It was going to be jarring no matter who took over for Alex Trebek. But the easiest compliment you can pay Aaron Rodgers is that he fit in well Monday night, taking the fifth spot in the parade of Jeopardy! guest hosts who have helmed the show since Trebek died last November.
While we have seen plenty of superstar quarterbacks change football uniforms in recent years, none of us who follow the NFL are strangers to the sight of a quarterback on our television screens in a suit either.
Many of Rodgers’s peers have already made the transition full-time. Tony Romo has thrived on CBS. Drew Brees will join NBC next year. Eli Manning is joining brother Peyton on ESPN+. We’ve seen quarterbacks host SNL and the ESPYs. The list goes on. But Rodgers took things in a more academic direction Monday, taking over a program that bills itself as America’s favorite quiz show.
For me, the second clue was the moment that hammered home the point that, yes, we were watching Aaron Rodgers host Jeopardy!. A contestant correctly answered Khrushchev, and the well-coifed quarterback dutifully supplied the full name, Nikita Khrushchev, just in case anyone scoring at home may have thought it was some other Khrushchev. And it was as natural as any of the other memorable soundbites that have come out of his mouth in front of a camera over the years.
Rodgers, in his media tour to promote his residency on the show, spoke consistently of his reverence for Trebek, and the show in general, as well as his desire to perform well in tribute. No stranger to preparation, he said he studied Trebek’s words in various situations and made sure he had the beats of the show down cold, in a more deliberate way than even a lifetime of watching from a fan’s perspective had allowed.
His performance Monday contained a few Alexisms: “You’re on the board”; “Answer [slight pause] … the daily double!” But he also injected some of his own personality into the proceedings.
It’s hard to give too much of an assessment. Watching the other guest hosts makes it clear that it’s a job you settle into. Like a quarterback in a new system, to make a painfully groan-worthy comparison, Rodgers will likely grow more comfortable as he gets the reps in.
But he’s not starting from zero. He leaned right into the role with his inflection reading “Fortune favors the bald” as he unveiled the clues in the Jeopardy! round, and offered up his Larry David impersonation when the $600 clue called for it. He did a brief pirate impression. Essentially, he hammed it up when warranted.
One of those clichés we often hear on an NFL broadcast is that some quarterbacks say they settle in after taking their first hit, like it loosens them up for the rest of the day. None of the contestants tackled their affable host, but Rodgers did seem to benefit from the banter session, his affect growing a little more enthusiastic after the first commercial break.
He mostly stuck to the script, but did offer himself a few chances to ad-lib—a skill that can separate someone who is simply reading the clues from someone who is truly hosting the show. In Katie Couric’s first episode, she delighted in seeing that the contestant with whom she’d bantered about scuba diving was the one to correctly identify a cake urchin. One of Rodgers’s finer moments came when none of the contestants could correctly name the sackbut as a primitive version of the trombone and Rodgers deadpanned: “I’ve never heard of it either.”
But Rodgers, whose TV credentials also include a triumph on The $100,000 Pyramid, a cameo on the penultimate episode of The Office, a nonspeaking part in Game of Thrones and countless commercial breaks every NFL Sunday, blended into the familiar rhythms of the show. His Celebrity Jeopardy! appearance in 2015 was largely about him and his fellow contestants, with categories relevant to each of them. From what is customarily the champion’s podium, the NFL MVP had first choice on a board that included Number 12 and Bible MVPs. He picked a question about his uniform number to start.
Monday’s show had no such categories, instead featuring Jeopardy! classics like 11-letter words and a Ken Burns documentary about Ernest Hemingway.
Of course, the game ended with a question about Emmy lifetime achievement winner Fred Rogers, which the winner answered with just “Mr. Rogers”—either a cheeky nod to the host or a wild coincidence, and likely the former. But no, Aaron Rodgers (spelled slightly different) has not won an Emmy. At least not yet.
That moment, as most people reading this probably already know, was overshadowed on social media by the returning champ Scott Shewfelt taking a not-subtle-at-all jab at Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s decision-making in January’s NFC championship game—and Rodgers smoothly playing along.
Ken Jennings, who remains the betting favorite to take over long-term, comes off as a little more caffeinated. He has so many facts just bubbling out of him, and he seems excited when other people know things he knows. Rodgers is more of a slow burn, picking spots for his sarcasm and dry humor to show through.
Rodgers was not shy talking about his interest in becoming the full-time host, telling The Ringer’s Claire McNear he thinks he could even fit it into his existing schedule as—don’t forget—an extremely successful professional football player. It still seems unlikely he would get the job during his playing career. Though the idea seems less far-fetched than it did a week ago. And after nine more episodes, it will very likely seem less far-fetched than it does right now. But if Jennings takes over, perhaps Rodgers will loom over him like he once did over Brett Favre, or like Peyton Manning has over the last few color commentators in the Monday Night Football booth.
Either way, Monday must have been a big night for Rodgers and his agent.
As coaches and general managers like to say, Rodgers is the host of the show for now. If this truly is an audition for the permanent gig, he certainly has his shot. Or perhaps, in this unforgiving news cycle we live in, Anderson Cooper or Mayim Bialik will blow us away and make us quickly move on.
But Rodgers has spent a career showing us he is capable of doing things not many other quarterbacks can, and it seems obvious from the way he talks about his Jeopardy! experience that this means more to him than whatever typical talking-head opportunity may also someday be in his future.
One of the clues on Monday’s show was about the old adage that luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. The host himself may have been fortunate that this once-in-a-lifetime chance to star in his favorite TV show came along, but he appears to be prepared to make the most of it.