One day in the fall of 2013, Mike Richards called Ken Jennings.
At the time, Jennings was nearly a decade removed from the 74-game Jeopardy! winning streak that had made him a household name. Richards, meanwhile, was backstage at The Price Is Right, the show he had joined as a co–executive producer five years earlier, and where that May he had launched a podcast called The Randumb Show, which was promoted to listeners as a look behind the scenes at Price.
Before he called Jennings to record a segment on the podcast, Richards put a question to his cohost. “Are you good at trivia?” he asked.
“Some trivia,” she replied.
“See, what I am is horrible at all trivia,” Richards said. “It doesn’t even matter if it’s a specific area I should know. I don’t have that kind of mind.” Later in the episode, after Jennings joined, Richards went further: “If I had gotten on Jeopardy!—well, I never would have gotten on Jeopardy!, let’s be square,” he said.
Now, though, Richards has gotten on Jeopardy!, albeit on the other side of the stage. On August 11, parent studio Sony Pictures Television announced that the 46-year-old will become the show’s new permanent host, just 15 months after he was named its executive producer. Actress Mayim Bialik will host prime-time tournaments, but the nightly job belongs to Richards. He alone will fill the role long held by Alex Trebek.
Richards’s selection has been met with criticism by Jeopardy! fans and former contestants alike, many of whom have questioned the validity of a prolonged and high-profile audition process that ended with the ascension of someone once tasked with leading it. (Last week, The New York Times reported that Richards “moved aside after he emerged as a candidate.”) And while some disappointment was probably inevitable at the end of a guest host rotation that featured names ranging from LeVar Burton and Aaron Rodgers to Robin Roberts and Savannah Guthrie, the decision to promote Richards—an internal candidate who was relatively unknown to the general public—has sparked more backlash than the show might have anticipated.
“It’s unfortunate that guest hosts like Aaron Rodgers and LeVar Burton really put themselves out there in terms of openly wanting the job and for Rodgers in particular, discussing the extraordinary amount of effort to which he went to prepare for his turn, when it’s not clear anyone besides Richards ever had a real chance at the main role,” says Kristin Sausville, who won five games on Jeopardy! in 2015. “Rodgers and Burton were clear about how important Jeopardy! was to them personally. Given that he also was a candidate to host The Price Is Right, it looks like Richards just wanted to host a game show, any game show.”
Concerns about Richards extend to the Jeopardy! staff, with a source close to the show telling The Ringer that employees were blindsided by Sony’s announcement and multiple sources describing how staff morale has deteriorated under Richards’s watch as EP. Interviews with sources from Sony, Jeopardy!, and previous shows Richards has worked on, including The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal, paint a picture of a showrunner who could be exclusionary and dismissive of longtime show employees—as well as someone who wasn’t shy about wanting to move in front of the camera. Says a former Deal employee who was at the show during Richards’s tenure: “When I worked there, it just seemed to be something everyone knew.”
In recent weeks, questions about Richards have only intensified, with multiple lawsuits dating to his time as EP of The Price Is Right gaining attention after an early August report that Richards was in advanced negotiations to secure the Jeopardy! host job. The lawsuits, two of which were settled out of court, focused on the mistreatment of female employees by Price’s male leadership, including Richards. Richards was originally named as a defendant in one of those complaints, but was dismissed from the suit before it settled.
One suit was filed in 2010 by Brandi Cochran, who worked as a model on the show. It centered on the discrimination and harassment she said she experienced after becoming pregnant. At the time, The Price Is Right had recently laid off several models; the suit says that after Cochran informed Richards of her pregnancy, he “said to her, ‘Go figure! I fire five girls … what are the odds?’” which Cochran understood “to mean that Richards would have selected her for layoff if he had known that she was going to get pregnant.” After giving birth, she learned that her contract had been terminated.
Cochran’s lawsuit also detailed Richards’s input on what the show’s models should wear. “Richards decided that the models’ skirts should be shorter and said that he liked the models to look as if they were going out on a date,” the suit says. “At his suggestion, models wore bikinis on the show more frequently.”
