Set Redesigns, Zoom Auditions, and the Same Host: How ‘Jeopardy!’ Came Back Amid a Pandemic – The Ringer

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All spring and summer long, Alex Trebek was restless.

He was, like the rest of us, mostly at home, or else running errands nearby: In May, he was caught on camera by paparazzi taking out the trash, wearing a Jeopardy! T-shirt tucked casually into his jeans.

But the longtime Jeopardy! host didn’t want to be home: He wanted to be at work, making more Jeopardy!

In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced production of the show to grind to a sudden halt, a month ahead of its planned season finale. Now, in the middle of the show’s usual summer break, Trebek had a sense of urgency. Nearing his 80th birthday and nearly a year and a half into treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer, he wanted to work.

“His frustration was, we should be in there taping,” says Mike Richards, who this summer became Jeopardy!’s first new executive producer in nearly 25 years. “We should be shooting. Even though it was during our hiatus, he wanted to get back in there and shoot more Jeopardy!s. So I was definitely hearing him on my shoulder going, ‘Let’s go. Figure it out. We’re Jeopardy! We’re smart enough to figure this out.’”

As of Monday, Jeopardy! is finally back, kicking off Season 37 with the show’s first brand-new episode since the last pre-shutdown game aired in early June.

The show’s return follows months of careful planning by studio executives, staff, and crew, who have been quietly taping new episodes for more than a month. They have followed a COVID-19 reopening plan laid out by a coalition of major television and movie production companies, including Jeopardy! parent Sony Pictures Television.

Some of the efforts to pandemic-proof Jeopardy! will be visible, but many more are behind the scenes. The contestant podiums have been redesigned and cleaved in three, leaving each player with a detached booth of their own. The audience is closed to the public and to guests, meaning the 10 or so Jeopardy! staffers, camerapeople, and grips just offstage make up the whole crowd; the applause that viewers will hear has been added after the fact. And for now, the Clue Crew, which in normal times travels the globe recording on-location clues, is grounded.

Much of the show’s staff is working from home, including venerable announcer Johnny Gilbert, who turned 96 this summer (not that his dulcet tones sound a day over 45). Those who are in the studio wear masks at all times, as do contestants every moment that they’re not actively competing onstage. Players, who must provide negative coronavirus test results upon arrival, are also responsible for putting on their own makeup and microphones. In the usually crowded director’s booth, all but essential staff are working remotely; those who remain are separated by newly installed glass partitions.

Trebek, meanwhile, is very much back at work, albeit at a greater distance than normal: Instead of leaning across the contestant podiums for Q&As with players and shaking the hand of the newly crowned champion at the episode’s end, he stops partway between his podium and theirs. It’s long been a joke in trivia circles that you can immediately tell when you’ve encountered a Jeopardy! alum on social media: Their profile picture is always the commemorative shot of them standing next to Trebek. While Season 37 contestants won’t have that, they’ll at least have a socially distant version, with Trebek on one side of the Final Jeopardy screen and them on the other.

Needless to say, it’s a strange time to be a contestant.

Nancy Bosecker grew up watching Jeopardy! with her family, and making it onto the show herself is what she calls “a lifelong dream.” She was invited to an audition once before back in 2015, after passing the show’s online contestant test. “I was incredibly nervous,” she says of the attempt, which did not lead to an invitation to the show.

This February, she once again took the 50-question online test and, with the arrival of COVID-19, says she promptly forgot about it. A suddenly homebound software engineer, she embraced pandemic life: “I decided in March that I wanted to shave my head because I didn’t have to go back to work for six months,” she says, laughing.

Then, in May, Jeopardy! reached out, inviting her to another audition—this time over Zoom. In non-pandemic times, the show’s contestant coordinators crisscross the nation, hosting auditions in cavernous hotel ballrooms for those who pass the rigorous online test—about 2,500 of the roughly 80,000 test-takers each year. Now, with long-distance travel and large, indoor gatherings emphatically off the table, the show’s contestant department has adopted remote casting.

