Matt Amodio is officially a part of Jeopardy! history after he became just the third contestant to win $1 million on Friday. But regardless of what some fans think of his quirky answering style, he’s already done something far more important in the immediate sense as he continues to cruise through Season 38 of Jeopardy!: make everyone focus on the games, not the drama around the show’s disastrous search for a new host.
Aside from Amodio’s brilliance, recent news about the show has been nothing short of exhausting. Mike Richards was a bad pick to replace Alex Trebek, may have rigged the search that landed on him in the first place, and made decision-makers at Sony look bad for thinking his extensive baggage wouldn’t matter to the show’s biggest fans. Every other person seemingly in the running has had a bad news cycle or two, to boot.
Even the groundswell of support for a guest host like LeVar Burton got tiring. It didn’t help that, for a variety of reasons, he simply wasn’t very good at the job. Burton knew it and said it himself, but it didn’t seem to matter to those crusading for him to get a job he now has repeatedly said he doesn’t want.
No one is really immune here, though. Potential Trebek replacements have jockeyed for position and lobbied for public support for months now. Fan petitions, cryptic comments and intense scrutiny of their job performance on guest hosting weeks have become big entertainment news. It’s made things hard for contestants and fans alike, and all of that has distracted from what’s made the show so enjoyable for so long. Because if those in charge of Jeopardy! want to move past the PR wreckage of 2021, they need to pick a host that embodies the late Alex Trebek’s biggest mantra: it’s not about the host.
“You have to set your ego aside,” Trebek told Vulture in 2018 when asked what makes a good Jeopardy! host. “The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself. That’s why I’ve always insisted that I be introduced as the host and not the star.”
Despite becoming synonymous with Jeopardy!, Trebek said again and again that the show was not about him. His focus, he said, was on making the three contestants on stage the reason people keep tuning in to watch.
“And if you want to be a good host, you have to figure a way to get the contestants to — as in the old television commercial about the military — ‘be all you can be,'” Trebek said in 2018. “Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association I do well.”
For many it always felt like Trebek had all the answers, even if that was just part of the gig. But because Trebek was a constant presence, the contestants actually became stars in their own right. Fans of the show had far more than just three Jeopardy! GOATS they can name offhand. While Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter are undoubtedly the show’s biggest names, contestants like Austin Rodgers, Arthur Chu and Buzzy Cohen are familiar even passive Jeopardy! watchers.
Cohen’s success in the show’s Tournament of Champions earned him a guest hosting spot this year. Watching he and Jennings take the podium and look the part was a good example of embodying that Trebek quote: both knew how to make contestants comfortable without stealing the show. Because before all the drama it was quirky personalities, impressive performances and viral blunders that once made Jeopardy! viral, with Trebek the professional foil to keep it moving with a steady hand.
The loss of that guidance has been notable since Trebek’s death in November but so, too, is the obvious change in what’s become important when watching the show. Turning the end of last season into a proverbial bake-off made what the hosts were doing on stage much more important than how contestants played or who could survive wave after wave of hosting change. It absolutely impacted the game, too.
Remember that Jeopardy! is a show built entirely on the host’s whims and wants. It was Trebek’s voice and cadence contestants studied in order to get the timing down for when to use their signaling device. Trebek himself was responsible for exactly how long contestants had to answer questions, his literal finger on the button of the game’s flow behind the podium. But with him at the controls, none of that was the focus. It was three smart people doing their best to answer questions under bright TV lights. Five episodes a day, if you’re lucky.
Amodio succeeding amid all this weirdness to win $1 million is an incredible accomplishment. But that Amodio has survived this gauntlet of host changes and incredibly weird on-set vibes and is still winning games immediately makes him one of the best contestants in the show’s history. If only because his run has given some of the show’s biggest fans time to breathe and just take in a very good player impressing night in and night out, too.
“Anyone else feel like we are watching just normal J! for the first time since November?” a member of the Jeopardy! Reddit board posted recently. “The only thing I look forward to/gets me through a Monday is the return of Matt on Jeopardy!” wrote another. And the warm feelings are certainly mutual, as Amodio admitted he’s reading all those kind words from afar.
— Matt Amodio (@AmodioMatt) September 27, 2021
What’s ahead for the Ph. D student if he keeps winning are more comparisons to Rutter, Jennings and Holzhauer and a much-hyped crack at the next Tournament of Champions. Fans are certainly rooting for him to stick around for a while, just to see how big those numbers can get before a worthy foe ends his run. It’s been too long since the contestants have been the focus on Jeopardy!, but Amodio has certainly done his best to distract everyone else from the mess happening all around him.