On August 9, Richards emailed a statement to the Jeopardy! staff to deny these accounts and address concerns about the culture he’d helped foster at The Price Is Right. “These were allegations made in employment disputes against the show,” he wrote. “I want you all to know that the way in which my comments and actions have been characterized in these complaints does not reflect the reality of who I am or how we worked together on The Price is Right.”
But the sources who spoke to The Ringer, who were granted anonymity out of concern for potential retaliation, depict a different reality. Richards’s statement also does not align with several remarks he made on The Randumb Show, which he hosted from 2013 to 2014. A review of all 41 episodes of the podcast that were available online until Tuesday reveals that Richards repeatedly used offensive language and disparaged women’s bodies. In an episode published on September 4, 2014, after the iCloud photo hack, which exposed intimate images of numerous female celebrities, Richards asked his assistant and his cohost—both much younger women—whether they had ever taken nude photos. When his cohost said that she had sometimes taken photos of herself when she thought she looked cute, Richards responded, “Like booby pictures? What are we looking at?” Later, he asked to go through her phone; when she declined to share an image with him, he asked whether it was “of [her] boobies.”
On another 2014 episode, Richards said that one-piece swimsuits made women look “really frumpy and overweight,” echoing the portion of Cochran’s lawsuit that mentions Richards’s preferences about swimwear.
Hours after The Ringer asked Sony and Richards’s agent about The Randumb Show, the audio of every episode was pulled down and the podcast’s hosting site, mrichtv.podbean.com, was deleted. Richards subsequently issued a statement to The Ringer. “It is humbling to confront a terribly embarrassing moment of misjudgment, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity from nearly a decade ago. Looking back now, there is no excuse, of course, for the comments I made on this podcast and I am deeply sorry. The podcast was intended to be a series of irreverent conversations between longtime friends who had a history of joking around. Even with the passage of time, it’s more than clear that my attempts to be funny and provocative were not acceptable, and I have removed the episodes. My responsibilities today as a father, husband, and a public personality who speaks to many people through my role on television means I have substantial and serious obligations as a role model, and I intend to live up to them.”
Sony declined to comment. A source from Sony says that the studio was unaware of the podcast’s existence or the episodes’ removal until being notified by The Ringer.
Jeopardy! begins taping its new season on Thursday, with Sony leadership hoping to ring in the beginning of a bright new era. But doubts about the man set to be the face of that era remain. What were the circumstances that led to his selection? How has he steered shows in the past? And how will Richards steward one of television’s most cherished institutions?
Richards became the executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune in May 2020, succeeding longtime chief Harry Friedman. Friedman was a dynastic figure at Sony Pictures Television, serving as Wheel’s executive producer for 25 years and Jeopardy!’s EP for 23 years. During that time, he brought the two programs into the modern era and turned both into ratings juggernauts. Together, the shows bring in a reported $125 million in profit each year. In his 2018 book The Big Picture, author Ben Fritz estimated that Wheel and Jeopardy! had “made total profits of $2 billion and $1 billion, respectively, over their decades on the air.” The shows’ immense success afforded Friedman a rare level of autonomy within Sony, where Wheel and Jeopardy! were seen as off-limits to meddling from studio executives.
In August 2019, Friedman, then 72, gathered the staffs of both shows to the Jeopardy! stage to announce that he would retire at season’s end. Richards, who that June had signed an overall deal with Sony to “develop and produce game shows for network, cable, and streaming platforms,” was announced as the incoming executive producer a month later, and spent the latter part of Friedman’s final season shadowing him in the studio.
Then, just months into Richards’s debut season, Trebek died due to complications of pancreatic cancer. Coupled with the other recent departures of several key staffers—including the longtime head of the contestant department, Maggie Speak, and stage manager John Lauderdale—and the taping difficulties caused by the pandemic, which left many staff members working from home, there was a widespread perception internally of a power vacuum. One source close to Jeopardy! says that senior Sony executives were eager to fill it. “While previously Jeopardy! seemed to be its own island, under Mike the hand of Sony seems ever present,” the source says.
That presence was particularly evident during the guest host rotation. Since January, when Richards inserted himself into the hosting lineup and became a candidate for the permanent job, confusion has swirled around how much influence he has had over a process in which he himself was a contender. According to multiple sources, that influence manifested in different ways.
