Although the expression “a hard act to follow” has its roots in vaudeville, it now feels like the only phrase that does justice to one of the least vaudevillian stars who ever lived: Alex Trebek.
Trebek, who died earlier this month, had hosted the syndicated game show “Jeopardy!’' since 1984. So the White House isn’t the only venue where a major transition is about to take place.
An oracular if seldom electric presence, Trebek presided over “Jeopardy!” with a blend of cordiality, formality, and imperturbability. Although he could sometimes display a dry wit, his exchanges with contestants during the show’s tell-me-your-life-story interludes were often, let’s be honest, pretty stilted. Still, there was something endearing about Trebek’s stolidity. He made it (to borrow from Huey Lewis) hip to be square, and “Jeopardy!” became “part of Americana,” as Trebek himself once noted.
To retain that kind of salience in the wider precincts of pop culture, “Jeopardy!’' may need to find a host who can shake things up, while also pleasing its base of avid, exacting fans. No small task. For a show famously built on providing answers in the form of a question, none looms larger than: Who should succeed Alex Trebek?
Herewith, a somewhat fanciful (but maybe not?) wish list of 10 candidates who could deliver a jolt of new energy to a venerable TV institution:
Maya Rudolph Hey, the woman has played a celestial Judge (on NBC’s “The Good Place”) and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (on “Saturday Night Live”), so we know she can project authority and possesses leadership skills. Beyond that, Rudolph has a proven gift for spontaneity — it’s hard to succeed in live sketch comedy without it — and she projects the kind of breezy confidence and sheer likability that would make her a good fit as “Jeopardy!” host. One of the most protean performers around, Rudolph is the go-to actress for producers intent on livening up their projects, from Adam Sandler’s “Hubie Halloween” on Netflix, to voicing animated characters on Fox’s “Bless the Harts” and Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” to narrating Hulu’s “Eater’s Guide to the World.” But I’m guessing Rudolph would somehow find room in her schedule for the “Jeopardy!” gig — especially since the syndication market is pretty much the only world she hasn’t conquered.
Jon Stewart Dear Jon: Your country needs you. And as far as I’m concerned, you owe us. As the sharpest political satirist of our time, you got a lot of us through the Bush years. Your scorching wit on “The Daily Show” offered a nightly catharsis. But then you stepped down from your anchor chair in 2015. That left us to fend for ourselves during the protracted nightmare of the Trump years. (Thank heaven for your pal Colbert.) Beyond your cleverness, it seems to me that your righteous anger and general rebelliousness could put the jeopardy in “Jeopardy!” Think about it, Jon: How much fun would it be to invite Tucker Carlson, Bill O’Reilly, and Jim Cramer to participate in “Celebrity Jeopardy!” — and then take them apart once again?
Kenan Thompson The longtime “Saturday Night Live” stalwart has made “Black Jeopardy!” must-viewing, but satirical synergy is far from the only reason he would be an inspired choice. Thompson, who still seems underrated to me, is the living embodiment of the old adage: “A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny.” In other words, he’s not reliant on the “SNL” writers to generate laughs (and a good thing, too). Thompson’s skill at wringing in-the-moment humor out of very thin gruel would enable him to thrive in a syndicated showcase. And he’s got a kind of expansive warmth and friendliness that would enable him to bond with contestants and audience alike. Heck, Thompson even made the MAGA-hat wearing guy played by Tom Hanks feel at home on “Black Jeopardy!” — at least until the very end.
Maggie Haberman The New York Times reporter has been the premier chronicler of the Trump years, working her insider sources to rack up one front-page scoop after another. Consequently, Haberman has been an in-demand presence on TV, where she projects a no-nonsense, old-school, tabloid-trained demeanor. So why not have a journalist — someone in the fact-gathering business — presiding over “Jeopardy!,” a show that is all about proven facts? Besides, I’d love to see whether Haberman could maintain her poker face as she announces the “Jeopardy!” category of “Worst president in United States history.”
