CULVER CITY, Calif. — On television, an episode of “Jeopardy!” moves with a satisfying swiftness, but during a taping, the game can abruptly screech to a halt. One incident in October saw a contestant offer a response that was initially deemed wrong, but it was an unexpected guess. So just to double-, triple- and quadruple-check that no one missed anything while constructing the clue, a panel of judges — sitting near the stage with laptops, piles of papers, books and Webster’s Dictionary — stopped the proceedings to do more research.
During these moments, host Ken Jennings emerges from the lectern and strolls across the stage like a low-key superhero in a fancy suit, arriving to rescue the audience from 10 minutes of boredom. “Does anyone have any questions?”
Hands shoot up across the rows in the chilly room at Sony Pictures Studios: How many people apply for the show? About 100,000 every year. Around 400 make it. What is behind the lectern? Jennings has a tablet, and fellow host Mayim Bialik uses a complicated highlighter system for Final Jeopardy. Is Jennings friends with other “Jeopardy!” champions? He is tight with James Holzhauer, the 2019 phenom who came this close to breaking the earnings record that Jennings held from 2004, but he has had to scale back, because hosts are not supposed to hang out with contestants.
“Which, if you have met James, is not the hugest loss,” Jennings says, as the audience cracks up at the unexpected burn from the mild-mannered trivia king. “Just kidding. He is lovely.” Eventually, producers give the go-ahead to restart. The contestant’s answer is confirmed incorrect. “You will watch that on TV,” Jennings tells the audience during another such break, “and it will all be like a wonderful dream.”
Jennings, 48, often thinks about life’s funny timing. If he had not gone on a road trip with a friend to try out for “Jeopardy!” right around when the show lifted its limit of five games, he never would have stunned the world by reeling off 74 wins in a row, never would have won about $2.5 million, never would have become a celebrity instead of living the alternate version of his life, in which he envisions himself as “a mildly unhappy Salt Lake City computer programmer.”
And he really never would have predicted that he would one day replace the legendary Alex Trebek. As proof, we direct you to Jennings’s Reddit username, which is WatsonsBitch. “See, that is the kind of thing you do when you are absolutely convinced you are not going to be host of ‘Jeopardy!,’ ” Jennings said, laughing, during an interview after the taping. (The name is a reference to IBM supercomputer Watson, the machine that crushed Jennings in a competition-slash-ratings stunt in 2011.)
He is sitting in his dressing room and has changed into jeans and a gray “Late Show With David Letterman” shirt, one he is pretty sure was in his gift bag in 2004 when he was invited to deliver “The Top 10 Ways to Irritate Alex Trebek.” (No. 9: “Instead of responding, get his attention by throwing nickels at his head.”) This was once Trebek’s dressing room, and one of the last places that Jennings saw Trebek before the host died of pancreatic cancer in November 2020. Jennings gave him a hug.
“I don’t know if he was a hugger, but I just wanted him to know how much he meant to people. And he did,” said Jennings, who estimated that Trebek received 100,000 cards after his diagnosis. “He was like, ‘For most people, the nice stuff is not said until they die, and I get to hear it while I’m still alive.’ ”
The death of the 80-year-old Trebek was an emotional blow to Jennings and the longtime crew, not to mention the millions of viewers who heard Trebek’s rich, authoritative baritone for 36 years. Replacing one of the most beloved television figures was never going to be easy, but few could have predicted the disaster that unfolded in the search to find Trebek’s successor.
Last summer, after a string of celebrity guest hosts, executive producer Mike Richards accepted the job himself, only to be forced to step down days later when an article published by the Ringer revealed that he made offensive remarks about women, Jewish people and Haiti on his former podcast, and reported that morale behind the scenes “deteriorated” under his reign. Richards soon left the show entirely.
Suddenly, America’s favorite quiz show was engulfed in controversy. So when Jennings was announced as one of the two permanent hosts in July after serving as guest host alongside Bialik for months, it was a relief to staff members and viewers alike who had fond memories of his history-making 2004 run.
Everyone was thrilled to have a familiar face back on-screen, someone who restored a sense of calm after the tumult made even worse by the pandemic. He and Bialik are splitting host duties. Her next episodes will air early next year, and she helms the prime-time specials. Jennings is hosting the first part of the current Season 39, and he will be at the lectern for the highly anticipated 2022 Tournament of Champions starting Monday.
“I think the reason he helped steady the show is because he belonged there,” said Maggie Speak, a “Jeopardy!” producer who worked with contestants for more than two decades before she retired in 2020. “He knows that stage better than anybody.”
