Two days before the journalist Claire McNear published her book, which was billed as a “definitive history” of “Jeopardy!,” its beloved host, Alex Trebek, died of pancreatic cancer, thrusting the game show into a period of uncertainty unlike any its staff had ever seen.
McNear’s 2020 book, “Answers in the Form of Questions,” had argued that “Jeopardy!,” a television staple that first premiered in 1964, was on the precipice of significant change, with some key figures who had helped shape the show for decades stepping back.
But the loss of Trebek in November raised a new existential question for the show: Could “Jeopardy!” continue to be a success without its trusted, even-keeled captain, who had been its face for more than 36 years?
For McNear, one of the most critical chapters in the show’s history had just begun.
Nine months later, McNear’s report for The Ringer on the man who had been chosen to succeed Trebek — the show’s executive producer, Mike Richards — would change the course of that history.
McNear had listened to all 41 episodes of a podcast that Richards had recorded in 2013 and 2014, when he was executive producer on “The Price Is Right,” and discovered that he had made a number of offensive and sexist comments, including asking two young women who worked on the podcast whether they had ever taken nude photos, and referring to a stereotype about Jews and large noses.
Days after the story was published, Richards, 46, resigned from his role as host, saying that the show did not need the distraction. Sony, which produces the show, said he would remain as executive producer. (Mayim Bialik, the sitcom star who had been tapped to host prime-time “Jeopardy!” specials, will temporarily take over weeknight hosting duties.)
In an interview, McNear, 32, who writes about sports and culture for The Ringer, discussed her personal relationship to “Jeopardy!,” the impact of her reporting and the show’s future. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Every “Jeopardy!” fan has their own early memories of the show and a story of what drew them to it. Why did this show become so important to you?
I was never one of those superfans who would watch every single night and know all the statistics and the pantheon of all the greatest players. I had watched it with my parents growing up, but I was not one of those hard-core people. It wasn’t until my fiancé and I moved in together, about five years ago, that we got cable — it was the first time I had cable since I was a little kid. And I remember having this light-bulb moment: “Oh my God, we can record ‘Jeopardy!’ every night.” And because of my day job, I started getting to write about it.
Two weeks ago, the big hosting announcement dropped: Richards had been chosen. Knowing what you knew about him at the time, what was your reaction to the decision?
As I had started to write about “Jeopardy!” more and watch it more seriously, I learned more about the world. I met the fans; I met the people who make the show. And I kept hearing things from people close to the show: that the host-search process might not have been as aboveboard as the way that it was being described publicly, and a number of staff members had fairly grave concerns about him. I wanted to know more about his past and his genesis as a television personality because he had been really open about the fact that, in addition to producing, he wanted to host.
What led you to his podcast?
He has talked about it in interviews but also, literally, it’s listed — or at least it was — in his official Jeopardy.com bio, that he hosted a comedy news show as a college student called “The Randumb Show.” And I tried to find as much as I could about that show, but it was all taped in the ’90s. It did lead me to the podcast with the exact same name, which is the one that he hosted as the executive producer of “The Price Is Right.”
So you’re sitting there listening to these episodes. At what point do you start to become unsettled by his comments?
It became extremely clear to me very quickly that those things were kind of dotted throughout the episode: He uses sexist language; he uses ableist language; he uses ugly slurs and stereotypes. There’s a lot of stuff that we did not transcribe in the story that is in there and paints this broader picture of what “The Price Is Right” was like as a workplace. And he was the co-executive producer at the time — he was the boss, and he was mostly just talking to his employees.
How long did it take to listen to all 41 episodes?
What I will say is it was not a terribly glamorous reporting process. I live in Washington, D.C., and there was one point a couple weeks ago where my air-conditioning broke overnight. And so I spent the whole next day sitting in my living room with an ice pack on my stomach, listening to Mike Richards’s podcast episodes. It was not like what they show in the movies.
You wrote in your book that when Trebek first started as host in 1984, fans were actually wary of him following Art Fleming’s run. Do you think fans would accept any new host of “Jeopardy!” with enthusiasm right now?
I think Sony was always going to be in a difficult place because it’s not going to be Alex Trebek. Fleming was this sort of genial, affable, friendly guy who was very upfront about not knowing the answers to any of the clues and he was just happy to be there and he needed the sheet in front of him. And then of course, Alex Trebek cultivated this image that he could probably beat all the contestants on any given night. He was this very erudite figure who got all his pronunciations just so. There were fans that didn’t like that at first because they loved the Art Fleming version of the show. I think that does speak to the fact that “Jeopardy!” fans might struggle with a new host — any host — but there’s certainly a history of people coming to admire even a very different host of “Jeopardy!”
Trebek always said that it’s the game, not him, that kept viewers coming back. With all you’ve seen over the past eight months, do you think that’s proving to be true?
It’s important to note that as much as there has been all this change at “Jeopardy!,” there are also a lot of things that are exactly the same as they have been for years. A lot of the people who work there have been there for decades and spent their entire professional life making “Jeopardy!”
The “Jeopardy!” machinery is mostly intact and unchanged. But I think there is a great amount of sadness and fear among “Jeopardy!” fans and among the “Jeopardy!” staff that this whole episode with Mike Richards has damaged this universal appeal that it’s had for all these decades, that it was this totally neutral space that was not partisan. It was never flashy; it was never trying to get in the headlines or be the thing that you debated over dinner. And now it very much is, and it’s possible that when they do bring in a permanent host, people will talk about it a bunch at the beginning, and then it will just kind of settle back down to being the same old “Jeopardy!” But it’s possible that it’s lost that sheen of being unimpeachable.
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