For example, much has been made of Sony’s use of analytics to identify a front-runner. “We want to go at this with real analytics and real testing and not just go, ‘Hey, how about this guy?’” Richards told a Wall Street Journal podcast in April. Indeed, the studio called out this element in its announcement of Richards and Bialik, whom Sony TV chairman Ravi Ahuja said “were both at the top of our research and analysis.” On Saturday, The New York Times reported that Richards alone selected the episodes that were sent to focus groups for review; the show’s two supervising producers, Lisa Broffman and Rocky Schmidt, who are both in their fourth decade working on the show, were excluded from the process. When The Ringer asked about the Times focus group report, neither Sony nor Richards offered comment.
As executive producer, Richards controlled nearly everything about Jeopardy!’s most recent season. Sources say this led to myriad conflicts of interest. “He was the one rehearsing and giving direction to all the guest hosts, who may not have realized they were competing with him for the job,” says a Sony employee familiar with the host search. “He could influence the promotion of those shows and the respective guest hosts. He had personal relationships with the executives involved, who had entrusted the show to him a year before.”
The same Sony source adds: “It’s not hard to see the structural advantages that such a candidate would have. Would he vigorously advocate for the strongest guest hosts, as an EP normally would in that situation?”
Some viewers have called into question the treatment of two of last season’s most popular guest hosts, LeVar Burton and Ken Jennings. In Burton’s case, fans have complained that the Reading Rainbow star was given just a week’s worth of episodes—filmed in the space of a single tape day—compared to the two weeks afforded to most of the other candidates. Burton’s supporters have also pointed out that his episodes aired in the midst of the Summer Olympics, which caused some to be preempted on NBC affiliate stations and may have contributed to lackluster ratings. Through a representative, Burton declined to comment.
And sources close to the show cast doubts on Richards’s decision-making surrounding Jennings. Many Jeopardy! staffers and former contestants long presumed that Jennings would be Trebek’s anointed successor, an expectation that only grew in the months after Trebek’s 2019 cancer diagnosis. After Jennings won 2020’s Greatest of All Time tournament, Friedman hired him as a consulting producer—a move from contestant to staff that some interpreted as a bridge to hosting, with Jennings’s early duties including presenting categories of his own creation. Trebek furthered this perception, asking Jennings to narrate much of his 2020 memoir, The Answer Is …, and arranging a call with him to discuss guest hosting just two days before Trebek’s death. As The New York Times reported, the host left Jennings a pair of his cuff links, which awaited him in Trebek’s dressing room, along with a note from Trebek’s wife, Jean, when Jennings arrived at the studio to serve as the season’s inaugural guest host.
Jennings taped six weeks of episodes before a minor conflict with an upcoming tape day emerged. As The Ringer previously reported, sources say the show’s production staff was able to accommodate the conflict, only for Richards to step in and insist on hosting instead. When the time came to tape the preamble to his first episode, Richards blamed COVID-19 for the change and exaggerated the nature of Jennings’s conflict. “We have some amazing guest hosts coming that I can’t wait for you to see, but with the COVID outbreak here in L.A., folks were understandably a little reticent to shoot,” Richards said. “Ken Jennings did a great job, but he’s unavailable due to obligations with his show The Chase.”
Richards taped his first games on January 11. Days later, Jeopardy! formally announced its initial roster of post-Jennings guest hosts, which included the EP. In May, Richards insisted that he was “never meant to be a part of [the guest hosting] process.” Sony declined to comment on when Richards became an official candidate for the permanent host job.
After Jennings’s curtailed run, which posted the highest ratings of any guest host this season, Jeopardy! did not air any additional categories hosted by him. Previously, the categories had aired roughly once a month, about as often as those hosted by members of the Clue Crew. Categories featuring clues read by the Clue Crew, celebrities, and affiliate station news anchors continued to air.
When reached for comment, Jennings confirmed that his categories would return as part of this coming season. “Obviously I’m disappointed with how this process played out, but I’d rather look ahead,” Jennings says. “I plan to be with the show as long as they’ll have me, no matter who’s hosting.”
