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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Ken Jennings broke 'Jeopardy!' in 2004. In 2022, he helped save it.

    CULVER CITY, Calif. — On television, an episode of "Jeopardy!" moves with a satisfying swiftness, but during a taping, the game can abruptly screech to a halt. One incident in October saw a contestant offer a response that was initially deemed wrong, but it was an unexpected guess. So just to double-, triple- and quadruple-check that no one missed anything while constructing the clue, a panel of judges — sitting near the stage with laptops, piles of papers, books and Webster's Dictionary — stopped the proceedings to do more research.

    During these moments, host Ken Jennings emerges from the lectern and strolls across the stage like a low-key superhero in a fancy suit, arriving to rescue the audience from 10 minutes of boredom. "Does anyone have any questions?"

    Hands shoot up across the rows in the chilly room at Sony Pictures Studios: How many people apply for the show? About 100,000 every year. Around 400 make it. What is behind the lectern? Jennings has a tablet, and fellow host Mayim Bialik uses a complicated highlighter system for Final Jeopardy. Is Jennings friends with other "Jeopardy!" champions? He is tight with James Holzhauer, the 2019 phenom who came this close to breaking the earnings record that Jennings held from 2004, but he has had to scale back, because hosts are not supposed to hang out with contestants.

    "Which, if you have met James, is not the hugest loss," Jennings says, as the audience cracks up at the unexpected burn from the mild-mannered trivia king. "Just kidding. He is lovely." Eventually, producers give the go-ahead to restart. The contestant's answer is confirmed incorrect. "You will watch that on TV," Jennings tells the audience during another such break, "and it will all be like a wonderful dream."

    Jennings, 48, often thinks about life's funny timing. If he had not gone on a road trip with a friend to try out for "Jeopardy!" right around when the show lifted its limit of five games, he never would have stunned the world by reeling off 74 wins in a row, never would have won about $2.5 million, never would have become a celebrity instead of living the alternate version of his life, in which he envisions himself as "a mildly unhappy Salt Lake City computer programmer."

    And he really never would have predicted that he would one day replace the legendary Alex Trebek. As proof, we direct you to Jennings's Reddit username, which is WatsonsBitch. "See, that is the kind of thing you do when you are absolutely convinced you are not going to be host of 'Jeopardy!,'" Jennings said, laughing, during an interview after the taping. (The name is a reference to IBM supercomputer Watson, the machine that crushed Jennings in a competition-slash-ratings stunt in 2011.)

    He is sitting in his dressing room and has changed into jeans and a gray "Late Show With David Letterman" shirt, one he is pretty sure was in his gift bag in 2004 when he was invited to deliver "The Top 10 Ways to Irritate Alex Trebek." (No. 9: "Instead of responding, get his attention by throwing nickels at his head.") This was once Trebek's dressing room, and one of the last places that Jennings saw Trebek before the host died of pancreatic cancer in November 2020. Jennings gave him a hug.

    "I don't know if he was a hugger, but I just wanted him to know how much he meant to people. And he did," said Jennings, who estimated that Trebek received 100,000 cards after his diagnosis. "He was like, 'For most people, the nice stuff is not said until they die, and I get to hear it while I'm still alive.'"

    The death of the 80-year-old Trebek was an emotional blow to Jennings and the longtime crew, not to mention the millions of viewers who heard Trebek's rich, authoritative baritone for 36 years. Replacing one of the most beloved television figures was never going to be easy, but few could have predicted the disaster that unfolded in the search to find Trebek's successor.

    Last summer, after a string of celebrity guest hosts, executive producer Mike Richards accepted the job himself, only to be forced to step down days later when an article published by the Ringer revealed that he made offensive remarks about women, Jewish people and Haiti on his former podcast, and reported that morale behind the scenes "deteriorated" under his reign. Richards soon left the show entirely.

    Suddenly, America's favorite quiz show was engulfed in controversy. So when Jennings was announced as one of the two permanent hosts in July after serving as guest host alongside Bialik for months, it was a relief to staff members and viewers alike who had fond memories of his history-making 2004 run.

    Everyone was thrilled to have a familiar face back on-screen, someone who restored a sense of calm after the tumult made even worse by the pandemic. He and Bialik are splitting host duties. Her next episodes will air early next year, and she helms the prime-time specials. Jennings is hosting the first part of the current Season 39.

    "I think the reason he helped steady the show is because he belonged there," said Maggie Speak, a "Jeopardy!" producer who worked with contestants for more than two decades before she retired in 2020. "He knows that stage better than anybody."

    Although Jennings will politely ignore a suggestion that he saved the show ("It took many people making good decisions to save 'Jeopardy!'") and raves about the gig with his fellow host ("I still have to pinch myself; I can't believe I get to do this in conjunction with Mayim"), he is happy if his presence is helpful to anyone. He was disappointed to see the mess spill out into public view, adding that "Jeopardy!" serves better as comfort food rather than "click-baity headlines."

    "There was something that aesthetically didn't feel very 'Jeopardy!' about people caring about the backstage drama. It just distracts from the beauty of the show," he said. "And the drama kind of went against that, just the reliability that I think 'Jeopardy!' should symbolize. And I'm relieved to have that back."

    Rewind to the 2000s and Jennings vividly recalls the surreal nature of instant fame: the talk-show invitations, his toddler son referring to him as "Ken Jennings," sports columnist Bill Simmons calling him a "smarmy know-it-all with the personality of a hall monitor," writing that he both revered Jennings and "hoped Alex Trebek would punch him in the face." (Jennings wound up calling his loan-out company Hall Monitor.)

    Another thing he remembers is the grandmas. When they spotted him in public, people would pull out their phones and start dialing their grandmas. "The thing that I learned as champion just from people coming up to me on the street or people wanting to put their grandma on the phone, is how much of a ritual purpose 'Jeopardy!' serves in people's lives," Jennings said. "Everybody has these fond multigenerational memories, and people just rely on it as part of their day. And I can't think of another show like that anymore."

    As an American institution, "Jeopardy!" is like no other. Sure, you have "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price Is Right," but "Jeopardy!" is the rare program that celebrates intelligence and knowledge: highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between. Even more critically in the age of misinformation, it is a place where, as Jennings has said, "questions have answers, and correct answers, and facts matter," where a team of people pore over books to ensure every detail is correct.

    "I don't want to overstate what it means in the culture, but I really do think there is something to that," he said, noting that "Jeopardy!" viewers span the ideological spectrum. "Even as a kid, I liked that about game shows, that it was a version of life that always had a reassuring ping or a stern buzz," he added. "We want to make the point that facts are facts, no matter how you vote."

    Its reliability — on every weekday, often in the cozy confines of dinnertime — is a major factor in the emotional chord it strikes in people and why it continues to average about 20 million viewers per week. It is another reason the Richards incident, not long after Trebek's death, struck such a nerve, not only for viewers, but also for the normally steadfast show where employees have worked for many years. Richards had replaced longtime executive producer Harry Friedman, who retired in 2020. (Michael Davies, the current executive producer who replaced Richards, was not available for comment for this story.)

    "It was certainly a tough time for us. ... We're a show that has been around for 39 seasons, and we're very much used to things going a certain way," said Sarah Whitcomb Foss, a producer and former Clue Crew member who has worked on the show since 2001. "Ken was a constant in that he was something that remained from the past and I would say carried us over. ... He was the continuity and history, and Mayim had so much heart. ... Those two people with the best of intentions really created the situation we have now."

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