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The great "Jeopardy!" hosting search continues: Seven guest hosts have appeared so far, from champion Ken Jennings to executive producer Mike Richards and "60 Minutes" correspondent Bill Whitaker, who wraps up his two-week stint Friday.
Many are vying for the permanent slot replacing Alex Trebek, who died in November, taping 10 episodes over two days. (The final five hosts taped five episodes apiece.) But as Whitaker told viewers Monday, presiding over a beloved quiz show requires a "totally different set of mental muscles" than his day job, and it's not as easy as it looks.
"The process is going really well; we’ve gotten better" at producing shows with multiple hosts by adapting to their skill sets, Richards says in a recent interview. "We had one guy that was beyond perfect at his job and did it for 37 years, so for us to shift from that to someone new every week or sometimes two new people in one week (of taping) was a challenge for us."
The list of guest hosts includes an NFL quarterback (Aaron Rodgers); a controversial talk show host (Dr. Oz); a brainy sitcom actor (Mayim Bialik); fan-favorite LeVar Burton, who's actively campaigned for the gig; and seven newscasters, from Katie Couric to Savannah Guthrie and Anderson Cooper to Robin Roberts. Nine more are still to come, starting Monday with 2016 champion Buzzy Cohen, who presides over the Tournament of Champions.
"You really are kind of changing the way you do the show subtly for every person that comes in the door," Richards says. "But the reactions have been positive, because (fans) are still seeing 'Jeopardy!' "
The naming of a new host marks a closely watched pop-culture milestone because Trebek was so beloved and the game has intellectual heft. But "certainly in my mind and Alex’s mind, the contestants and the material are the stars of the show," Richards says. "Very carefully, Alex was never introduced as the star of 'Jeopardy!'; he was the host of 'Jeopardy!' "
Taping for this wild 37th season ended last week, and guest-host episodes will continue airing through Aug. 13. Now executives will use focus groups of fans to measure reactions to the guest hosts. Richards expects a permanent replacement will be named by late July, when the show begins production for the new season that premieres Sept. 13. He discusses the process, the perils of relying on social media reaction and his own interest in the gig.
Question: How many of the guest hosts are serious candidates for the permanent slot?
Mike Richards: I would say a lot of them. I don't have the number. But that group is there because we think that they could be interesting at it. Certainly, there's people that are not actual candidates because of other jobs or whatever, but certainly many, I would say most (are interested).
Q: Has anybody surprised you with a performance as guest host?
Mike Richards: Interestingly, each person brings their own charm, ability, and strength that I've tried to guess ahead of time. And I haven't been great at it. Take Aaron Rodgers, just as an example: You didn't know what you were going to get … he's never really broadcasted before. I thought he would do a good job, but where his strengths were surprised me. He was better at throwing to a commercial. He was much better taking notes.
But everyone has come in so humble. It's a big group of what I consider famous, important people, and no one has come in with an ego at all. In fact, it's the opposite. And that's been probably the biggest surprise. They wouldn't put themselves in this situation to take on something that is this challenging if they weren't passionate about the show. It's been kind of refreshing that people care that much.
Q: Fans seemed to love your own early stint as host, as the show struggled to remain in production following Alex's death. Some wanted you to be named the permanent host.
Richards: I was very surprised by the reaction to me and very flattered. I think it speaks to the passion of our fan base that they can (embrace) a guy that's unknown. I've produced for a really long time, and I take great pride in my career path and my work ethic. So I prepared for that as well as I could, as intensely as I could, given a very short turnaround. It was neat to see because it could have gone the other way and been really bad.
Q: Would you take the job if it was offered?
Richards: I mean, it's the greatest job in television, although I may be biased. I would definitely consider it if Sony made that decision and wanted me to do it. It would be amazing. But my job (as executive producer) is to make sure that every guest that walks in that door does the greatest job they can. I give every ounce of my ability as a producer to give them every trick, every cheat, anything I can do to have them way overdeliver and actually turn in what I consider a "Jeopardy!"-level performance, and that's my focus.
Interestingly, having to do it (myself) gave me such perspective at the challenges that are unique to that show, that each person is facing. We’ve reworked much of how the host operates that show in a very short amount of time, and so if anything I'm able to give (hosts) Cliffs Notes at this point and get the best out of people in the short time that they have.
Q: There was a huge outcry from fans about LeVar Burton, who will finally get his chance to try out this summer. How much do you pay attention to social media campaigns, and do you feel any pressure to name a diverse candidate?
Richards: We want to hear from our fans, and I'm online every day looking at it and checking it out. But we've got to be careful about the 20,000 people or whatever that are screaming the loudest. We're pretty astute in the way that we approach that. What we're going to look for is the best candidate for the show, and we're not going to limit it to anyone based on anything. That would be the "Jeopardy!" way.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Jeopardy!' host search: Who will replace Alex Trebek? What we know