a long talk

Ken Jennings Ascends the Podium

The Jeopardy! co-host (and its greatest champion) settles into his dream job.

“You’ve got an audience that doesn’t want to see me out there. And I totally get that. They wanted to see Alex. I still do, too, every night.” Photo: Greg Lewis/Sony Pictures Television
“You’ve got an audience that doesn’t want to see me out there. And I totally get that. They wanted to see Alex. I still do, too, every night.” Photo: Greg Lewis/Sony Pictures Television

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Ken Jennings — Jeopardy!’s greatest player, its first guest host after Alex Trebek died, and someone even Trebek considered a worthy successor — was passed over for the show’s permanent hosting position in August 2021, a decision that seemed to surprise even the most indifferent of viewers.

You see, Jennings was practically destined to host: The former computer programmer infectiously embodied the role of ultimate Jeopardy! insider ever since his historic run in 2004. (He even competed against a computer system for our pleasure.) Instead, the job was awarded to an unknown executive producer with a history of questionable workplace behavior. That boogeyman, Mike Richards, stepped down by the end of month due to public backlash and being, in his words, “too much of a distraction,” throwing Jeopardy! into an intellectual abyss of chaos before producers settled on an amicable solution this summer: Jennings and actress Mayim Bialik would officially co-host on an alternating basis, ushering the show into a new era with even newer ambitions.

The news coverage that surrounded the host-hunting meltdown was tempestuous — something Jeopardy! never experienced in its five decades as America’s favorite quiz show of objective truth. How was Richards able to Dick Cheney himself into the gig? Were the guest-host auditions fixed from the start? Would this all have been avoided if Jennings wasn’t extremely online? While Bialik has been an open book about how she’s viewed herself as a host, Jennings has remained quiet on the year’s events, always choosing to “look ahead” from his lectern despite having arguably the most compelling perspective. Until now, that is.

Ana de Armas revealed she was haunted by Marilyn Monroe while filming Blonde. Have you received any visits from Alex Trebek’s spirit?
I wish. He was a believer, as I understand it. We’ve renamed the stage after him, so every time you watch Jeopardy!, it’s coming to you from the Alex Trebek Stage. It’s hard not to feel his presence there. He was there for almost four decades. You do kind of feel like he must be in the building. It’s not quite the same as a spectral form peering around a corner and saying, “No, no, what is Bucharest? Bucharest, Romania.” [Laughs.] But it’s nice to feel like he’s still there and part of the show. Jean, his widow, was there the other day to give an award, the Alex Trebek Humanitarian Award, on his behalf at our inaugural Jeopardy! Honors ceremony. It’s nice to still have that connection with his family and his legacy.

What do you remember about your final conversation with Alex?
It was the same weekend he passed away. I was scheduled to come into the studio to rehearse for some games; even if Alex bounced back as he had before, he wanted somebody to fill in for him for a little while. A producer set up a call, and his voice was notably weaker than we’d ever heard it on the air, which really struck me at first. It was a tough moment. But once you got over the timbre of the voice, he was still very much Alex — going down conversational side paths about old movies he liked. At one point, he started talking about tennis players he compared to various Jeopardy! champions. But the thing that stuck with me is he thanked me for coming in to fill in for him. That just broke me. I said, “Alex, are you kidding? We should be thanking you. I’d take a bullet for you, Alex. I’m happy to help.”

Of course, I didn’t know that he would be gone within 36 hours.

What did it mean to you that you were asked to be the first guest host after Alex died?
I’d like to say it was an honor, but really, all of the emotions around that were just panic. He had done the job so perfectly for decades and suddenly, within weeks of his passing, I had to step in as a substitute. It was really nerve-wracking. It’s a difficult job. Even if I could figure out some of the rudiments of it, you’ve got an audience that doesn’t want to see me out there. And I totally get that. They wanted to see Alex. I still do, too, every night.

