In January of 2019, less than two months before Alex Trebek revealed his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Anneke Garcia made her Jeopardy! debut. Beyond joining a community she’d longed to join for so much of her life, part of the thrill of being a four-time champion was the rare feeling of recognition that it gave her as a self-described “non-model woman” on television.
Disappointment has corroded that memory. After all, Mike Richards produced Garcia’s episodes—and as Jeopardy! fans recently learned from his old podcast, he doesn’t have much use for women who don’t double as set decoration.
Richards fired himself as co-host last week after the Anti-Defamation League called for an investigation into offensive comments he made as host of a behind-the-scenes The Price Is Right podcast in 2013. (Choice moments include the deployment of an antisemitic stereotype as a joke and the awkward conversation in which Richards grilled his female co-host about whether she’d ever taken “booby pics”—and the remark that one-piece swimsuits make women look “frumpy and overweight.”)
(Sony declined The Ringer’s request for comment about the podcast, but a Sony source told the publication that the studio hadn’t known about the podcast, titled “The Randumb Show,” or that Richards had recently scrubbed them from the web. Richards apologized in a statement, writing in part, “It is humbling to confront a terribly embarrassing moment of misjudgment, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity from nearly a decade ago. Looking back now, there is no excuse, of course, for the comments I made on this podcast and I am deeply sorry.”)
That debacle, coupled with previously revealed harassment and discrimination lawsuits The Price Is Right saw during Richards’ tenure, was evidently enough to make this Icarus of broadcast realize his wings had begun to melt.
But The New York Times reports that although Richards will no longer be the face of Jeopardy!, he will stay on as executive producer following some “sensitivity training.” He will also have a minder watching his every move. The former contestants who spoke with The Daily Beast all used slightly different words to describe their feelings about the situation—“dismaying” and “disheartening” each came up, as did “gobsmacked.” But the sentiment was unanimous. As five-time champion Kristin Sausville put it, “I think the main feeling of the community right now is: betrayed.”
When her episodes first aired and the positive feedback began rolling in, Garcia told The Daily Beast she felt “so validated for being a nerd my whole life and making something good out of that.’” After the Richards news, “It was like, ‘Oh wait, just kidding.’”
Garcia worries that Richards’ misogynistic comments could have a “chilling effect” on potential female contestants in the future.
“Jeopardy! was a show that pretty much all of us had been wanting to be on for our entire lives,” Sausville said. “We trusted when we showed up on the set that we were going to be treated as equal and treated with respect, and we were.”
Now, many of those same contestants wonder how this could have happened.
Arthur Chu, the 11-time champion who rose to fame as a Jeopardy! villain in 2014, has found himself baffled by the entire side show. Had it not been for the colossal unforced error of putting Richards forward as a possible replacement for one of the greatest game show hosts of all time, he said, the EP could have lived on for years as just “another problematic showbiz guy with a very well-paying job behind the camera.” (Chu has contributed to The Daily Beast.)
Richards’ hubris is not even akin to shooting oneself in the foot, Chu said. “It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror and shooting yourself in the face… You couldn’t intentionally sabotage the show worse than this.”
Sony’s reported support for Richards makes one wonder who, precisely, would feel secure hosting the show while the allegedly ruthless man who just gave up the role remains their boss. “It feels like they threw us a bone,” Garcia said. “Well, of course he won’t host, but he’s still there calling the shots.”
Even before Richards threw his hat in the ring for another on-camera gig (per The Ringer, he auditioned to host The Price Is Right before Drew Carey landed the job) the buzz around him was allegedly less than stellar. Said Chu, “I remember people saying, oh, Mike Richards, he’s not very popular, is he? In the game show world, all of these people had negative things to say about him.”
To Garcia, the tsunami of recent exposés prove that the search for Trebek’s replacement was never based on merit or integrity. “It was about a show business guy getting to do what he wants.”
But the host sideshow has also obscured equally seismic changes behind the camera, these contestants said—one of which has allegedly become a “really ugly” legal dispute.
“It was about a show business guy getting to do what he wants.”
Harry Friedman, the longtime Jeopardy! executive producer whom Richards stepped in to replace after his retirement in 2019, made the Trebek-fronted game show revival what it is. He holds Guinness world records for both most Emmy Award nominations for a game show producer (48) and wins (14). Maggie Speak, a longtime producer and Trebek’s “right hand,” retired last year—and Glenn Kagan, a longtime coordinator, alleges that producers pushed him out of his longtime role that same year. He alleged age discrimination in a lawsuit last fall. (Kagan alleges producers began sidelining him in 2016, before Richards came aboard.)
