LOS ANGELES – “Jeopardy!” needed a host, and Lucille Ball had an enthusiastic suggestion for creator Merv Griffin: The smooth-voiced, debonair emcee of the “High Rollers” game show.
That was 1984. Decades later, filling the void left by the late Alex Trebek involves sophisticated research and a parade of guest hosts doing their best to impress viewers and the studio that's expected to make the call before the new season begins taping later this summer.
Think of Sony Pictures Television as clutching the rose, and Mayim Bialik, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and “Jeopardy!” champs Ken Jennings and Buzzy Cohen among the suitors so far, with more to come including Robin Roberts, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and LeVar Burton.
Sony has “the most robust team of people I have ever seen looking at this and analyzing it in a very cerebral way,” said executive producer Mike Richards. “It’s a real change from the way casting has traditionally been done on television.”
“It’s usually been a gut instinct of the head executive: ‘How about that person?’” Richards said.
That was producer-entertainer Griffin’s approach when he brought a syndicated version of “Jeopardy!” to TV, five years after the quiz show’s last network iteration wrapped in 1979 on NBC. A word from Ball, of “I Love Lucy” fame, and Trebek’s skill and experience sealed his hire.
Audience and critical regard for the Canadian-born Trebek grew over the years, which makes finding a worthy replacement both a gesture of respect for the late host and the means to protect a corporate asset. While ratings have shifted under the guest hosts, “Jeopardy!” remains among the top-ranked syndicated programs in viewership.
Trebek helped build the show’s “display of excellence with his own excellence. And it’s tremendously difficult to find somebody to replace him, not only because of the status that he had in the American imagination,” said Deepak Sarma, a Case Western Reserve University professor and Netflix cultural consultant. “Anyone who is going to take his position will be judged in the end against this model of perfection.”
Game show hosts of Trebek’s era were usually radio and TV broadcasting veterans steeped in the genre, and almost invariably white men. Among the “Jeopardy!” subs are men and women of color and prospects from a variety of fields, including NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The approach makes sense to Louis Virtel, a longtime fan whose vantage point is informed by writing for a game show (“Match Game”) and competing on “Jeopardy!” in 2015.
“It’s great to see all these different fill-ins. I’m open to suggestions, and I think most people are,” said Virtel, a “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” writer and co-host of the “Keep It” podcast. “‘Jeopardy!’ is a one-of-a-kind show, and the replacement should be tailored to the game.”
What makes for a good “Jeopardy!” host?
“I think establishing a sense of comfort (so) the audience just eases into the game,” Virtel said. “Also a sense of stakes, that a real tough game is being played. It’s called ‘Jeopardy!’ for a reason. The host is there to make sure we’re all on our toes.”
The try-outs are an unusually public form of auditioning, one that could cause flop sweat even for veteran emcees. For actor Bialik of “Blossom,” "The Big Bang Theory” and “Call Me Kat,” any nerves were crowded out by the demands of the job — and she's a neuroscientist.
“There is very little room for not being 100% dialed in to the job of hosting when you are on that stage,” Bialik said in an email. It proved the most "joyful, challenging, transcendent act I have undertaken — second only to giving birth to my second son on the floor of my living room.”
Back in the day, there were only a handful of pioneers like Betty White, the first female game show host to win a Daytime Emmy (for 1983's “Just Men!”), and Adam Wade, a Black singer who hosted the 1975 game show “Musical Chairs.” Wayne Brady, Steve Harvey and Meredith Vieira are among those who made further inroads, with pressure only growing on the entertainment industry to reflect America more broadly on screen.
But taking over for an authority figure like Trebek is harder on women and others not typically seen in such roles, said Sarma.
"The sorts of expectations placed on a person of color in a leadership position are usually higher than those placed on a white person in position of power," he said, and any error or “slight movement against the norm is jumped upon ... as some tremendous mistake.”
There could be backlash from those resentful that Trebek isn't replaced like-for-like, which Sarma said isn't far-fetched in this period of social discord.
“Sony is in a pickle,” he said.
Series producer Richards, the second temporary host after Trebek's pancreatic cancer death last November at age 80, holds an optimistic view despite the prospect of online trolls and whatever their gripes about the newbie may be.
“My hope is that whoever is chosen will be given a chance to prove why they were chosen, without too much static," he said. “Ultimately, we are trying to put out the best product for our fans. That tends to narrow your focus to a pretty nice North Star, as opposed to, ‘What’s the internet going to say?'”