Although Jennings will politely ignore a suggestion that he saved the show (“It took many people making good decisions to save ‘Jeopardy!’ ”) and raves about the gig with his fellow host (“I still have to pinch myself; I can’t believe I get to do this in conjunction with Mayim”), he is happy if his presence is helpful to anyone. He was disappointed to see the mess spill out into public view, adding that “Jeopardy!” serves better as comfort food rather than “click-baity headlines.”
“There was something that aesthetically didn’t feel very ‘Jeopardy!’ about people caring about the backstage drama. It just distracts from the beauty of the show,” he said. “And the drama kind of went against that, just the reliability that I think ‘Jeopardy!’ should symbolize. And I’m relieved to have that back.”
Rewind to the 2000s and Jennings vividly recalls the surreal nature of instant fame: the talk-show invitations, his toddler son referring to him as “Ken Jennings,” sports columnist Bill Simmons calling him a “smarmy know-it-all with the personality of a hall monitor,” writing that he both revered Jennings and “hoped Alex Trebek would punch him in the face.” (Jennings wound up calling his loan-out company Hall Monitor. Incidentally, Simmons would later be the founder of the Ringer, which published Claire McNear’s explosive story about Richards’s podcast.)
Another thing he remembers is the grandmas. When they spotted him in public, people would pull out their phones and start dialing their grandmas. “The thing that I learned as champion just from people coming up to me on the street or people wanting to put their grandma on the phone, is how much of a ritual purpose ‘Jeopardy!’ serves in people’s lives,” Jennings said. “Everybody has these fond multigenerational memories, and people just rely on it as part of their day. And I can’t think of another show like that anymore.”
As an American institution, “Jeopardy!” is like no other. Sure, you have “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Price Is Right,” but “Jeopardy!” is the rare program that celebrates intelligence and knowledge: highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between. Even more critically in the age of misinformation, it is a place where, as Jennings has said, “questions have answers, and correct answers, and facts matter,” where a team of people pore over books to ensure every detail is correct.
“I don’t want to overstate what it means in the culture, but I really do think there is something to that,” he said, noting that “Jeopardy!” viewers span the ideological spectrum. “Even as a kid, I liked that about game shows, that it was a version of life that always had a reassuring ping or a stern buzz,” he added. “We want to make the point that facts are facts, no matter how you vote.”
Its reliability — on every weekday, often in the cozy confines of dinnertime — is a major factor in the emotional chord it strikes in people and why it continues to average about 20 million viewers per week. It is another reason the Richards incident, not long after Trebek’s death, struck such a nerve, not only for viewers, but also for the normally steadfast show where employees have worked for many years. Richards had replaced longtime executive producer Harry Friedman, who retired in 2020. (Michael Davies, the current executive producer who replaced Richards, was not available for comment for this story.)
“It was certainly a tough time for us. … We’re a show that has been around for 39 seasons, and we’re very much used to things going a certain way,” said Sarah Whitcomb Foss, a producer and former Clue Crew member who has worked on the show since 2001. “Ken was a constant in that he was something that remained from the past and I would say carried us over. … He was the continuity and history, and Mayim had so much heart. … Those two people with the best of intentions really created the situation we have now.”
While most of the turmoil was happening, Jennings was home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Mindy, and their two teenagers. He hoped he was in the running for the full-time gig after being the first guest host but was in the dark about the decision-making process. But on-screen, he pointed out, you would have never been able to spot the workplace dysfunction.
“Even without Alex, even with the roiling backstage, the people here are so good at their jobs that the show on TV every day still felt like ‘Jeopardy!’ ” Jennings said. “That is a real tribute to how good they are. They lost the face of the franchise and a lot of goodwill. And the show was still so good.”
Speak, the longtime former producer, always took lots of notes during contestant tryouts. When Jennings auditioned in 2003, she scribbled down “plays!” next to his name, which was her notation when she was certain that they should cast someone. She also wrote down “could be funny.” “There was just something about Ken,” Speak said. “He was so likable.”
Jennings, then 29 and working at a health-care staffing company as a software engineer in Salt Lake City, auditioned somewhat on a whim with his former college roommate, Earl Cahill. Jennings loved “Jeopardy!” since he was young and relished seeing smart people on television, especially when he felt as if he was the only kid he knew who read the encyclopedia and the Road Atlas for fun. “That was, in a way, representation for me,” he said. “The show really made me who I am.”
Cahill, who was college quiz bowl teammates with Jennings at Brigham Young University, remembers him as a smart, funny, unassuming trivia whiz who was really into movies and pop culture. He was always reading multiple books at a time and could recite basically every piece of information he ever learned, yet he was not a know-it-all who would correct facts or grammar.
“Most of our friends didn’t realize he had a superpower,” Cahill said. “Unless you reflected later on the fact that Ken really knew a great deal about whatever you happened to be talking about, and actually seemed to know a great deal about whatever you talked about, he was just another guy.”