How did you work through the panic?
It’s almost like being a contestant on the show — the game moves so fast, it just carries you with it. You can’t think about your breathing or your posture, much less your legacy, because the Jeopardy! game moves at such a clip. Alex often said, “Let’s go to work!” at the beginning of every game. That’s a pretty apt description of Jeopardy!. We’ve only got half an hour to get to 61 answers and clues. Let’s go.

After my first day, I called my wife and said, “Well, I’m no Alex out there.” And she responded, “You know what? Maybe he wasn’t on his first day either.” That was a real insightful moment for me. “Oh, right. You had 37 years to get really, really good at this. Maybe give yourself some allowances there, Ken.”

Can you tell me about the cufflinks and note Alex’s widow gave you on your first day of guest-hosting?
I showed up at the morning writer’s meeting where we went over all the day’s clues and responses; it’s very helpful for the host to ask the writers about pronunciations or alternate answers or phrasings. One of the producers motioned to a little box that was sitting in front of me. I opened it and it was a little jewelry box with Alex’s cufflinks and a very kind note from Jean Trebek offering support. It must have been a super hard time for her, and she was thinking about the poor schmuck trying to do her late husband’s old job. That was such a lovely gesture.

Do you wear them frequently?
I have one French-cuff shirt that I wear on the show, and every time I wear it, I wear the Alex cufflinks. And I’m in his dressing room, so I’m thinking about him anyway.

How did you interpret such a thoughtful gift?
She’s thinking about the legacy of the show. Alex and I had a professional relationship. We weren’t, say, hanging out and going camping together, but every time I saw him, we got along well. It sure seemed like she was trying to give a sense of continuity to Jeopardy!, even after her loss and our loss as viewers.

It struck me, and a lot of Jeopardy! fans, as an approval of successorship. Did you get a similar reading?
I don’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth, but over the years, I did get the sense that it was an idea that wouldn’t have annoyed Alex. He asked me to read his audiobook when his voice wasn’t up to doing every chapter towards the end. I felt like that was a very nice gesture of successorship that he didn’t have to make.

During Mike Richards’s short era as host, you stated, “obviously I’m disappointed with how this process played out” in regards to choosing Alex’s successor. What disappointed you most during those tumultuous few weeks?
There was the panic of having to fill in for Alex, then there was so much relief when the shows aired and they seemed to go over well. The audience seemed to accept the idea of a guest host. By the time I had done my six weeks, I was like, “You know what? This isn’t a bad idea. I feel like I could actually grow into this job and learn how to do it.” So when the studio went in a different direction, it felt like a missed opportunity for me. But I was relieved that I was still consulting with Jeopardy! It wasn’t like I was out on my rear. All I wanted was to continue to work with the show.

What were your impressions of Mike when you interacted with him?
He was actually a very skilled and supportive producer to me in the guest-host role every time I worked with him. He had notes that were exactly on point. Thanking Alex at the end of every show in those early weeks was something he had thought up on the fly. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about him. I always got the idea that he wanted those shows to be the best they could be, no matter what his long-term career plans were.

Did you two ever communicate after he stepped down as host?
I don’t believe so. [Pauses.] We exchanged emails around that time because I was hoping to hear from him that he’d still want me to help out with the show and consult. And he agreed that he did. Those were the last conversations we had about the show.

Tell me, were you hoping you would be the sole Jeopardy! host?
At the time, the idea that the hosting position could be split between multiple people didn’t occur to me, although now it seems pretty natural. Mayim and I have been splitting the job and the producers are talking about other possible spinoffs with other possible hosts. During that guest-host carousel, we learned that it’s an extremely hard job on a technical level. Alex had mastered it, so he made it look easy for viewers and staff alike. It wasn’t until it became a public internet horse-race of people rooting for favorites that we saw that, actually, it’s a hard job. Because I had played almost a hundred games on that set, I had a leg up coming in. I feel like I understand the gameplay part of the show as well as anyone.

Now, I’m not a broadcaster. It’s unprecedented for somebody who’s not a broadcaster to get dropped into a spotlight like this, which I think about every night when I’m out there. You might have to go back to Conan O’Brien to imagine America being shocked at the guy they’ve never heard of suddenly in a hosting role. [Laughs.]