Contestant producer Corina Nusu has been running auditions out of her bedroom. “This is a little difficult,” she said of the process in August. “You have to put in that little bit of extra effort to make people feel comfortable and have fun.”

Would-be contestants now face a two-pronged audition process. In the first part, hopefuls take a second 50-question test, answering Nusu or another producer in real time. If they pass (by scoring, most assume, 35 or better, though the show does not provide applicants with their results or tell them how well they need to do), they’re invited to a group session. That portion includes a Q&A segment—you’ve gotta hone your tales of unusual hobbies before you make it to the stage—and a mock game, with players ringing in by clicking ballpoint pens held up to their cameras. For now, the show has limited auditions to those within driving distance of the show’s Culver City, California, studio—mostly trivia whizzes from Southern California, with a handful of intrepid souls from places like San Francisco and Las Vegas.

For Bosecker, who lives in San Diego, a video call so soon after her buzz cut was a tall order. “My hair had not grown back much at all,” she says. “I was so nervous about that and looking dumb that I wasn’t nervous about the audition this time.”

The new ’do—or perhaps the ’do-inspired confidence—seems to have done the trick. In early August, she ignored a call from a Los Angeles area code and sent it to voicemail. Then she received an automated transcription of the message by text. “It said ‘This is Laura from Jeopardy!’” she remembers. “I saw just those words and I started freaking out.”

With many of 2020’s planned movie and television releases postponed, sports delayed and then (mostly) fan-free, and the news filled with grim updates about the pandemic’s growing toll, devastating wildfires, and the general cacophony surrounding the approaching election, Jeopardy!’s reemergence feels like an oasis of normalcy—albeit a small one—found not a minute too late.

It’s not the only game show trying to forge a safe path through these times. Sister show Wheel of Fortune, which shares Jeopardy!’s crew and executive producer, has also restarted production, as has Family Feud in its studio in Atlanta. A Leslie Jones–hosted version of Supermarket Sweep taped this summer and will debut in October; Let’s Make a Deal recently began doing auditions over Zoom.

With Jeopardy! more than a month into its modified pandemic protocol and the systems seemingly functioning safely, Lindsey Shultz calls it “a microcosm of how it would be good for society to approach” the pandemic.

Shultz should know. In 2019, she won four games and over $100,000 on the show, and later in the year was a semifinalist in the Tournament of Champions. In addition to spending more than a little time around the Jeopardy! set, she has some offstage bona fides: She trained as a physician before transitioning into work as a public health analyst with a focus on risk reduction. Since the arrival of the novel coronavirus, risk reduction has become the focus of much of her work: She has volunteered with the COVID Tracking Project and worked on COVID Explained, sifting through data about the disease and how it spreads to help develop realistic guidelines and best practices—what Shultz calls “policies that people can actually follow.”

Jeopardy! seems to have found a way around what Shultz identifies as the likeliest risks: moments when large numbers of people congregate together in small spaces. Now, instead of waiting for showtime in the close confines of the backstage green room, contestants go through the standard morning orientation session on the next-door set of Wheel of Fortune, where they can spread out through the studio audience as they formally learn the show’s do’s (answer in the form of a question!) and do not’s (don’t hold your buzzer like the Statue of Liberty’s torch!). Since Jeopardy! tapes five episodes on each production day, that’s also where the contestants assigned to later games wait, watching a live feed of the contest in progress. (When it’s Wheel’s turn to tape, its contestants have their own orientation while spread out on the Jeopardy! set.)

Players who lose on Jeopardy! are traditionally invited to linger in the studio and keep watching the rest of the day’s games—many don’t, hurrying off to drown their sorrows with their guests and maybe a stiff glass of milk. Now, however, each episode’s non-winners are swiftly escorted back to the Wheel of Fortune set, where they sign off on tax forms indicating their consolation prize and any previous winnings (they’ll get their checks when their episodes air, usually a couple of months later), gather their things, and leave.