Jennings’s first episode aired June 2, 2004, and he won $37,201, landing the victory when Final Jeopardy was about a female track and field Olympian, and he responded “Jones.” Ultimately, it was accepted, even without first name “Marion.”
Then he refused to lose. His streak of 74 games stretched between seasons. He was accused of holding the show “hostage.” As is tradition, “Jeopardy!” contestants are honor-bound to keep results a secret until shows are broadcast. Speak will never forget the look on the faces of Jennings’s parents when they finally made it to a taping and learned that their son had won more than $1 million. She struggled recruiting players, because they saw the episodes and wanted no part of that situation.
“If you were to write the story of this saga,” said Friedman, then the executive producer, “of an obscure computer software engineer sitting in probably a cubicle in Salt Lake City going on a quiz show, becoming a phenomenon and ultimately becoming the host of the show, which is one of the most coveted jobs in all of television, you would think, ‘Well, this is improbable. Come on.’ ”
Even with his newfound fame and money, Jennings credits his upbringing as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in helping him stay grounded, as he recalled the scripture says “the glory of God is intelligence.” He appeared on more game shows and wrote books and was careful with his finances, driving the same Toyota Corolla for multiple years after winning millions because, well, it ran just fine. “I had this very kind of strong pioneer-era Western ethos of like, wealth is not just immoral, but it is a little bit unseemly,” Jennings said.
When Trebek’s health took a turn for the worse in late 2020, producers reached out to Jennings about guest-hosting. Trebek died shortly after, and the mood was somber when Jennings arrived to the set. Aside from an April Fools’ Day prank in 1997 when he switched places with Pat Sajak of “Wheel of Fortune,” it was the first time anyone other than Trebek had hosted the syndicated show in 36 years.
Foss, the producer, said Jennings addressed the staff: “Hey, no one wishes this day weren’t happening more than me.” She gave Jennings a password, so he could access an internal system to watch any previous episode, and he studied them intently. “He was feeling the same loss, so he was able to step into the role in the early weeks in a way no one else could have,” Foss said. “He didn’t try to be Alex, and he didn’t want to be.”
After about six weeks of Jennings in early 2021, a slew of other stars guest-hosted, including Richards, Bialik, Anderson Cooper, Robin Roberts, Aaron Rodgers, Dr. Oz and another fan favorite, LeVar Burton. In August 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that Jennings was originally the front-runner until some of his old tweets “gave Sony executives pause,” namely his much-criticized 2014 tweet, “Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.”
Jennings previously apologized for his “unartful and insensitive” tweets. He is now extremely careful with what he posts (he said he doesn’t know about the discussions about his tweets within Sony) and acknowledged that he used to want to be known as more than just “the nerdy ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant,” and that some of his online commentary went too far.
“I made the mistake a lot of people do on social media: just posting the first thing that came into their head,” he said. “Now that I’m more closely associated with ‘Jeopardy!,’ it is just a great excuse to realize that the show should not have to answer for me being a ding-dong online.”
Following Richards’s implosion, Jennings and Bialik traded duties until their hosting status was made official this summer. Jennings is taking the job very seriously, including working on his breathing and vocal patterns. He is sensitive to the fact that he is not a broadcaster by trade, and admires Bialik’s natural charisma on camera after years of starring in television shows.
Amy Schneider, one of several recent super-champions on the upcoming Tournament of Champions, said having Jennings as host offers a certain amount of comfort. “It means so much to have somebody that understands the contestants’ point of view,” she said. “Alex certainly did from his years of experience. He made an effort to put himself in those shoes; he took the qualifying test and things like that. But Ken, obviously, he knows where our minds are going.”
In a clip that often circulates online from the episode on Oct. 8, 2004, Trebek reads the clue: “This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker.” Jennings buzzes in first and tries to keep a straight face, yet cannot: “What’s a hoe?”
“No,” Trebek responds, about to move on as usual before the audience bursts out laughing and he realizes what just happened. “Whoa. Whoaaaa. Whoa. They teach you that in school in Utah, huh?” (Those without their mind in the gutter know the correct response was “rake.”)
Almost 20 years later, Jennings is now the host reacting to questionable contestant guesses. In one recent moment that lit up on social media, the category was “Plurals That Don’t End in S.” The clue was “moose,” and the answer offered was, “What are meese?” Jennings, normally composed, was startled and laughed almost in disbelief. “No,” he said. “No, Jack!”
In the early days of guest-hosting, Jennings might have been too panicked adjusting to his new gig to attempt any zingers. But now, as he goes to work and arrives on the Alex Trebek Stage, it is starting to feel like home once again. “I’m comfortable enough that I actually enjoy it,” he said. “I’m kind of having the time of my life out there.”