Clockwise from left: A tour of Jennings’s greatest Jeopardy! moments: Posing with Trebek during his historic winning streak in 2004; playing against Watson in 2011; and winning the Greatest of All Time Tournament in 2020. Photo: Jeopardy Productions via Getty ImagesPhoto: Ben Hider/Getty ImagesPhoto: ABC/YouTube
Clockwise from left: A tour of Jennings’s greatest Jeopardy! moments: Posing with Trebek during his historic winning streak in 2004; playing against W... Clockwise from left: A tour of Jennings’s greatest Jeopardy! moments: Posing with Trebek during his historic winning streak in 2004; playing against Watson in 2011; and winning the Greatest of All Time Tournament in 2020. Photo: Jeopardy Productions via Getty ImagesPhoto: ABC/YouTubePhoto: Ben Hider/Getty Images

Why do you think it was the most practical decision to go with two hosts instead of one?
Obviously, it wasn’t my decision. The virtue of it is that Jeopardy! has a huge audience and a really diverse one. Young folks, old folks, red states, blue states. It’s a weird TV show today because a huge swath of the country watches it and hosting style is largely a matter of personal taste. All those millions of people don’t agree on the right vibe for Jeopardy!, so by bringing multiple hosts out, you give people a variety. I wish we had some unifying Alex Trebek type that everyone agreed was perfect for the job, but in his absence, it’s going to take two of us to do his job.

There’s something to be said about quiz shows being among the last politically neutral territories around.
He took that very seriously and so do I. Alex was this cipher who did nothing but provide trivia clues and responses every night for half an hour. It’s going to be very hard in today’s polarized environment to find someone about whom you know nothing politically. When I’m on Jeopardy!, I absolutely think it’s a show that brings comfort to so many people. You shouldn’t be aware of something jarring like politics or ideology when you’re watching Jeopardy!. That’s your time.

When you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!, you’re a bit of a cog. You’re there for a while and then you’re gone. You’re proud of what the show represents to America, but you’re only a temporary part of it. But now that I know I’m going to be there trading off with Mayim for the foreseeable future, it makes me think a lot about what the show means. It’s representing facts and knowledge in an age when that’s sorely needed, but it’s also giving people an anchor in their day. Some comforting quality TV that the families watch together, that friends watch together. It’s a real bonding thing. It’s intergenerational and that’s not true of many TV shows. Nobody watches Euphoria with grandma. If you do, please don’t mail me your anecdotes. Jeopardy! is very much that bonding force that brings people together and is something that people rely on.

You had the unprecedented challenge of preparing to host. Where did you begin? Did Jeopardy! give you training?
There was a bootcamp. With all those guest hosts coming through, they needed an orientation and I was the guinea pig. We played some test games with the Jeopardy! writers standing in as contestants and doing intentionally annoying things to see what I would do — the equivalent of trying to get a baseball umpire to make a wrong call on a tricky force-out or something. They would pronounce things slightly wrong; they would pause in weird places. Weird stuff like this happens multiple times every half hour of Jeopardy! and you’ve got to be ready for it.

How did you prepare privately?
I watched a lot of game tape. It was all about Alex and the tiny mechanics you don’t realize he’s doing. I started jotting down the 20 different ways he used to say that a contestant was correct. You don’t want to keep repeating the same “yes, yes, yes” or “right, right, right.” He had a way of mixing it up and honing it over the years. I would jot down every time he had a great turn of phrase. He was very good at not making the show seem repetitive and reinventing every single Daily Double or throwing to commercials. The next time I went out there, I would try to do something I’d seen Alex do that worked. Gradually it got a little smoother.

What’s been the biggest learning curve for you?
Final Jeopardy is harder than I thought it would be.

