The debate over who should succeed Alex Trebek as permanent host of Jeopardy! got a contentious boost earlier this April, when LeVar Burton threw his hat into the ring to become Trebek’s replacement (and just as quickly was announced as one of the upcoming guest hosts). Touting the online petition of more than 250,000 signatories that say that the former Reading Rainbow host should take over behind the podium, Burton laid out his case: “Love of the franchise, check. Loves knowledge and curiosity, check. I spent 26 years talking directly to people through the camera lens, check. I bring an audience of Gen X-ers and millennials—checkmate!” And it does make a lot of sense, on paper. Burton’s long-running Reading Rainbow gig—with his warm, charismatic delivery in a smart and insightful tone—is good training, to say nothing of his numerous appearances on other game shows, other PBS programs he’s hosted, and documentaries the actor has not only narrated but also spearheaded. His intellectual bona fides are as legit as they come. (His engaging podcast is simply icing on the cake, résumé-wise.) But if the past weeks of guest Jeopardy! hosts have proven one thing, it’s that there’s no way to know who will actually make a good Jeopardy! host.
At least, not until they’re out on that stage, peppering contestants with questions and keeping the momentum going for 22-plus minutes. As we noted in January after his death, the most impressive aspect of Trebek’s hosting skills was also the one most difficult to call attention to—namely, his low-key unflappability, the way he maintained a brisk and imperturbable demeanor regardless of what was unfolding in the game. Having taken over for the popular original host, Art Fleming, when the quiz show was revived for syndication in 1981, Trebek not only managed to carry on Fleming’s reputation as a fount of knowledge himself, but also brought his distinctive stentorian demeanor to the position. He maintained a superb degree of minimalist engagement during the interview portion, turning even outrageous or absurd comments from contestants into fleeting time-fillers, adding a touch of color but keeping it as brief as possible. He was enigmatic enough to allow viewers to project any number of personae onto him, yet simultaneously came across as forthright and unguarded. He could be acerbic or even curt at times, but never to the detriment of the show. It’s the kind of balancing act that only looks effortless until you try and replicate it. Just ask Will Ferrell.
And as the half-dozen (and counting) guest hosts have thus far demonstrated, it’s anyone’s guess as to who is going to be able to fill those shoes effectively. Some people that seemed like they should be a slam dunk—even in terms of basics, like ease with the camera—have stumbled, while others who appeared to be strange choices turned out to be inspired. It’s why Burton’s curriculum vitae might not end up mattering much, no matter how good a fit it looks on paper. The skills these guest hosts have brought from other TV shows, or even wholly other careers, don’t necessarily translate into making for a good Jeopardy! host. And while it would be easy to say that the je nais se quoi required is akin to “Be as much like Alex Trebek as possible,” that isn’t true. The best replacements thus far have managed to square their personalities with the demands of the job, not subsume them in a clunky attempt to be something they’re not.
The first guest host, and arguably the best thus far, understood this well. Ken Jennings’ six-week run was notable for the smoothness of the transition, but also for just how comfortable Jennings seemed to be in the role. True, there were some first-game jitters, but by the end of the week (Jeopardy! tapes a week’s worth of shows back-to-back in a single afternoon), Jennings looked as though he’d been doing it for years. To be fair, it may be osmosis to a certain degree: Jennings has spent by far the most time on the Jeopardy! stage of any guest host, holding the record for longest-running winning streak in the show’s history, and returning numerous times for championships and special tournaments, ultimately taking a job as a consulting producer with the show in September 2020. It made him uniquely suited to assume hosting duties. “I thought I had studied the man and I understood just what a remarkable job he was doing,” Jennings said of his stint. “And then when I had to do it, I realized he was doing 10 things I wasn’t aware of for every one that I saw.”
The former Jeopardy! champion was a quick learner. Jennings was humble, self-effacing, and brought with him a different presence than Trebek—more light-hearted, less possessing of gravitas—and it worked. His voice, a slightly higher register than Trebek’s, also succeeded, which turns out to be one of the qualities that helps separate the good from the bad: Even if they’ve had a long and successful career as a TV host, some people’s voices just don’t work as the Jeopardy! host.
To wit, Dr. Mehmet Oz. Yes, he was already a favorite punching bag, thanks to his long history of quackery and pushing snake-oil nonsense on the American public, a pretty ironic history to bring to a show that celebrates facts. (In the words of hundreds of former contestants, he “stands in opposition to everything that Jeopardy! stands for.”) But that didn’t necessarily mean he would be bad at the job. No, what made him a poor host were the little details that started to accumulate over the course of an episode. His slightly emphatic manner of speaking, which serves him well on his own program, came across as a little too intense, as though he were ever-so-slightly more invested than he should be in the outcome of a clue. The grain of his voice was a little rougher, a sandpapery element that, by the Final Jeopardy! rolled around each game, left the viewer feeling like the ideal stopping point had already passed. He just didn’t have the necessary qualities.
Katie Couric, too, turned out to be a bit of a dud, though for notably different reasons. Her life as an interviewer, TV journalist, and host in her own right (not to mention having a much better relationship with facts than Dr. Oz) would seem to be ideal training. But Couric never came across as anything more than someone who thought it’d be a lark to host Jeopardy! for a couple of weeks. If Oz was a little too intense, Couric was too casual, to the point of indifference. She was happy for winning contestants, smiling and enjoying being there, but she never seemed like more than a seat-filler. It was obvious that she had no desire to take over as permanent host, and the resulting sense that this was just a gig she took for fun removed the air of intellectual rigor that puts Jeopardy! a cut above the average game show. Couric was nice, but Jeopardy! needs more than nice.
If these examples of what doesn’t work highlight the unpredictable nature of the gig, another guest host whose stint did work does an even better job of that. Did anyone think Aaron Rodgers’ turn as guest host on Jeopardy! would turn out to be as successful as it was? There was no indication that the longtime Green Bay Packers quarterback had any sort of game show chops; his only relation to the game was a brief Celebrity Jeopardy! appearance in 2015. But Rodgers turned out to be an excellent host, his combination of mellow, soothing vocal delivery and imposing stature creating a kind of alchemical magic that made him seem like he’d always had a secret second career hosting, well, something. He was markedly different from Trebek in nearly every way, yet the athlete kept an impressively self-possessed manner, even making his occasional joking asides feel appropriately laconic. It’s strange to say, but the show could do a lot worse than hire Aaron Rodgers as permanent host.
But mostly, the hosts have been fine. Serviceable. They’ve done the job with crisp professionalism, with even executive producer Mike Richards managing to do admirable work keeping the program running in typical form. Current guest host Anderson Cooper is doing the job exactly as you’d expect—which is to say, the pairing works well enough. And that’s as it should be; getting an array of various talented people to temporarily host Jeopardy! is a way of demonstrating that there’s lot of people who can potentially do the job.
But doing the job really, really well? That’s a different thing. So while the concept of LeVar Burton as host may sound like a match made in trivia-quiz heaven, other contenders shouldn’t be counted out, as even seemingly “huh?” choices like Mayim Bialik and ESPN’s Joe Buck may be better hosts than it initially appears (in addition to her doctorate in neuroscience, Bialik has hosted other TV programs, including Candid Camera, while play-by-play Buck also has experience writing and producing late-night talk programs). But regardless of anyone’s qualifications, there’s no guarantee it’ll work. Burton may stumble; Bialik may soar. As any Jeopardy! contestant can attest, an educated guess isn’t necessarily enough to win.