The first thing I noticed was the joy. Since longtime host Alex Trebek died in November, “Jeopardy!” has been filling his wingtips with a rotating cast of guest hosts. On Monday, actor LeVar Burton finally stepped up to the host’s podium. And he sounded absolutely delighted to be there.
In the four episodes that have aired so far (as of Friday morning), that enthusiasm has come through strongest when a contestant — usually the reigning champion Matthew Amodio, who’s swept the competition so far this week — provides a correct response. “Yes!” Burton will chirp out, with the occasional “Correct!” appended onto the end like a proud teacher watching his student finally nail a tricky concept.
It’s not surprising that Burton exudes this kind of energy given his storied career — pun intended. Burton’s appeal cuts across generations and subcultures. For a certain segment of Black America, he’ll always be Kunta Kinte, from his star turn in 1977’s “Roots.” Geeks of the world remember Burton best as Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge, chief engineer of the starship Enterprise during the seven-season run of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
But I first came to know and love him as the longtime host of the PBS children’s show “Reading Rainbow.” Burton’s daily book recommendations were gospel to me, translated into acts of worship at my local library. His commitment to inspiring kids to read continues to this day; every “Jeopardy!” episode this week has donated the equivalent of the contestant’s daily winnings to the nonprofit organization Reading Is Fundamental.
The original run of “Reading Rainbow” ended in 2006; since then, Burton has clearly been thinking about pivoting to “Jeopardy!” In 2013, he tweeted that it would be his dream job to take over upon Trebek’s retirement. And as he told The New York Times last month, he feels like he’s been prepping for this gig his whole life:
It’s difficult to explain, but there’s something inside me that says this makes sense. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do. I have been watching “Jeopardy!” more or less every night of my life since Art Fleming was host. “Jeopardy!” is a cultural touchstone, and for a Black man to occupy that podium is significant. Look, I have had a career for the [expletive] ages. “Roots,” “Star Trek,” “Reading Rainbow.” Won a Grammy. Got a shelf full of Emmys. I’m a storyteller, and game shows are tremendous stories. There’s a contest, there’s comedy, there’s drama. If you don’t know your [expletive] on “Jeopardy!” you’re sunk in full view of the entire nation. The stakes are high. I love that.
Burton’s love of the game is readily apparent. Trebek’s style when interacting with the players in the first round could be a little distant. His tone could even convey a bit of aloofness — a “look at these nerds, amirite” attitude that I personally could find off-putting.
Burton, on the other hand, has been more than willing to take the idiosyncrasies listed on his cue cards at face value. No sly smiles here, just genuine support for the weirdos standing in front of him. (My guess is it’s a skill he’s honed over decades of interactions with Trekkies at comic conventions, large and small.)
That’s not to say he’s been perfect. Burton at times seemed to stumble a little, especially early on, an assessment his wife shared with him after the first episode was taped. There were delays in responding to buzzers, and other times he rushed past answers that Trebek might have expounded on. The speed of the game when hosting is surprising, as Burton acknowledged to Entertainment Weekly on Thursday:
It's one thing to experience it at home, and then I've experienced it as a contestant on Celebrity Jeopardy, and so I understood that very well. I was nonetheless unprepared for the pace of the game as experienced by the host. It really moves like a bat out of hell, and you cannot drop your focus for even a nanosecond. It's challenging, really challenging on every level.
But with each episode, you could see him grow a little more comfortable. His focus gets sharper; the pacing feels more natural. That’s likely the result of the intense shooting schedule: Each week’s five episodes get filmed in a single day, making the learning curve easy to see as the episodes air. Burton compared it to the “blur” of his wedding day when speaking with EW.
I can be a harsh judge when it comes to how people perform on camera, and Burton set a pretty high bar for himself. But for someone who had only one day to nail it, I’m impressed. Even with the imperfections so far, it’s disappointing that unlike some of the other guest hosts, Burton only gets a week's worth of episodes.
He’s also not alone in publicly gunning for the permanent job. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who hosted two weeks’ worth of episodes in April, clearly wants to keep quarterbacking the show, too. I know a lot of people are fans of the idea — but for me right now, it’s Burton or bust.
I clearly remember sitting around my great-aunt and great-uncle’s living room at age 10, soaking in their praise as I rattled off first-round “Jeopardy!” answers. I’ve wanted to compete on the show ever since — though so far my online application quiz results haven’t made the cut. (Hello, producers, this is a shameless plug for next time around!) When Trebek died, it felt like I’d missed out on a chance to be a part of something enduring. There was no guarantee that whatever came next would really feel the same without Trebek calling the shots.
After watching Burton host, that feeling has dissipated. The show really wouldn’t be the same, not with a Black man hosting the most highbrow game show on television. It would be the start of something new, something different.
But I’m looking forward to watching Burton’s final episode as guest host on Friday. I only hope that the producers watch his audition and see the same spark that I do.