Why is that?
Normally you think it’s winding up and anti-climatic, or the host doesn’t have that much to do. But revealing the responses in the appropriate order requires some sense of building drama. You have to understand all the permutations of what these scores could do to the outcome so you can frame it the right way for the viewer. Also, there’s a ton of math. The host is not doing it on the fly. Somebody has given me a card with a bunch of numbers, but it might have a dozen numbers depending on if she gets it right, if he gets it wrong, if the returning champion wins, if the returning champion doesn’t win. You’ve got all these numbers you’re juggling. It was flummoxing! I often found myself reading the wrong number and somebody having to yell at me. “No, no, no, no, no!” Often, when a non-Alex Trebek is hosting Jeopardy!, there’s somebody from the score table being overriding whatever silly thing the host just did.

Alex hosted the show for 37 seasons. How long do you see yourself in this role?
Look, it’s a dream job. I’ll be candid: I wanted this job. I pinch myself every time I’m out there because it doesn’t seem real that it could happen to me. I’m going to keep doing the job for as long as they’ll have me. I think I’m going to figure it out if you give me 37 years.

Do you get the sense that this is also Mayim’s dream job?
[Pauses.] I think so, but possibly for different reasons. My sense, from talking to her, is that she’s very proud to represent women, particularly in STEM fields, where there isn’t a great gender balance. That she can be an example of someone who has done and excelled at that. There’s no better platform than Jeopardy! for honoring knowledge and education.

The one thing I don’t love about me in the role is that we saw a white guy do it for 37 years and times are different now. Mayim takes that part of the job very seriously and also clearly enjoys it.

How would you like to see Jeopardy! evolve over the next few years? I thought the Second Chance Tournament was a terrific idea.
Our executive producer, Michael Davies, comes from a big sports background. I think that’s the right way to see Jeopardy!. I noticed this way back in 2004 when sports writers would interview me about my streak. They would treat it like an inning streak in baseball or something, and I realized they’re much more serious about the game and much more attentive to its subtleties than — no offense — entertainment writers. And so, I’m 100 percent onboard with Michael’s dictum.

Which is treating the show like a sport.
Exactly. It has champions, it has tournaments, it has statistics. Attentive fans of Jeopardy! love that kind of detail and drama. You’re going to see more of that. Hosting the Tournament of Champions is such a thrill because you’re seeing the game played at the highest possible level. It’s our World Series. I want more moments like that.

Alex said he believed the natural order of the show should be contestants picking clues sequentially by category as opposed to jumping around and disrupting the board. Do you agree with that? Have your opinions changed from contestant to host?
I understand when viewers are more comfortable with the game being played sequentially. I like when there are great champions, Amy Schneider for example, who believe it helps their rhythm to play the game in order to tiptoe into the categories instead of starting at the bottom like James Holzhauer, or hopping around the board like other players have done. The game has evolved to this point where everybody has a strategy. It’s just like watching a football game at home. You can be annoyed by what the offensive coordinator’s doing because you’ve got your own idea of how the game should be played, but let’s go to the scoreboard. The tape will tell who really played the right game that day.

As host, I can see some of the virtue of going in order. I see mistakes because players didn’t go that route. Either they jump down too early and suddenly get a bunch of clues that are out of their skillset, or they don’t understand the category. Then they find a Daily Double and they’re screwed when they would’ve done better if they’d been more mentally-located in the category. It’s fascinating to see how strategies play out, especially when different styles collide.

Jennings, hosting a recent Jeopardy! episode. Photo: Greg Lewis/Sony Pictures Television

Do you endorse any particular strategy?
It depends on the player. If you’re James Holzhauer, you want to start at the bottom while you’ve still got a confidence advantage, get a ton of money, find a Daily Double, and demoralize your opponents early. If you don’t have his level of comfort with risk-taking and skill at the game, you absolutely do not want to do that. You’re going to play better doing something else. By the numbers, hunting for Daily Doubles is the winning strategy, but there’s so much variation for individual players that the host shouldn’t personally endorse anything. You don’t ask the umpire whether players should be shifting in the infield or not.

