COMMENTARY

"Jeopardy!" is likely naming this man you never heard of as host – apparently the job was always his

A breakdown of why Sony would choose the in-house white guy over LeVar Burton, Ken Jennings or Mayim Bialik as host

By Melanie McFarland
Published August 5, 2021 8:43PM (EDT)
Mike Richards on "Jeopardy!" (Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)
Mike Richards on "Jeopardy!" (Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

The following article was adapted from Melanie McFarland's Twitter thread posted on Wednesday.

All told, 2021 has been a miserable year for the hopeful. We hoped vaccines would brighten the light that marks the end of our pandemic tunnel, only to realize that what we were seeing was a gap between tunnels; enjoy the view while we have it.

We thought that moral arc of the universe might finally be bending back toward justice, as one of our greatest heroes once assured us. Various courts have since let us know that nope, 'twas merely a small crick against the doomsday direction in which we were previously heading. We're right back on track, don't you fret.

We thought that a fan-fueled campaign, backed by a modest amount of media support, might lead to LeVar Burton taking over as the host of "Jeopardy!," inheriting the role made iconic by the late Alex Trebek, who succumbed to cancer in November 2020.

And if it didn't go to Burton, maybe one of the women who auditioned would get it. Robin Roberts turned in a strong showing, after all. "Big Bang Theory" real-life brainiac Mayim Bialik was excellent. Of course, none of those choices seem as much as a shoo-in as "Jeopardy!" champion of champions Ken Jennings.

Naturally, when presented with the opportunity to select one of two beloved actors with solid, respectable ties to academia, or an award-winning Black female journalist, or the man who destroyed all comers in a winning streak that lasted for 74 games, Variety reports that executives at Sony Pictures Television have started "advanced negotiations" to pass Trebek's mantle to . . . Mike Richards.

No, not the guy who played Kramer on "Seinfeld." Mike Richards, the show's executive producer. The 46-year-old executive who told Broadcasting + Cable back in May that they were looking for a host with a "20-year horizon and who can focus on the show and make it great over that time." Not long after that interview he must have caught his own reflection in the mirror and confidently muttered to himself, "My God . . . it's me."

This is a move straight out of Dick Cheney's playbook, or the 2011 comedy "Horrible Bosses."

According to a Variety report that broke on Wednesday, Richards is starting the process of taking over as host. On Thursday CNN's Brian Stelter seconded this, characterizing the situation as "effectively a done deal."

I wish I could say that I am surprised at this but honestly I'm not. This is for a number of reasons other than the fact that it's 2021, the year that wants us to know we can never have nice things.

For one thing, I have been alive for long enough to know that this is how the world works. Whenever any job associated with an institution opens up after being held by the same person for decades, the people with the power to fill that job more than likely know who they want for it.

Sony Pictures Television had more than a year to blue-sky who their top picks would be. Jennings was certainly in the mix, and according to those reports, is still at the top of list.

But Sony telegraphed this move early on when it had Richards host right after Jennings' seven-week run. That struck me as something of a stop-gap while production got its list of prospective hosts together; indeed, the stated reason that Richards stepped in for two weeks was to keep the production going while they found candidates willing to emerge from their pandemic isolation to come on a set with strangers.

Jennings did fine during his run. However, on a show that prides itself on making the contestants the stars, having the GOAT as its permanent host ensures that in some respects he would always overshadow them. 

When Richards followed, he reminded viewers of what Trebek did so well, not by channeling or imitating the late host, but adopting a manner and demeanor that recalled the way Trebek struck a balance between engaging with contestants while staying out of their way.

And Richards has plenty of on camera experience, having hosted reality shows such as "High School Reunion" and "Beauty and the Geek," as well as the GSN game shows "The Pyramid" and "Divided."   His credits as an executive producer include the revival of "Let's Make a Deal" and the special celebrity editions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

He's also one of the executive producers on "The Price Is Right" named in several gender discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits filed by that show's models, including the famous 2010 complaint brought by Brandi Cochran that resulted in A Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarding her $7,763,440 in damages. Among other allegations, Cochran said that she noticed the maltreatment other women suffered after becoming pregnant, and claimed Richards stopped speaking with her as frequently and implied she would have been fired if she hadn't kept her own pregnancy a secret.

