‘Jeopardy!’ EP Mike Richards On Alex Trebek’s Final Episode, Successor Search & Late Host’s Love Of Comedy (And Those ‘SNL’ Spoofs)

The final Jeopardy! episode hosted by Alex Trebek, which airs Friday, will be remarkably unremarkable, with no farewell by the veteran host or any kind of personal message to viewers in his opening statement.

That is because “Alex didn’t think that was going to be his last episode,” Jeopardy executive producer Mike Richards told Deadline about the show, filmed some 10 days before Trebek died November 8 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. “He was planning on hosting the show the next week, that was his focus. And then when he wasn’t feeling well, he told me, ‘I am not going to be able to come this coming Monday-Tuesday but let’s look at the following Monday and Tuesday’; those were the days we shot. That was as late as Thursday of the week he passed away. He passed away Sunday morning.”

The January 8 show will be “a normal Jeopardy! episode,” Richards said, with Trebek saying “see you next time” and credits rolling. That will be followed by a tribute package celebrating Trebek’s legacy.

The last time Trebek addressed viewers in a personal manner was in the episode that aired Monday, when the beloved trivia-game host used his opening statement to deliver a powerful message about kindness, togetherness and giving.

“That was just something he decided to do in that moment,” Richards said of Trebek’s speech, which was followed by spontaneous applause in the studio.

As Richards and his team are putting the final touches on the last Trebek episodes, a search for his successor is also underway.

“The search is going very well, there are a lot of people very interested in hosting Jeopardy!, which is gratifying, and also appropriately reverent of the shoes they will be stepping into,” Richards said. “We have had some great conversations with people.”

Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings will be the first guest host after Trebek’s sign-off this week.

“Ken stepped in and did a great job for us as a guest host,” Richards said. “We will have a series of guest hosts throughout the spring.”

Richards would not discuss names, with Katie Couric believed to be on the list, as reported by the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

A permanent new host won’t be named before spring, Richards said.

“We are going to take our time and talk to a lot of people, have some people guest host and see what our fans think as well,” he said.

So, along with talking to big-name talent who could succeed Trebek without appearing on the show, Richards and executives at Sony Pictures TV, which produces Jeopardy!, will use guest-host stints as prospective auditions. Additionally, “you will also see big-name people who are not going to be considered for the role but they just love the show, love Alex and wanted to pay tribute,” Richards said. “So not everyone who comes on is auditioning. We are going to go in a lot of different directions, I don’t think we want to be in a hurry to name a new person. We all are still mourning the loss — certainly I am — of Alex, and I think just turning around and naming someone would be irresponsible and not thoughtful, which is antithesis of Jeopardy!

While Trebek’s death leaves a void, “the way I have chosen to take in my time with him was to be inspired by him,” Richards said. “He was so professional, so hard working, so intelligent and in all of that also incredibly kind. When you hear people say it will not be done like that again, that’s true, but but we can all aspire to do it that well again.”

Going forward with a new host, “the format will stay the same as it has for decades and decades; the format works great,” Richards said, adding that the producing team will continue to adjust and improve the show as they have done every season.

A reality and game show veteran, Richards was already a huge Jeopardy! and Trebek fan when he joined the program as executive producer in May.

“Part of the joy was getting to watch Alex who was as good a host as I have ever seen in my life, the little things he was able to do, the nuances, his ability to drive the game forward quickly, to slow down at the right point, interject humor, all of those things that he did masterfully that were almost unrecognizable when you just watched it from home, he was so good,” Richards said.

Humor came naturally to Trebek.

“Something I think a lot of people didn’t know — and I certainly didn’t before I started to work with him — is how much Alex loved comedy, loved stand-up comedy, loved written comedy, anything that would make him laugh,” Richards said.

That included the recurring Jeopardy sketches on Saturday Night Live in which Trebek was portrayed by Will Ferrell.

“He loved it, he thought it was so funny. The more they took shots at him, the funnier he thought it was,” Richards said. “He became a big Will Ferrell fan because of the impression, and I think that speaks to his humility. There are a lot of people who may not have liked that portrayal, and he absolutely loved it.”

Trebek maintained his sense of humor to the end despite the toll fighting cancer took on him. The host was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in May 2019. While he was not feeling well for most of his last 18 months as he underwent weekly chemotherapy treatment, he did did not talk about his pain much, Richards said.

“Toward the end he was more verbal about it with us in the office, when we were having a the morning meeting,” he said. “The most remarkable thing was, the worst shape he was in the morning when we saw him in the meeting, it was almost the inverse of — he would walk out (on stage), and he was unbelievable. He willed himself together, he collected himself in that hour between when we would meet and when the shows would start, and it was miraculous.”

Trebek, who hosted Jeopardy! for more than 36 years, “was incredibly diligent” about keeping the producers up to speed on the state of his health, telling them ahead of time which days he could work and which one we wouldn’t be able to.

“In a very typical Alex fashion, he was very straightforward, he didn’t sugarcoat it,” Richards said.

As a result, the show had to miss only one day of taping because of him.

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