There’s been a noticeable uptick in mega-champions of late, from Matt Amodio to Amy Schneider to Mattea Roach. What do you attribute this trend to?
We discuss it a lot on the show because we’re fascinated by it, too. Time will tell. We’ll see if last season was a blip or whether the game has fundamentally changed. I think it’s an effect of the Moneyball era of Jeopardy! where you no longer have three well-meaning amateur fans who are going to give it a go. There are still plenty of those, but there’s also people who have put in hundreds of hours of practice and research in hopes of getting on Jeopardy!. That can result in an imbalance when you have somebody like that showing up against two of the old-time contestants. They’re going to have an advantage.

Does this Moneyball approach lessen the fun of the game in a way?
Look, I was that person. In 2004, I was the one reading all the online comments like, “This isn’t fair, these games aren’t close. Ken should give someone else a chance.” I completely understand that. But if we’re going to treat Jeopardy! like a sport, whether it’s chess or soccer or baseball, you want the players who have trained the best. You want the players who have figured out how to excel at the game. It’s exciting to watch them. There’s obviously the trade-off, sometimes, of those games not being as close. But you want to see what records they can break or what level they can hit.

When was the last time you had a good sweat about a contestant beating your record?
I believe it can be done and I’m excited for it. I want to see people play the best they can. I was the host for all of Amy Schneider’s run and it was very clear that, given some breaks, she was every bit good enough to do it. Same with James Holzhauer’s run. It’s possible with every long-running champ. I remember hitting a plateau during my games where everything just went so smoothly and I was so confident. That’s a powerful advantage against new players coming in, knowing the stakes and the records. I thought somebody like Amy or James could absolutely hit that plateau. Matt Amodio as well. It’s just a matter of one clue in the wrong place.

The last time we talked, I ended our conversation by asking you to answer clues you got wrong during your first Jeopardy! game. I feel like it would be appropriate to continue our tradition with clues you missed during the GOAT tournament.
I bet I’ll miss one again. The GOAT tournament is all a blur for me.

The category is “Pop Culture People.”Pretty baby, you look so heavenly” is a chapter title in Face It, the 2019 memoir by this singing star.
Miley Cyrus? Katy Perry?

Debbie Harry!
Basically, I was 30 years off. Not even close.

This one is “Cybersecurity”: Beware of these types of programs that track every stroke you make while typing in an effort to glean your password.
Right. These are called … it has “key” in it. Doesn’t it have “key” in it?

Close enough. It’s keylogging.
Logging! I don’t think Alex would’ve given me credit for that.

We’ll end with the best category, “Potpourri.” This mother of Alexander the Great was in the cult of Dionysus and liked to sleep with snakes.
Wow. I got nothing. If you had asked me, “Have you seen that clue before?” I would say no. It’s just such a fugue state out there on Jeopardy! because it’s so fast and intense.

It’s Olympias, a clue I easily failed as well.
If she were a YouTuber or TikTok star today with her snakes and her Dionysian cult, it sounds like Olympias would be a hit in the 21st century. Yas, queen. I mean, she’s literally a queen. She’s queen of Macedonia. Slay. Wait, she probably did slay.

The show’s version of a Hall of Fame, essentially, which just celebrated its inaugural class. The inductees were Trebek, announcer Johnny Gilbert, longtime executive producer Harry Freidman, and creators Merv and Julann Griffin. Trebek died on November 8, 2020; Jennings made his guest-host debut on January 11, 2021. Trebek’s memoir, The Answer Is …: Reflections on My Life, was released in July 2020. Jennings was hired as a consulting producer and began his role in September 2020. One of his duties included presenting video categories. Richards remained as a Jeopardy! executive producer for two weeks after he stepped down as host. That would be Sony Pictures Television. Airing from October 17-28, the inaugural tournament will bring back players who “we believe deserve a second shot,” the show’s executive producer said in a statement. This technique became popularized in 1985 by contestant Chuck Forrest and became known as “the Forrest Bounce.” He would randomly select clues among the six categories to confuse his opponents. With 40 consecutive games won, Schneider has come the closest to breaking Jennings’s 74-game record.
Ken Jennings Ascends the Podium