Another "Price Is Right" model, Lanisha Cole, alleged a 2011 complaint that among other insults, Richards hindered her exposure on the show by creating policies that hadn't existed before and ignored her in favor of another model, with whom he was having a relationship.

Returning to the matter at hand, though: Richards really nailed his two weeks.

Around that time the initial list of guest hosts had been released but most of the selections struck me as lovely tributes and/or theater.

Also, do you remember who wasn't on that first list? LeVar Burton.

Now: you could surmise that the "Jeopardy!" producers wanted to create some drama with that decision, but let's be real. The show was aware of the petition campaigning for Burton's hire. It began late last year.

Once Burton was added to a subsequent list of guest hosts, that generated more publicity for him and the show, although obviously his desire get the hosting gig was and is genuine . . . although his tryout week was not his finest performance. He also only received one week, whereas most of the other guests hosts got two and weren't programmed against the Summer Olympics.

Not that any of that matters. A few things were against Burton from the jump, topmost being his level of stardom.

Remember the whole point of "Jeopardy!" is to make its contenders the stars of the show, a quality Trebek took very seriously. He may have been its star, but he innovated a way of hosting that was low-key and comforting. The legend was quite secure regarding his intellect; that came across in his stage presence, too. But he didn't lord is over other people.  

Burton has a low-key, comforting personality too. But he'll forever associated with his other roles which, along with being 64 years old, would have doomed his chances regardless of how smoothly or poorly his week went. Never mind the fact that the shows for which we know him best – "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Reading Rainbow" – are beloved and aligned with the "Jeopardy!" ideals of rewarding knowledge and curiosity.

Burton could have hosted flawlessly while juggling disco balls and directing a trio of dancing poodles. It wouldn't have mattered, apparently. I'm guessing the job was Richards' long before he set foot on that set.

When I originally wrote about Burton's tryout week, I contemplated including an observation about the danger of assuming he was a natural choice because of his qualifications, and because selecting him would show the producers' willingness to break the chain of white maleness that has long run through trivia shows like "Jeopardy!" Hiring Burton, or Bialik or Roberts, would signify a commitment to progress. Plus, it would have been uplifting move.

I use the word danger because I recalled the sensation of the collective gut punch dealt earlier this year in a different industry competition: Remember when we all thought Chadwick Boseman was going to get that best actor Oscar? It went to Anthony Hopkins for "The Father," and quite deservedly. Every best actor nominee deserves an Oscar. But that was Hopkins' second Oscar win, and Boseman's last and only chance to win one, since he also died last year.

Apples and oranges, sure. Except it's all from the same fruit stand.

Richards was selected despite the many cases made for "Jeopardy!" to display some commitment to diversity by selecting a woman or a person of color. That's a lovely idea, but Sony was never going to do that.

Richards previously said that stability is one of the show's calling cards, so his selection shows the world that a "smooth transition" rooted in familiarity is more important than potentially rocking any boats.

He'll require an acclimation period, as any new person would. Revelations of his past harassment claims are already emerging, but in a year that saw convicted rapist Bill Cosby released from prison on a technicality, will past allegations of Richards being a misogynistic, harrassing manager matter to most people? Probably not.

Richards knows how to guide the game, how to keep the time, the cadence, everything. There's no need for a "breaking in" period. He's ready to jump in because he's the younger guy who has always been there. It's his time. Isn't that how the world works . . . for some people? 

In summary: Richards makes sense for "Jeopardy!" because this is a show that doesn't need a star and has no intention to change the world – or change, really, at all.

The job was always his.

The rest was just for show.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Alex Trebek Commentary Jeopardy! Ken Jennings Levar Burton Mayim Bialik Mike Richards Robin Roberts Tv