardy!,” Trebek quipped of the double duties in 1990’s The Jeopardy! Book.
If chosen, Richards will become just the third host in Jeopardy!’s history. He will inevitably face comparisons to Trebek, who presided over nearly four decades of the quiz show and literally towered over the studio with a multistory decal of his face. To generations of viewers, Trebek felt like a member of the extended family, and even after so many months of guest hosts, the shift from Alex Trebek’s Jeopardy! to simply Jeopardy! will be a jarring one. The same is true within the studio’s walls, where staff and crew members, many of whom worked with Trebek for years, continue to mourn the longtime host.
Indeed, change—whether of clue values, buzzer intricacies, or something as seismic as the host—has always been hard at Jeopardy! When Trebek took over the show, a number of fans and critics held his edition in disdain—perhaps none more so than Fleming himself, who griped in 1987 that Trebek’s Jeopardy! had easier material and was unfair to its contestants. Fleming even lodged complaints that today sound eerily similar to skeptics’ greatest fears of a Richards-helmed Jeopardy!: “There are too many lights,” he complained of Trebek’s version. “It’s too slick.”
Regardless, there are signs that whoever comes next, they will be there for the long haul. As Richards himself put it earlier this year, “We aren’t looking for a three-year host, we’re looking for a 10-year or a 20-year host.”