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Ken Jennings made Jeopardy! feel like home

Jeopardy! can still be Jeopardy! without Alex Trebek

Ken Jennings hosts Jeopardy! in January 2021 Photo: Sony Pictures Television
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Jeopardy! entered an uncertain new era on Monday, but by the end of the episode, the show’s future looked a lot more assured.

The Jan. 11 episode of Jeopardy! — the show’s 8,311th since the debut of its current incarnation in 1984 — was its first one without legendary host Alex Trebek, who died in November at the age of 80. Taking Trebek’s place at his hallowed lectern was perhaps the show’s most famous noncelebrity contestant: Ken Jennings, champion of the Greatest of All Time tournament, who is the first in a series of interim guest hosts.

Jennings walked out onto the stage following Johnny Gilbert’s introduction — “Here is the guest host of Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings!” — and (understandably) got off to a bit of a shaky start in speaking about Trebek and about his own time as a contestant.

“Like all Jeopardy! fans, I miss Alex — very much,” said Jennings, his voice breaking. “And I thank him for everything he did for all of us. Let’s be totally clear: No one will ever replace the great Alex Trebek. But we can honor him by playing the game he loved.”

And honor him he did. With the help of the contestants, who are, as Trebek always said, the true stars of the show. Once the Jeopardy round began, it was remarkably smooth sailing for everyone involved.

Jennings may not be blessed with the natural gravitas of Trebek’s deep, authoritative voice, honed during his pre-game-show career as a broadcaster in his native Canada. But he already had some experience reading Jeopardy! clues in his role as a consulting producer, which began this season, and it showed. Since contestants cannot buzz in until the moment after the speaker finishes reading the clue, timing is critical: Longtime viewers, perhaps clicking a retractable pen in time with the players on TV, learned to clock Trebek’s reliable cadence. And Jennings managed to deliver the same deliberate pace as his beloved predecessor.

Above all, a host’s job is to maintain flow and appear personable. Viewers loved Trebek for his wit and his often deadpan humor, especially when he engaged in gentle ribbing of the contestants — both during the interview segment and during the game itself. Jennings pulled it all off admirably, perhaps aided by his years of experience as a player.

When the $2,000 clue in the Pick Up the Homophone category — “A group singing, or a set of 24 sheets of paper” — stumped all three contestants, Jennings remarked that he had figured that third-podium player Julia Shear Kushner might know the correct response: What is choir/quire? Kushner, a lawyer from Long Beach, California, had said in her interview that she sings in a choir with a bunch of other lawyers.

And as Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! author Claire McNear noted on Twitter, citing avid fan Mark Hinog, both Jennings and Trebek ended their respective first episodes — more than 36 years apart — by chiding the new champion for their diminutive Final Jeopardy wager.

“I hope [the contestants] feel that I have a sense of solidarity with them — you know, that I’m rooting for them; that I know how hard it is and how it feels; that when I’m impressed, that’s genuine, because I know what they’re going through,” Jennings said in an interview with Jeopardy!’s producers, responding to a question about what he brings to the hosting gig.

Tanay Kothari, a business operations associate from Oakland, California, shrugged when Jennings revealed his $0 wager on the Final Jeopardy category, 1960s Songs. “Now he decides not to take a risk!” said Jennings, referring to the fact that Kothari had gone for a true Daily Double twice during the game.

Kothari was probably kicking himself a little bit, since he had been able to come up with the correct response to the clue: “The name of this title song from a 1964 movie can be translated from Spanish as ‘Long Live the Meadows.’” (Jennings was looking for this: What is “Viva Las Vegas”?) Even so, Kothari’s opponents couldn’t catch him in Final Jeopardy — the game was a “runaway,” as Trebek would have put it, and Kothari was crowned the new Jeopardy! champion with an impressive tally of $26,800.

As soon as the credits rolled, my wife turned to me to say that she thought Jennings had done a great job, and I had to agree. Jeopardy! will never be the same without Alex Trebek, but in just one episode at the helm, Jennings proved that the show can still feel like home.

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