Becoming a game-show host is an inside job
Alex Trebek became the second host of hit trivia game show Jeopardy! in 1984, when he took over for original host Art Fleming. Trebek’s calm, bemused demeanor delighted contestants and audience members alike for 36 years until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2020. His death left a void in many ways, but the biggest question many had on their minds after he passed was: Who’s going to host Jeopardy! now?
As it turns out, after a long process featuring guest hosts and studio negotiations, Mike Richards, the show’s own executive producer, became the new Jeopardy! host…until he didn’t. Here’s a timeline of how we got here.
March 6, 2019: Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek announces he has been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.
May 2020: Mike Richards becomes the executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune at Sony TV, succeeding Harry Friedman, who had been EP of Jeopardy! for 23 years and Wheel of Fortune for 25 years.
Oct. 29, 2020: Trebek tapes his final episodes of Jeopardy!.
Nov. 8, 2020: Trebek dies at home in Los Angeles.
Jan. 2021: Showrunners for Jeopardy! announce for the next season, the show will be trying out a series of guest hosts for the show, including Richards, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, Dr. Oz, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, George Stephanopoulos, Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, Bill Whitaker, Mayim Bialik, Savannah Guthrie and Jeopardy! Greatest Of All Time champion Ken Jennings, who also finds himself in some Twitter controversy over past podcast remarks.
Burton emerges as a fan favorite to host the show on social media, despite not being named in the initial list of guest hosts.
March 2021: Jeopardy! is again in jeopardy after Dr. Oz guest hosts. More than 600 former contestants previously signed a letter of protest to the show’s producers, including Richards, asking for Oz to be removed from the lineup. Richards responds by saying, basically, “we value your opinion. Now, here’s Dr. Oz.”
April 14, 2021: Sony adds All-Star champion Buzzy Cohen to its guest host roster to host the 2021 Tournament of Champions.
April 21, 2021: Sony adds Burton, along with Robin Roberts, David Faber and Joe Buck. as a second round of guest hosts. Burton still remains the fan favorite on social media.
July 26, 2021: Burton kicks off a week of hosting, right in the middle of the pandemic-delayed 2020 summer Olympics airing on NBC. Burton, like the other second wave of guest hosts starting with Robin Roberts, is given a week’s worth of episodes, taped over a single day, as opposed to the first wave of guest hosts’ two weeks’ worth.
Aug. 9, 2021: A couple of 2010 lawsuits against Richards resurface again in the wake of reporting that Richards is in advanced negotiations to take over as Jeopardy! host.
The lawsuits date back to his time on The Price Is Right, where he had been an co-executive producer from 2008-2018. Price model Brandi Cochran, who said she was harassed by Richards after becoming pregnant and said Richards wanted models to wear more bikinis on the show, filed one of them. She said the show terminated her contract after she gave birth.
Richards issues a statement to the show’s staff, which says, in part:
“These were allegations made in employment disputes against the show,” he wrote. “I want you all to know that the way in which my comments and actions have been characterized in these complaints does not reflect the reality of who I am or how we worked together on The Price is Right.”
Aug. 11, 2021: Sony announces Richards as Jeopardy!’s new permanent syndicated host and announces neuroscientist and Big Bang Theory actress Mayim Bialik as primetime tournament host.
Aug. 18, 2021: Reporter Claire McNear, author of the book Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!, publishes a longform investigative report on The Ringer about Richards. Sources in the article say morale at Jeopardy! “deteriorated” during Richards’ tenure and say Ricahrds was always angling for more camera time for himself. She quotes a former contestant as saying “given that [Richards] also was a candidate to host The Price Is Right, it looks like Richards just wanted to host a game show, any game show.”
The report also details many disparaging and offensive comments Richards made on his podcast The Randumb Show, started in 2013 to promote The Price Is Right. In the podcast comments, Richards opines on everything from the types of women he finds attractive to women’s weight to unemployment insurance to whether it’s good to give unhoused people money and calls his co-host a “booth slut” and asks if she’s ever sent “booby pictures” to people.
McNear finds audio from the podcast before the hosting website took down the cast.
Richards later issues a statement to The Ringer and apologizes for the podcast remarks, saying,
“It is humbling to confront a terribly embarrassing moment of misjudgment, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity from nearly a decade ago. Looking back now, there is no excuse, of course, for the comments I made on this podcast and I am deeply sorry. The podcast was intended to be a series of irreverent conversations between longtime friends who had a history of joking around. Even with the passage of time, it’s more than clear that my attempts to be funny and provocative were not acceptable, and I have removed the episodes. My responsibilities today as a father, husband, and a public personality who speaks to many people through my role on television means I have substantial and serious obligations as a role model, and I intend to live up to them.”
A source from Sony tells McNear the studio was unaware of the podcast’s existence or removal until The Ringer asked about it.
More and more people call for Sony’s removal of Richards as host.
Aug. 19, 2021: Production begins on season 38 of Jeopardy!.
Aug. 20, 2021: Richards steps down as host of Jeopardy!, but not as executive producer. He issues a statement where he apologizes for “the unwanted negative attention that has come to Jeopardy! over the last few weeks.”
Sony starts looking for a new permanent syndicated host and announces it will be bringing back guest hosts again, with details to be announced the week of Aug. 23.
Burton tweets just once, a pithy remark worthy of Trebek: “Happy Friday, y’all!”
Happy Friday, y’all!
— LeVar Burton (@levarburton) August 20, 2021
The weekend of Aug. 21-22: Several fans, pundits and celebrities endorse LeVar Burton for the syndicated host gig — everyone from Ryan Reynolds to the actual dictionary wants the former Reading Rainbow host to take over Trebek’s podium. Other host suggestions: Keep It! co-host Louis Virtel, SNL alum Leslie Jones (who also endorses Burton in a Saturday tweet) and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who also guest-hosted earlier in the year.
Some on social media also issue calls for Bialik to resign from her hosting job, pointing to a 2012 parenting book she wrote where she said she did not vaccinate her children and a 2017 editorial she wrote in the New York Times where she said she “dress[es] modestly and [doesn’t act] flirtatiously with men as a policy.” Many call the editorial “victim blaming” and some say her anti-vaccine stance is harmful in the era of COVID, despite her Oct. 2020 statement saying she and her children would receive COVID vaccines.
August, 31, 2021. Sony announces that it’s fired Richards as executive producer. ABC will still air five episodes of Jeopardy! with Richards as host. He remains the show’s executive producer. Bialik will be back as the show’s first guest host.