The venerated game show host’s final episode aired Friday (but was taped on Oct. 29, just 10 days before his November death Nov. 8 at 80, of pancreatic cancer). Full of the tough questions, smart players and Trebek’s own quips, it was both a remarkable and average episode of the long-running quiz show. It ended with a 90-second montage of Trebek’s clips from the series.
On Monday, “Jeopardy!” went on without Trebek as champion. Instead, consulting producer and “Greatest of All Time” winner, Ken Jennings stepped up to the podium as the first in a series of interim hosts. (He taped 30 episodes, so will preside over the show for at least six weeks.)
Fans worried what “Jeopardy!” would look like without its patriarch need not despair over Jennings’ performance. A longtime friend of the game show, Jennings, 46, knows the tics and rhythms of an episode, and loved Trebek as much as (or more than) the rest of us. He may not be Trebek, but he is a worthy substitute.
“Sharing this stage with Alex Trebek was one of the greatest honors of my life,” Jennings said after he was introduced as guest host by announcer Johnny Gilbert. “Not many things in life are perfect, but Alex did this job pretty much perfectly for more than 36 years. And it was even better up close. We were dazzled by his intelligence, his charm, his grace – really, there’s no other word for it.”
Jennings’ voice broke as he continued, paying tribute to the host who oversaw his many wins on the series.
“Like all ‘Jeopardy!’ fans, I miss Alex, very much,” he said. “And I thank him for what 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.”
Even after seeing Jennings walk onto the set, it was jarring to hear his mellow voice read out the “Jeopardy” and “Double Jeopardy” categories and clues. Trebek’s voice was soothing and neutral, yet had a hint of mischievous zeal. He read thousands of clues to the contestants (61 per day), but viewers and contestants could never mistake his tone for one of boredom.
Jennings has almost mastered the way Trebek used inflection to make the clues sound both interesting and a little bit like questions. His boyish charm bubbled over as a contestant won a big “Daily Double” and genuine disappointment when another, who talked about her singing hobby, missed out on a clue with the correct response, “What is choir?”
As a host, Jennings has studied at the altar of Trebek and clearly tried to make as few waves as possible. A bit scripted and tense to start, he loosened up near the end of the episode. And once viewers get used to hearing a new voice read the clues, it’s possible to just enjoy the classic game show. The clues are the same, the “Daily Doubles” are still hidden and “Final Jeopardy” is as difficult as ever.
The winner will “be joining us tomorrow, and I hope you join us as well,” Jennings said as he wrapped up the show. “Thank you, Alex.”
As solid as his debut was, Jennings may not be at this job forever. In an interview with USA TODAY, he downplayed the idea that he could host permanently, and the Los Angeles Times reported that Katie Couric taped at least a week’s worth of episodes, in what appears to be a long-term plan to audition permanent hosts on-air. (Sony, which produces “Jeopardy!” declined comment.)
“I don’t want to have it because it means we don’t get Alex,” Jennings says. “It’s just sad for me to go out there, in a way, because I know that, like the audience, I wish it was Alex walking out at the top of the show.”
Still, the show must go on, Jennings says. “‘Jeopardy!’ (is) a ritual for people,” he says. “People rely on it.”
Contributing: Erin Jensen