“People don’t realize,” Chu said, “the behind-the-scenes stuff is as important as the on-camera stuff.” For decades, Chu said, Speak has been something of a “mom” to the Jeopardy! family; Kagan was “the dad.” The dispute between Kagan and Sony, he said, was unduly contentious. Chu clarified that he’s not saying either side is correct. Still, he said, “I haven’t heard about a termination like that on Jeopardy! before. I don’t know, but whoever made that decision, whoever let that happen that way, that’s ugly stuff. That’s not what I want to associate my memories with.”
Garcia, too, raised Speak and Kagan’s absence as a loss for the show—and another ominous sign of the changes to come. “They were the personalities that made our experience so good,” she said. “This is just the Richards era, and it’s like, ‘OK, the suits are the ones calling the shots and it’s not the same show.’”
The Richards debacle also might’ve cost Jeopardy! its cachet among some trivia fans. Members of Garcia’s group chat vowed not to watch the show anymore with Richards as host. With him still there as EP, they worry “it’s just not ever going to be what it was before.” Some of Sausville’s trivia friends, meanwhile, have said they’re no longer interested in auditioning for the show. She wonders “how women and Jewish people can feel safe on the set as contestants, as staff.”
“This is just the Richards era, and it’s like, ‘Okay, the suits are the ones calling the shots and it’s not the same show.’”
Soon after we hung up, Sausville sent a written follow-up message: “J! has always been known for its integrity, which is critical for a show about facts,” she wrote. “It’s sacrificing that integrity by keeping Mike Richards as EP, and runs a real risk of long-term damage to its reputation and perception.”
If the powers that be behind Jeopardy! want to prove that they’re taking the issues surrounding Richards seriously, alums say, they’ll need to take some decisive action.
“The show needs to suck up and do whatever they need to do in order to make Mike Richards not the EP anymore,” Sausville said. “I think it’s inappropriate for him to even be supervising women, and we know from his tenure as EP at The Price Is Right that other women who have worked for him agree.”
Beyond giving Richards the swift kick in the derriere he deserves, Sausville suggested that producers ask Friedman if he would be willing to consult on a temporary basis during the transition once a new host has been found. “I don’t know if he’s interested or not, but he did a fantastic job for a very long time, and they should definitely at the very least consult him,” she said.
At the same time, Chu pointed out that no grand gesture can repair the damage overnight—after all, robust apologies come cheap in Hollywood; true accountability is harder to find. “When you break someone’s trust, it takes time to build it back up,” he said.
“I think the really worrying thing about it is, what I sense from them is that they don’t have respect for that,” Chu added. “They kind of see Jeopardy! as a cash cow… When Alex died, they saw an opportunity to juice more ratings on top of that. And that’s a very tough thing to get over.”
When asked who they’d like to see as permanent host, the contestants shouted out a few common names: Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Buzzy Cohen, and of course LeVar Burton. In addition to Laura Coates, the CNN legal analyst who Trebek suggested could replace him in a 2018 TMZ interview, Sausville praised Aaron Rodgers for his well reviewed guest turn—especially the intense preparation he put into it.
“I would like to see them pick a woman or a person of color to show that they are more interested in evolving,” Garcia said. “If you look at the TV that’s out there… You don’t have to just put ‘safe’ white men on TV anymore to keep your audience.”
To Chu, the question of who would make a good host for this beloved series comes down to personality. It needs to be someone who will commit to the show long-term—and who won’t view the position as a stepping stone or a boost to their brand.
“It shouldn’t be about the audition,” Chu said. “If you want this to be a long-term gig, you want the kind of person who will dedicate themselves over time.”
The frontrunner to replace Richards so far appears to be Mayim Bialik, who has taken over to film three weeks of episodes while Sony searches for a permanent replacement. The Big Bang Theory alum’s sitcom schedule reportedly precludes her from taking the job full-time, but TMZ reports that Sony executives are eager to get her on board.
But hiring Bialik might not be the smartest move; she, too, has some ugly skeletons in her closet.
“Her anti-vaccine comments have bothered me for years,” Sausville said. “I was on parenting message boards, mommy groups, at the same time that her book came out in 2012. I cannot tell you how many vaccine fights I got into with people who would say, ‘But Mayim Bialik doesn’t vaccinate her children and she has a PhD in neuroscience!”
Between that and the time the ex-Blossom star was forced to apologize for shaming Harvey Weinstein victims, Sausville said, “I think that Sony really needs to go back to the drawing board here.”
At one point while we discussed possible host choices, Chu paraphrased something that Trebek said as they taped his first episodes. It was a line he’d been repeating for years: “If he had to give a piece of advice to his successor, whoever his successor would be, it would be to stay out of the way.”
To Trebek, being a game show host was difficult because although you do all the talking, the proceedings are never about you. “Nobody really wants to watch the same person do ‘The Alex Trebek Show’ every night.”
“The contestants are the star of the show,” Chu recalls the host saying. The host’s job, above all, is to facilitate “their stories in the competition—moments of triumph, or defeat.”
What might this moment become?