Tina Fey This kinda feels like a match made in TV heaven, as long as Fey hosts “Jeopardy!” in the guise of her “30 Rock” alter ego, Liz Lemon. The head writer on a late-night comedy show, Liz pretty much lived for television, voraciously watching it when she wasn’t creating it. Liz believed that television had all the answers; she worshiped Oprah Winfrey so completely that she once hallucinated a conversation with Winfrey aboard an airplane. And long before the pandemic made staying at home a thing, Liz enunciated what amounts to a couch potato’s creed: “One of my New Year’s resolutions is to say ‘Yes!’ Yes to love, yes to life, yes to staying in more!” In that spirit, let’s resolve to say “Yes!” to Liz Lemon as host of “Jeopardy!” Or, as Liz herself might put it: I want to go to there.
Amber Ruffin One of the keys to having a long and successful career as a television host is to be, quite simply, good company. Amber Ruffin is very good company. Ruffin initially gained prominence as a writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers” who forged an on-camera role with biting commentary pieces such as “Amber Says What?” and “Amber’s Minute of Fury.” Now she hosts “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock, where she has a roomy platform for topical satire that explores the many ways racism is embedded in American life, and other pressing matters. Ruffin is a truth-teller whose clear-eyed buoyancy is her response to, and weapon against, any creeping defeatism, making clear that no amount of grimness will bring her down. That’s a strong message to deliver five nights a week, and Ruffin would be a good messenger to deliver it.
Anderson Cooper You know that quizzical, raised-eyebrow expression Cooper wears when Rick Santorum is gibbering away on the CNN set? That look would serve him well when a contestant gives a particularly dumb response — or when the “Jeopardy!” writers have come up with a reductively simple category or clue. When he was younger, I used to roll my eyes at how often Cooper would appear on live remotes while wearing a tight black T-shirt. But he’s developed an undeniable on-air gravitas in recent years. Cooper has also proven adept at juggling multiple guests on CNN’s infamously crowded panel of pundits, a skill that could come in handy when dealing with a parade of contestants. Also, Anderson? If you take the “Jeopardy!” job, there will be no Rick Santorum.
John Leguizamo Leguizamo would bring a provocative, edgy tone and a taste for skewering stereotypes to the job of host, not to mention that always-invaluable stage background. He has won renown for autobiographical solo shows like “Mambo Mouth,” “Ghetto Klown,” “Freak,” and “Sexaholix . . . A Love Story,” as well as “Latin History for Morons.” With a movie career ranging from volatile gangster Benny Blanco in “Carlito’s Way” to drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” to Toulouse-Lautrec in “Moulin Rouge!” to the voice of Sid the Sloth in the “Ice Age” movies, Leguizamo has proven his versatility. But perhaps the most pertinent item on his resume is his appearance on a celebrity edition of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” two decades ago, where a funny, lively Leguizamo proved to be a game-show natural, more than holding his own with Regis Philbin.
Will Ferrell OK, this choice is maybe a little meta. But casting Ferrell could also be seen as a cracked-mirror homage to Trebek. The premise of Ferrell’s Trebek parody on “Saturday Night Live” has been that beneath his polite exterior, Trebek was inwardly seething at the stupidity of the contestants on “Celebrity Jeopardy!” So Ferrell-as-Trebek did a slow burn as the wheels invariably came off each episode, with addled celebs — notably including a rowdy, raunchy Sean Connery (Darrell Hammond) — proving unable to cope with categories like “Countries between Mexico and Canada,” “States That End in ‘Hampshire,’ " and “Members of Simon and Garfunkel.” Trebek seems to have enjoyed Ferrell’s portrayal of him, given that he made a cameo appearance during a sketch. Perhaps succession, along with imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery?
Awkwafina It could well be that Awkwafina would be ready on day one for the job of host, given that the figures she names as her primary inspirations read like a “Jeopardy!” category: Joan Didion, Tom Waits, Anaïs Nin, Chet Baker, and Charles Bukowski (whom she discovered when she was 11!) Awkwafina ticked off those creative influences in an interview she gave in 2014, when she was still primarily known as a rapper. Four years later, as Peik Lin Goh in “Crazy Rich Asians,” Awkwafina just walked away with the movie, delivering a live-wire variation on the best-friend role. In one scene, when the heroine concedes that she’s right, Peik Lin replies: “Damn straight I’m right. . . . I’m always right.”
Alex Trebek couldn’t have said it better himself.