Mike Richards’s Past Comments Cost Him New ‘Jeopardy!’ Hosting Job And Leave Sony In A Bind

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Alex Trebek’s reign as host of America’s most-watched quiz show lasted 8,310 episodes over nearly 37 seasons. His putative replacement lasted but one day and five episodes.

Just over a week after having been named the permanent host of the syndicated version of “Jeopardy!,” Mike Richards announced on Friday he would no longer remain in the role, but would continue to serve as the show’s executive producer. The shocking development and the events that preceded it raise numerous questions about this year’s host search, and the status of the show going forward.

Skeletons Unearthed

Richards resigned on the heels of a report in The Ringer published last Wednesday evening — the night before “Jeopardy!” began taping for its 38th season. Among other things, the report revealed old episodes of “The Randumb Show,” a podcast Richards hosted, where he made disparaging comments calling his co-host a “booth ho” and “booth slut;” in another instance, he claimed that one-piece swimsuits make women “look frumpy and overweight.”

Lest one consider the Richards expose a mere example of “cancel culture,” the problems it exposed go much deeper than that. To start with, the comments came after Richards became entangled in sexual and pregnancy discrimination lawsuits as executive producer of “The Price Is Right.” Making such comments after the prior litigation shone a bright light on the potential consequences of glib, insensitive, and offensive remarks demonstrates a shockingly unprofessional combination of recklessness, arrogance, and stupidity. Perhaps it wasn’t called the “Randumb” podcast for nothing.

Second, Sony admitted it had no idea about the prior comments — even as the hosting search drew renewed attention to Richards’ involvement in the discrimination lawsuits. Days prior to the announcement he would become “Jeopardy’s” permanent host, Richards made a point of writing a memo to the staff — which someone theatrically leaked to the media — stating that the substance of the Price lawsuit “does not reflect the reality of who I am.”

This space wrote last week that the “concerns” surrounding the lawsuit “did not dissuade Sony from hiring [Richards] as host.” In retrospect, however, it appears Sony only hired him as host because Richards did not tell them the whole story — about both his podcast comments, and potentially about much else.

Rigged Process?

The Ringer piece also shed light on the “Jeopardy!” host audition process that led to Richards’ selection. Several pieces of its reporting do suggest that Richards attempted to influence the process, not least by playing up (or even creating) the conflict with Ken Jennings’ schedule that led to Richards’ guest-hosting stint.

In fairness, Richards showed a fair bit of competence while behind the lectern, even if he admitted previously he doesn’t consider himself much of an intellectual. And of course fans of a particular guest host have reason to doubt the validity of a process that resulted in someone else getting selected.

But reports in The Ringer and The New York Times suggest that Richards and Richards alone decided which of the guest hosts’ episodes would be sent to focus groups for testing. To deliberately exclude someone like Rocky Schmidt — a contestant in the show’s second season, and a producer since well before I appeared on the program in 1995 — at minimum raises questions of impropriety. And deliberately excluding Jennings and Buzzy Cohen — two guest hosts and former champions — from the soundstage while Richards taped his first (and ultimately last) shows as host last Thursday looks both classless and petty.

Many Tough Questions

The whole affair means “Jeopardy!” faces a logistical nightmare in the short term and many existential questions in the longer term. In the next few weeks, the production team (still headed by Richards for the time being) has to put together a show rotation on extremely short notice.

Taping did go-ahead for the opening episodes of “Jeopardy!’s” 38th season last Thursday, one day after The Ringer’s story published, and one day before Richards announced his resignation as host. That means “Jeopardy!” has one week’s worth of episodes, for shows airing September 13 through 17, in the proverbial can.

Variety confirmed those episodes will not get re-taped, but they may get re-edited. For instance, Johnny Gilbert’s opening introductions may not call Richards “the host of Jeopardy!” And whatever opening remarks Richards made during the premiere episode of the show’s 38th season, when he thought he had become the show’s permanent host, may get edited or revised to reflect developments since that show taped on Thursday.

For shows beyond September 17, “Jeopardy!” needs to come up with a game plan ASAP. They need to find guest hosts pronto, preferably ones who live in the Los Angeles area, or can travel on short notice.

They also need to provide clarity for upcoming contestants, who are following this drama in real-time and uncertain of what it means for them. In most cases, “Jeopardy!” does not pay for contestants’ travel expenses, so juggling the taping schedule to accommodate things like Richards’ resignation poses real financial and logistical burdens.

Longer-Term Issues

In the longer term, it seems highly unlikely that Richards can remain as executive producer of either “Jeopardy!” or “Wheel of Fortune.” The fact that Sony or Richards find his conduct so inappropriate that he cannot remain as host, but not so inappropriate that he cannot continue to produce the show, strikes one as inherently illogical. In the short term, that position may have something to do with continuity — not wanting to replace a host and an executive producer at the same time, and right at the start of the television season — but it seems untenable in the long run.

Beyond that, the “Jeopardy!” production staff rightly view Richards’ actions as a betrayal both of the show and of them. While Trebek’s death made Johnny Gilbert the only “Jeopardy!” staffer remaining from the show’s 1984 relaunch as a syndicated program, many staff have stayed with the show for decades.

If Richards remains as producer without a succession plan being announced in the near future, staff could well mutiny, for justifiable reasons. The staff feel he embarrassed them, and put the show’s future in jeopardy (pun intended) for largely selfish reasons.

Moreover, whoever gets selected as the new host would likely not want to work for a producer who not only wanted that host’s job, but had that hosting job (at least for a hot second). For a lot of reasons, then, Richards should be on his way out at “Jeopardy!” probably not within weeks, but within months.

Restart the Search

In addition to replacing Richards as producer, Sony Pictures Entertainment should take two other steps. First, it needs to conduct an entirely new search for a host, and do so from scratch. Even though this space called the search long-running, because it was, the fact that Richards apparently had a thumb, and quite possibly a fist, on the scale makes everything associated with that process tainted.

Partisans rooting for people like Ken Jennings or LeVar Burton immediately pushed for their candidate to get the “Jeopardy!” hosting job. But lest one forget, Jennings has his own history of intemperate remarks, which resurfaced earlier this year as his episodes as guest host prepared to air.

If Sony didn’t vet their in-house candidate in Richards properly — and they didn’t — then it’s fair to assume they didn’t vet their other candidates thoroughly either. Moreover, for all we know, Richards could have attempted to exclude guest hosts he thought might have threatened his shot at getting the permanent gig.

To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, at this point Sony doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about its other candidates. It needs to begin at square one, and start the process from scratch.

Back to Basics

Beyond that, Sony should do one other thing with “Jeopardy!”: Nothing.

No prime-time specials, no flashy new gimmicks, no changes to the format or content, for two to three years after the new host is in place. Beg the staff to stay on and even ask some of those who had retired to come back. Having Harry Friedman, who served as executive producer of both “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” through the spring of 2020, return as an interim producer for the next year or two would provide continuity and a way for Richards to exit both programs — which he needs to do.

This space suggested last week that Sony’s decision to launch other specials represented an attempt to expand the “Jeopardy!” branch’s reach. To put it more crassly, they saw more dollar signs on the table and wanted to cash in.

That move has now backfired spectacularly, with a show and a franchise in chaos. The best thing Sony can do now involves the old adage: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Hire good guest hosts (and eventually a permanent host), don’t mess with their prior success, and move on from Mike Richards. The sooner, the better.

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