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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Abrupt exit of new Jeopardy! host Mike Richards rattles a TV institution

Sony said in a statement that it had been “surprised” to learn of Mike Richards’ offensive podcast comments, but praised him for leading Jeopardy! in the wake of Alex Trebek’s death.

By: New York Times |
August 21, 2021 10:54:55 am
mike richardsMike Richards stepped down after revelations of offensive and sexist comments he made on a podcast several years ago came to light. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Written by Michael M. Grynbaum, Nicole Sperling and Julia Jacobs

Mike Richards’ first and, as it turned out, last day of filming as the host of Jeopardy! began with a gathering that executives at the long-running quiz show hoped would symbolize a fresh start.

In a taped ceremony Thursday at the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, California, Sony revealed that the Jeopardy! studio would be renamed for Alex Trebek, the beloved host who died last year. Richards smiled as cameras rolled and Trebek’s widow and children looked on.

Less than 24 hours later, Richards had quit his hosting gig, Jeopardy! production was placed on hold, and the show’s fans were struggling to understand how a television institution and staple of the U.S. living room could have botched a succession plan after 37 years of stability and success.

Richards stepped down Friday after revelations of offensive and sexist comments he made on a podcast several years ago, just nine days after Sony announced his new role with great fanfare. He wrote in a staff memo that “moving forward as host would be too much of a distraction for our fans and not the right move for the show.”

Jeopardy!, which first aired in 1964, is supposed to be TV’s comfort food, an un-glitzy redoubt from politics and tribulations. Richards’ abrupt rise and fall plunged the show into the culture wars of 2021, subjecting it to intense debates, especially on social media, over questions of privilege, diversity and workplace culture.

The show’s “appeal is its reliability and timelessness,” said Ken Jennings, a former champion and a Jeopardy! consulting producer. “It’s one of the last pure things in a troubled age. And I hate that something pure like that has to be sullied by backstage drama.”

Sony said Richards would remain as executive producer. But he must contend with a dispirited Jeopardy! staff whose frustrations erupted in an emotional meeting Thursday, where crew members told Richards his past behavior had imperiled the show’s reputation, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive internal discussions.

Richards was already facing a furor before this week. As the show’s executive producer, Richards helped oversee the search for Trebek’s replacement before Sony picked him over fan favorites like actor LeVar Burton. Old lawsuits had revealed accusations of sexist behavior at his last job overseeing The Price Is Right. (He disputes the claims.)

Until Wednesday, it seemed like Richards and Sony had weathered the storm.

Then a report in The Ringer, by journalist Claire McNear, revealed a series of offensive comments Richards made on a podcast he once ran called The Randumb Show. In a 2013 episode, Richards joked about women who “dress like a hooker” on Halloween; in another episode, he called his female co-host a “booth slut” because she once worked as a model at a consumer show in Las Vegas. He described women who wear one-piece swimsuits as looking “really frumpy and overweight” and referred to stereotypes about Jews and large noses.

Richards, a stand-up comedian turned game show impresario, was serving as executive producer of The Price Is Right at the time he made the comments, which prompted the Anti-Defamation League to call for an investigation.

“I’m not quite sure he understands how hurtful and how problematic his past behavior was,” the league’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in an interview after Richards quit. “He didn’t apologize for the harm. He just apologized to his colleagues for causing unwanted negative attention and production delays.”

Richards’ podcast remarks also echoed some claims made against him in the Price of Right lawsuits, including allegations that he had balked when one of the show’s on-air models announced that she was pregnant with twins. According to the lawsuit, Richards put his face in his hands and told her, “Twins? Are you serious?”

The case was eventually settled. Richards said in a statement this month that the allegations do “not reflect the reality of who I am.”

Andy Saunders, who runs the website The Jeopardy! Fan and is a vocal online commentator about the show, said he was surprised that Richards would remain as the show’s executive producer.

“It feels like he doesn’t quite realize the gravity of his mistake and thinks that if he just stays behind the scenes, then everything will blow over,” Saunders said in an interview. He said Sony made a “massive mistake” by not properly vetting the new host and noted that Richards’ podcast was posted on the internet.

“Either they didn’t listen to it, or they did listen to it and didn’t think it was a problem — both of which would be major errors,” Saunders said.

At the taping Thursday in Culver City, Richards was joined by Anthony Vinciquerra, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s CEO, and Ravi Ahuja, its TV chairman. Two other contenders for Trebek’s job, former contestants Jennings and Buzzy Cohen, also came, expecting to attend Richards’ debut taping.

Instead, Cohen and Jennings were escorted from the soundstage to a nearby green room, where they watched the taping over a closed feed. They were told that Richards was too nervous to have them in the studio, according to three people familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One of the people likened it to inviting Joe DiMaggio back to Yankee Stadium and then not letting him in the dugout.

Sony said access to the taping was restricted because of pandemic protocols limiting the number of people in the studio; Vinciquerra was not on the soundstage, either.

The search to replace Trebek, who hosted the show for 37 years, included a parade of guest hosts like Anderson Cooper, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Buck and others. One contender was virtually unknown to the audience: Richards, who started as executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune last year.

Initially, Richards spoke dispassionately about the search, telling The New York Times in January that he wanted the show’s audience to weigh in on the selection and that the new host should not be merely doing an “impression of Alex.” He did not mention that he might also be in the running.

“I believe there will be pressure and stress on whoever that person is,” he said of the prospective new host.

Sony has said that Richards moved aside from the selection process after he emerged as a candidate; the ultimate decision was made by Vinciquerra. But as executive producer, Richards retained a key role in determining which tapes of prospective hosts would be screened for the focus groups that Sony was studying closely. Other supervising Jeopardy! producers were excluded from that process.

Richards’ selection had drawn particularly fierce objections from a legion of fans lobbying on social media for Burton, the longtime host of the PBS children’s series Reading Rainbow. Burton was a guest host in July and had campaigned for the permanent role, saying he felt like he had been preparing his entire life to host Jeopardy! and that it would be a significant for a Black person to occupy the role for the first time. A representative for Burton declined to comment on Friday.

The show’s search will now start again with another series of guest hosts. Richards’ week of telecasts, including five episodes that he filmed Thursday, are set to air the week of Sept. 13. Mayim Bialik, the sitcom star, will remain as host of Jeopardy! prime-time specials.

On Friday, Sony said in a statement that it had been “surprised” to learn of Richards’ offensive podcast comments, but praised him for leading Jeopardy! in the wake of Trebek’s death. “It is our hope that as executive producer he will continue to do so with professionalism and respect,” Sony said.

The studio declined to comment beyond its prepared statement.

In his memo Friday, Richards wrote, “It pains me that these past incidents and comments have cast such a shadow on ‘Jeopardy!’ as we look to start a new chapter.”

He concluded, “I know I have a lot of work to do to regain your trust and confidence.”

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