Still, even a modified, more-abrupt Jeopardy! has a lot to offer as a de facto public-health flag planted for all to see. “The uncertainty is something that makes this really hard for everybody, so for a TV show to say, ‘Well, we came up with a plan, we went about it in the healthiest way we could have done it, and it’s working,’” Shultz says, is an encouraging sign. “Like, we’re not just looking at a winter of darkness, with everyone sitting in front of those vitamin D lights and counting down the days until we get a vaccine.”

Colin Davy, a data scientist and self-described “trivia nut” who lives in San Francisco, says he’s tried out for Jeopardy! every year for nearly a decade. “It is the pinnacle if you love trivia,” he says. “It’s the highest form that it takes—there is no other mountain to climb after that.”

His invitation to a Zoom audition this spring felt auspicious. “Remember back in April when it was bleak and dreary and we all felt like we were never getting outside again?” he says. “The Jeopardy! email was the first piece of positive anticipation I had had. It was like I genuinely forgot what that felt like.”

Last month, he made his way to Culver City—but not before making some preparations for the socially distant taping that awaited him. He confesses to not having had much experience with applying his own makeup; before he headed south, his girlfriend escorted him to a NARS counter to find the right shade of powder for his face.

“We did a practice run ahead of time,” he says. “Her biggest fear was that I’d show up on national TV looking like a clown.”

While Davy, like Bosecker, is mum as to the details of his episode or episodes (their respective games will air in October), he says that being at the studio was a thrill—despite being unable to try out spinning the Wheel wheel, which was protectively sheathed in plastic. (This season, Wheel contestants will be using what host Pat Sajak has dubbed “the white thing” to safely grab a spoke; the game show publication BuzzerBlog has taken to jokingly calling it a wheel condom.)

To Davy’s pleasant surprise, the lack of a green room posed no obstacle to getting to know his fellow contestants. He discovered that two fellow players also live in San Francisco: “Once bar trivia comes back we’re going to try to form a team and dominate the entire city,” he says.

The unfilled audience made for a surreal part of the game, agreed both Davy and Bosecker. The producers and assorted staff around the stage do their best to clap and cheer for the contestants during their games, but they can’t do much to make up for the totally empty audience.

That is—the almost totally empty audience. “My sister said if I ever got on the show, she would fly to Los Angeles and come see it,” says Bosecker. “Of course, she couldn’t do any of that because of COVID. So she sent a giant blowup picture of her head on a stick, and I took it with me to the game. I handed it over to a producer and said, ‘Can my sister sit in the audience?’”

The show was happy to oblige her.

Questions remain, chiefly about the backlog. When Jeopardy! suspended production in March, the show still had a month’s worth of taping to go before the annual hiatus. That meant 40 episodes—and 80 new contestants, many of whom were feverishly preparing for their onstage debuts—that never got to tape. Jeopardy! filled the on-air gap by re-airing some of the season’s already completed tournaments and then delving into “vault” episodes, like Trebek’s very first one as host from 1984.

But that still leaves those 80 contestants, whom Jeopardy! says will get their chance on the show just as soon as it’s safe to travel. In a break with tradition, the reigning champion from the last episode of Season 36, four-day champion Zach Newkirk—an attorney from Alexandria, Virginia—will also not appear until sometime in the future. Also on hold for now: this year’s Tournament of Champions, the annual contest that brings back the 15 winningest players from the previous season to face off for a $250,000 grand prize.

Says Richards, “It’s just going to come down to travel and can we really fly people from all over the country?”

Oh, right, and then there’s Ken Jennings.

This month, Jeopardy! announced that Jennings, who won a record 74 games and $2.5 million in 2004 and in January won the show’s ratings-busting Greatest of All Time tournament, will be joining the show as a consulting producer.

