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LI 'Jeopardy!' contestants weigh in as the post-Trebek era begins

Ken Jennings starts his time as interim guest

Ken Jennings starts his time as interim guest host on "Jeopardy!" Credit: AP

Laura Mogul says she expected the call, mostly because she's had them before. Sometimes from reporters, sometimes friends or acquaintances, and "Jeopardy!" is always on their mind.

The East Norwich native, now of Port Washington, is happy to take this call, too. She has lots of thoughts on the subject, as well as an especially unique perspective. She was one of the youngest adult champions in the show's long history (as an 18-year-old Barnard freshman at the time) and one of the few to ever appear twice as a contestant, first when Art Fleming was host, then in 2016 when Alex Trebek was.

Off the dozen or so Long Islanders who have appeared on "Jeopardy!" over the decades, surely she has a considered opinion on the question of the moment, the one on everyone's mind, including those who might never have actually watched the show: What about this new guy, Ken Jennings?

Mogul, executive director of Port Washington's Landmark on Main, says "you tend to forget that [Trebek] was once the new guy too. The first time I went on — it was recorded in the fall of '72 and aired in January of 1973 — Art Fleming was the seasoned host and senior statesman at that point."

She patiently explains that everyone has to be "new" at some point, while Jennings is not "completely unknown to [viewers] and was on the show for so long that it became his natural habitat."

He's the "logical pick" to replace Trebek and "has the ability to be the permanent" host, too.

The BYU grad, father of two, and one-time frustrated computer programmer — also incidentally the most successful game show contestant in all of TV history — gets his chance to prove that starting Monday (7 p.m. on WABC/7). (His inaugural shows as host were taped last fall, in the weeks after Trebek's death.) He'd also be the first to admit just how monumental the challenge is.

"Jeopardy!" is and always has been TV's game show of steady habits, and to generations of devoted fans, that singular franchise with the indispensable host. To them, Trebek was the yin to the competition's yang — TV's very own Tai-Chi, where one was inconceivable without the other.

Characteristically, Trebek disagreed. Anyone could and eventually would replace him, he insisted in his memoir, "The Answer Is," published just before his death last November at the age of 80 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. "Jeopardy!" isn't about the host but about the game, he wrote.

In fact, Jennings, 46, is almost certainly the first of several "guest hosts'' to come because there's well-founded industry speculation that "Jeopardy!" producer Sony wants to explore options that it's never had a chance to until now.

For example, should a person of color host this franchise? A Change.org petition was launched recently in support of LeVar Burton, the "Star Trek: Next Generation" and "Roots'' star who has hosted public TV's "Reading Rainbow'' since 1983. He's been mentioned as a stand-in.

Should a woman? Katie Couric's name has been floated, although among current or former morning hosts, George Stephanopoulos has been floated more often. Agents and managers of many prominent news personalities have reached out to Sony to inquire about guest runs. A Sony spokeswoman said Wednesday the company would have no comment on future guest hosts.

For now, Jennings is the one. He's the fan favorite who ran the board 74 straight times in 2004, then went on to compete in "The IBM Challenge'' (2011), "Battle of the Decades'' (2011), and "All Star Games'' (2019), finally crowned best-of-all-time last year.

Since joining as show consultant last summer, he's been widely considered host-in-waiting but Jennings himself has become well-practiced at debunking the assumption. On a "Freakonomics'' podcast last October, for example, he told host Steven Levitt that "it's very flattering and I get asked that a lot [but] it's very troubling for me [too], mostly because it has to make me think of a version of 'Jeopardy!' without Alex Trebek. I'm not emotionally ready. People consider him a part of their family [and] I can't imagine a version of it that's post-Alex. I'm trying not to."

When asked during an appearance on "Good Morning America'' earlier this week, he said, "I'm like everyone else. When I hear that music, I don't want to see an interim host. I want to see Alex Trebek."

There's always the possibility that the very busy Jennings doesn't want the job either. He's a regular castmember on new ABC game show "The Chase," which launched Jan. 7; he is co-host of twice-weekly podcast "Omnibus" and he's a bestselling author of books for both adults ("Planet Funny," "Brainiac") and children (his "Junior Genius Guides" series).

As a potential "Jeopardy!" host, he might be a part-time one and how that would sit with viewers is among the unknowns. So is this: Should the host be as smart or smarter than the contestants — a know-it-all who has to pretend, clue after clue, episode after episode, that he's not?

Meanwhile, there is this complicating X-factor. A number of years ago he posted some jokes on Twitter that were vaguely scatological and offensive to people with disabilities, while this past week, web sleuths uncovered a handful of offensive Tweets once posted by his "Omnibus" co-host John Roderick. Jennings defended Roderick but has since apologized for his own Twitter missteps. Nevertheless, to some critics they remain scarlet letters while Trebek (they point out) never had one.

Which all leads to this question: Is there such a thing as the Perfect Trebek Replacement? If pressed on specifics about the ideal replacement, most fans might come up with words that best describe Wonder Bread: Bland, inoffensive, reliable. He or she should have personality, but not too much of one. Witty but not sarcastic. Funny but not jokey. In control but not a taskmaster.

But hosts aren't comfort food. They're people, with their own style, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Trebek had no discernible weaknesses as host of "Jeopardy!" but try to imagine him in another role — as, say, anchor of "World News Tonight" or even host of "Wheel of Fortune" — and the invincibility fades. He was perfect in this role and that's the genuine, perhaps insurmountable, challenge for Sony, Jennings or anyone else who follows him.

Frank Tangredi of West Babylon — who once competed on both "Jeopardy!" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" — says there's yet another intangible that is largely hidden to the viewer at home.

"The main job of a host is to make [the contestant] feel comfortable. That was true of ['Millionaire' host] Regis Philbin and true of Alex Trebek. They introduce themselves to you briefly before the show and their job is to make you feel comfortable but not secure. You can't feel secure up there in front of the camera but they can make you feel that you're in a nonhostile environment. Other game shows do exactly the opposite."

A professional editor and playwright who has also performed as an actor on stage, Tangredi says nerves were not a problem for him during his appearances "but for some people who might have a fear of speaking in public, the host can do a lot to ameliorate that."

West Islip native Dan McShane, who competed on five episodes in 2012, eventually winning $64,001, says his interactions with Trebek gave him a whole new perspective on the hosting role.

"I actually don't think just anyone can do it," says McShane, who now lives in Philadelphia. "It's much harder than just reading off the answers and calling out to whoever buzzes in first. One of the things you notice when you're actually taping it is just how fast everything goes, yet he's got to keep track of which shows he's actually taping [typically five per day are knocked off in succession] and keep track of the questions and categories, while also read everything without flubbing, and get it right on the first take."

"Over a half-hour taping, that's pretty impressive to watch."

Meanwhile, McShane says the host needs to project an "air of authority" without being an authority figure and be a "calming influence" as opposed to a narcotizing one.

"Yes, it would definitely be good to have a woman or person of color to host this, but whoever does is still going to be living in Alex Trebek's shadow for a while."

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