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‘What is … controversy?’ Richards in, then out as new host of ‘Jeopardy!’

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Like so many people, I have a deep and abiding affection for “Jeopardy!” The venerable game show has been a part of our lives for decades, a warming syndicated presence that crossed all manner of boundaries. It is a generational show, one that grandparents and grandchildren can and do enjoy together.

The passing of longtime host Alex Trebek in November of last year left a void at the program’s venerable podium. Filling the shoes of an icon is a difficult task under any circumstances; studio executives were faced with a nigh-impossible conundrum – find a new face for a show that had the same face for 37 years. There were a lot of options, and yet we somehow wound up – at least initially – with one of the worst of the bunch.

Mike Richards was always the wrong man for the job.

Richards, the show’s executive producer, was officially named the new host of “Jeopardy!” on Aug. 11. This came after an extended period in which the show cycled through a number of guest hosts pulled from across the entertainment realms – actors and anchors and athletes, people from all corners. The one thing shared by all of them? A clear and obvious passion for the show.

There were ups and downs over the course of the guest hosting stints; some performed better than others. “Jeopardy!” is unique among game shows in that its host must be a steadying presence who is also able to fade into the background; it’s a deceptively difficult balancing act, an act that Trebek mastered long ago.

The cavalcade of guest hosts was a way to bridge the gap left by Trebek’s passing, yes, but it was also intended to serve as an audition of sort. At least, that’s what we were led to believe. And yet, when all was said and done and the smoke cleared, wouldn’t you know it, the host was coming from inside the house.

Richards was the guy, though the suits also decided to bring on actress Mayim Biyalik – one of the more popular guest hosts – to serve as host for special prime-time events.

It was hard not to think that Richards had used his EP status to put his thumb on the scales; it was an open secret that the guy wanted to be an on-air host. Whispers abounded that he had selectively edited the shows hosted by his ostensible rivals in order to improve his own chances. Not to mention the fact that there was a lot of troubling talk regarding his time as executive producer of “The Price is Right” in the decade before he arrived on the “Jeopardy!” soundstage.

And yet – he got the nod.

That’s where Claire McNear came in. A staff writer for The Ringer website, McNear wrote 2020’s excellent “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!” and has been on this particular beat for some time. In a story that came out just days after the announcement of Richards’ ascension to the job, McNear uncovered a number of insensitive and offensive comments made by Richards on a podcast (called “The Randumb Show,” which, I mean, come on) he co-hosted back in 2013 and 2014. The clips – which were still online when McNear’s story hit – have since been removed, but the damage was done. Richards stepped down just nine days after being named to the position, though he would remain as EP.

(Big kudos to McNear, who I interviewed ahead of the book’s release back in November. She’s a hell of a writer, a hell of a reporter and a hell of an interview.)

As of now, Biyalik has been reengaged to stand in for the next three weeks’ worth of taping while the search continues for a permanent host. Richards had already taped one week of episodes; those shows will air, as the logistics of a redo don’t make sense for either the production or the contestants.

There’s a lot to dislike about how this entire situation was handled. Leaving aside the utter lack of due diligence undertaken by Sony executives – seriously, “The Price is Right” stuff is bad enough, but the podcasts were all out there to be found by anyone who cared to look, packed with demeaning statements about women and Asians and the homeless – the idea of going through this entire guest host circus, bringing in beloved former contestants and figures from all over the pop culture landscape to take their shot at the lectern, all to what, provide cover for the decision to allow a thirsty producer to give himself the job? It reeked of bait-and-switch, the sort of disingenuous bulls—t that one would have hoped “Jeopardy!” was above.

It’s a damned shame – “Jeopardy!” is a television institution. Or at least … it was. Now it’s hard to say. The fact that Richards is staying on as EP brings its own stigma – how is a new host supposed to deal with a producer who actively coveted the job? How do you trust someone who is quite possibly rooting for you to fail, someone who also has a degree of control over your performance?

The short answer is: You don’t.

“Jeopardy!” has robust communities surrounding it, both in terms of fandom and former contestants. The overwhelming sense among both camps was that Richards was a bad choice, even before it became clear just how bad a choice he was.

For now, it’s back to the drawing board. We can only hope that Sony’s next pick will be a more thoughtful one – and a more deserving one.

(Allen is a proud “Jeopardy!” bronze medalist who hopes that the powers that be give Jimmy McGuire – longtime member of the show’s Clue Crew and the guy who plays host for the contestant’s pre-taping practice rounds – a chance to show what he can do on the air.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 August 2021 07:57

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