“He came to us and said, ‘I’m done competing,’” Richards says. “I think that he feels like he isn’t as good as he was and he doesn’t want to keep pushing that, because he said he even had a little bit of difficulty in the GOAT episodes. It didn’t look like it to me, full disclosure,” he jokes. (Jennings lost a single night of the contest before walking away with the $1 million prize.)

Richards says that he was initially disappointed—he calls himself a “total fan,” and says he had imagined planning a sequel to GOAT. “At that point I thought, he is so synonymous with the show—how can we utilize him?” Richards says.

In his new role, Jennings—who published a whole book of trivia and long wrote a weekly trivia newsletter—will present categories of his own. (Full disclosure: He also wrote the foreword of my upcoming book about Jeopardy!) And he will help the show expand its contestant search, says Richards, as well as work on some yet-to-be-announced projects as a creative consultant.

Many longtime Jeopardy! observers have guessed that Jennings is likely the front-runner to assume hosting duties after Trebek eventually retires. In that light, Jennings becoming an official company man gives this season the feel of a tryout.

Richards dismisses the speculation out of hand. Jennings won’t be sidling up alongside Trebek onstage, and Richards says that Jennings is not expected to be in the studio “day in and day out” even once pandemic restrictions have lifted.

“If you sat in my morning meetings with Alex as he was going through the shows and the clues and then you watched him host the show—he’s the host of the show,” Richards says. “We’re not shopping. He’s our guy, and he’s our guy till he tells us he’s not our guy, and then we can have a different conversation. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to have that conversation until Alex comes to me and says, ‘OK. This is my plan.’”

For Richards, the pandemic has made for a thoroughly unusual start to a new job. He succeeds Harry Friedman, who became Jeopardy!’s executive producer in 1997 and was responsible for a slew of innovations that defined that show’s recent history, from creating the Clue Crew to eliminating the five-day limit for champions, a change that spurred the rise of über-champions like Jennings and James Holzhauer.

Richards, a game show veteran who previously served as executive producer at The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal, spent much of Season 36 shadowing Friedman; by January of this year, he took a daily seat beside Friedman at the offstage judges’ table during tapings. But what was meant to be an orderly spring with Richards learning the ropes and staff having a chance to fete Friedman’s decades with the show instead ended abruptly.

Though he confesses that there is “no blueprint” for operating a game show in times like these, Richards believes that the program can be both safe and entertaining. “The great thing about Jeopardy! is that it’s not broken—I wasn’t brought in because the show needed to be fixed,” Richards says. At the end of the first week of taping last month, Richards sent an email to Friedman: “You will not be surprised that the staff, crew, and Alex rose to the occasion,” he wrote. “We just shot 10 amazing shows.”

Richards was, however, initially taken aback by Trebek’s fervency about getting back in the studio as soon as possible. Now that he’s gotten to know him better, Richards says he is anything but.

“He is so exactly who you think he is,” he says of Trebek. “Hardworking, and just comes in, works hard, goes home. And that’s who he is. That’s what he wants to do. He wants to drive his truck to work”—specifically, according to Trebek’s recent memoir, “a Dodge Ram 1500 truck with a Hemi”—“he wants to get there super-early, and review the clues. He holds himself to an incredible standard in his craft and a preposterous standard in the tapings.”

As Bosecker prepared to take her place on the Jeopardy! stage, she wondered what it would be like to see Trebek up close. He’s spoken openly about the discomfort that chemotherapy has caused for him; of days when he curled up on the floor of his dressing room and wept from the pain. She wondered: Would he look tired? Would the host she’d grown up watching with her family seem ill?

On the contrary: “He has a sparkle in his eye,” Bosecker says.

“When Alex first walked out onstage, you can kind of see him behind the board,” she says. “I didn’t want to stare because it’s the intro part [when contestants look at the camera], but I wanted to be like, ‘Oh my god, Alex Trebek!’ My inner child was screaming out: ‘There he is! There he is!’”

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