LeVar Burton wasn’t a very good host during his week behind the Jeopardy! podium. It’s something his biggest supporters don’t want to admit, but even Burton himself has said he didn’t exactly crush it once his much-hyped opportunity to host came around late this summer.
“I had, like all of the hosts, one day of rehearsal and the following day I shot five episodes of Jeopardy! I came backstage after taping the first episode and I said to Stephanie, ‘Well, how did I do?’ She said, ‘ehhh,’” Burton told the Associated Press in July, recalling a conversation with his wife. “Now, this is a woman who loves me enough to tell me the truth.”
It’s tough to pin down what didn’t work for Burton because there are a lot of factors at play. He got the same rehearsal time as the other hosts, sure, but the breakneck pace at which the show tapes means he had just a single day behind the podium for his five episodes while every other guest host got at least twice as many shows. And while Burton sits dead last in the guest host ratings, his lone hosting week came amid the Tokyo Olympics, which preempted syndication in several markets in the dog days of summer after a seemingly endless string of guest hosts.
The top view of all this is that after months of his biggest fans clamoring for Burton to get a shot, he failed. But the further we get away from his “ehhh” day on set, the more we know just how much of the deck was stacked against Burton, not to mention every other guest host except executive producer-turned full-time host Mike Richards. The former Price Is Right executive producer was named the official replacement of the late Alex Trebek last week and sparked a rolling wave of controversies as his past legal troubles and comments on podcasts have emerged in recent days, not to mention the concerning influence he had on the selection process that ultimately ended with himself for the job.
It’s difficult to remove Richards’ repulsive comments about women and jokes about Jewish people from the equation here, so don’t. The detailed reports and audio clips of Richards’ laundry list of inappropriate comments were the sorts of things that the show’s producers needed to catch in any sort of vetting process, and while the scrutiny Richards is facing is beyond deserved, the process (or, potentially, lack thereof) deserves just as much.
Beyond that, the reports that management miscalculated when they assumed he had already endured his legal troubles so that wouldn’t spark controversy on its own is equally baffling. It did, and things have only gotten worse for Sony and Richards when it comes to optics in the days that followed. It’s a fallout that cost Richards his job on Friday, but at this point, it’s clear that putting his past under the microscope should have immediately ended his viability as a Trebek successor.
In terms of a person with a résumé, Richards is a reasonable pick to host Jeopardy! He has experience in game shows and he looks like a game show host, more or less. He certainly sounds like someone who works in game shows. But for some of the biggest Jeopardy! fans, that’s exactly the problem: He looks like he could host any game show, so why does he get to host the most beloved game show on TV?
As Claire McNear’s excellent reporting on the subject this week detailed, the answer to that question was fuzzy to say the least. And after a process that saw Burton and even Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers eloquently explain how much hosting Jeopardy! would mean to them, Richards’ history of seeking other game show gigs while blandly expressing affection for Jeopardy! took on new context, as did his takeover of Jeopardy! behind the scenes as those outside the show reportedly assumed he’d fill a power vacuum that didn’t necessarily even exist.
As executive producer, Richards controlled nearly everything about Jeopardy!’s most recent season. Sources say this led to myriad conflicts of interest. “He was the one rehearsing and giving direction to all the guest hosts, who may not have realized they were competing with him for the job,” says a Sony employee familiar with the host search. “He could influence the promotion of those shows and the respective guest hosts. He had personal relationships with the executives involved, who had entrusted the show to him a year before.”
Burton has become an avatar for many frustrated with how Jeopardy! picked its host because it’s reflective of society on a number of levels. And Richards’ apparent grasp on the levers of power behind the scenes at Jeopardy! had many victims, including Ken Jennings and other hosts. But the conversation around Burton, in my opinion, is a bit off. His performance didn’t justify him winning the Jeopardy! job, despite the enthusiasm of his supporters. The problem is not that he didn’t get the job anyway, but that he had a single opportunity to find that success and earn the gig in the first place.
Threading that needle, especially amid some pretty obvious meddling and unfortunate circumstances, is a familiar story arc for so many non-white, non-male people across all fields. It’s not that Burton didn’t get a chance, because he did. But the playing field, it’s clear, was never quite level. It’s why, even if Burton didn’t shine behind the podium, his failure to get the job stings for so many.
Earlier in the summer, I asked Alfonso Ribeiro about the Jeopardy! job and if he had someone he hoped would get the job. For him, all he wanted to see was a fair fight.
“Whoever gets the job, let them be the best. And whatever that looks like. I’m not one that says, well, I think it has to be a Black person or I think it has be a woman. I don’t think it should be anybody,” Ribeiro said. “I think it’s whoever’s the best, as long as everybody gets an opportunity and a fair shake at it, then whoever’s the best and whoever the audience loves the most, it should be their job.”
The Catch 21 and AFV host couldn’t possibly have known just what was going on behind the scenes at Jeopardy!, but looking back at the mechanisms in place, the end result seems even more predictable. Jennings got the best ratings and may have even had Trebek’s approval. Burton got the most fan buzz. Rodgers had the most viral moments and was prepared to rearrange his extremely busy life as an All-Pro quarterback on a team with Super Bowl aspirations to potentially fit in filming Jeopardy! Seemingly every other guest host with obvious aspirations of being Trebek’s successor made clear that hosting the show would be the honor of their — in many cases decorated — professional lives. And despite all of that, it was Richards that was spit out of the machine as the big winner, flaws and all.
“If you allow everybody to get in there and have an even shake at it,” Ribeiro told me, “They’re gonna be different people in different jobs because different people have different talents.”
Regardless of his performance, it’s clear that Burton didn’t get that fair shake. And now that we know more about the process Richards spearheaded until he became a candidate, we know no one — from Jennings and Rodgers to guest hosts who ostensibly no one wanted like Dr. Oz — really got a chance to be at their best. It’s that knowledge Jeopardy! fans now have that will carry into next season, no matter who is hosting the show. It’s unfortunate, because unlike the contestants, it’s never felt like one bad day should impact whoever gets to host the most beloved game show on TV.
The host, as Trebek so effortlessly projected, is always supposed to have the answers. It was the way Richards got them, however, that was never going to sit right with fans.