Richards got his start in television in 1997, as an intern for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. A full-time job as a production assistant led to a string of subsequent behind-the-scenes gigs, but his ambitions were greater. He taped a series of pilots; in 2003, the WB picked up the reality show High School Reunion, which he hosted. Richards went on to host the CW’s Beauty and the Geek and the Reelz entertainment show Dailies. In 2007, he auditioned to replace Bob Barker as Price’s host when the iconic emcee was preparing to retire.
“Of all the people we were trying out, he had the least professional experience,” Roger Dobkowitz, a longtime Price producer, said in 2012 of Richards’s hosting audition. “He knew all the right words to say, but he did not bring anything special, personality or performance-wise, to the test show. His performance was compared to that of an eager student performing in a college show and putting on his best impersonation of what he thinks a game show host is.” Dobkowitz did not respond to The Ringer’s request for comment.
The Price job ultimately went to Drew Carey, who remains the show’s host. But Richards apparently impressed the right people: In 2008, he was hired as Price’s co–executive producer—one month after Dobkowitz was fired “to make room” for Richards, according to Esquire’s Chris Jones. Jones wrote at the time that Dobkowitz was “widely considered the show’s institutional memory” and that “the twin losses of Barker and Dobkowitz—among other changes, including the arrival of a rotating cast of young models to replace the aging familiars—had left devoted fans of The Price Is Right feeling out of orbit.”
The changes led to similar feelings of disorientation among the show staff, according to a former CBS employee who worked on The Price Is Right. “A ton of the people that worked at the show had been there forever—like the new guy was there for 20 years,” says the source. “So when Mike came in it really shook things up and got rid of some people.
“They didn’t have a lot of love for him.”
In 2009, Richards helped sell a reboot of Let’s Make a Deal to be produced by Fremantle, the company that makes The Price Is Right. CBS picked it up; Richards executive-produced both shows.
But Richards’s attention could be divided, according to a former Let’s Make a Deal employee who says that Richards did not watch the show for an extended period of time. “And when he did, he didn’t like the direction it had taken,” the former employee says. “He came in for a meeting about it, and a post producer sarcastically reintroduced [themselves], because Mike had been away so long. That producer was fired shortly after and ended up getting a settlement for wrongful termination. That was my impression of Mike, a smile with sharp teeth.”
When reached for comment, this producer confirmed that they had been fired, but said they could not comment on the specifics because of the terms of a nondisclosure agreement. Neither Richards nor Fremantle responded to requests for comment on this incident.
Multiple former Let’s Make a Deal employees have another shared memory of Richards: They say it was common knowledge he wanted to be the host of Jeopardy! One says the topic “was watercooler talk.”
After Richards was named the executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune in 2019, another former Deal employee remembers a supervisor who had worked closely with Richards remarking, “I bet he hires himself.”
In May 2013, Richards launched The Randumb Show. The podcast, named after a comedy show that Richards hosted as a student at Pepperdine, was recorded on the Price Is Right set, often in Richards’s office. Many episodes featured recent winners or members of The Price Is Right cast and crew, including director Adam Sandler (no relation to the actor), announcer George Gray, and the show’s models. Guests on Price made appearances on the podcast as well, including Chrissy Teigen and 2014 Miss America Nina Davuluri.
The conversations among Richards, his cohost and former assistant Beth Triffon, and occasionally Jen Bisgrove—the podcast’s producer and Richards’s assistant at the time—are freewheeling, skipping between pop culture news, upcoming TV lineups, and the latest goings-on at Price. Many have a gossipy edge, with Richards displaying a tendency to turn bawdy and sometimes vulgar. In one 2014 episode, Triffon discusses once working as a model at CES; Richards subsequently calls her a “booth ho” and “booth slut.” When the subject comes up again in a later conversation with Let’s Make a Deal announcer Jonathan Mangum, both Mangum and Richards repeatedly call her a “boothstitute.”
Triffon did not respond to multiple requests to speak about the podcast. Bisgrove, who joined Sony in 2019 and is now listed as a production coordinator at Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, did not respond to a request either.
Women’s bodies and clothing are recurring subjects for Richards. On a 2013 episode, he says that women “dress like a hooker” on Halloween; on another, he tells a story about a former Price employee who had taken up baking: “We said that we were going to have to saw her out of her room because she was going to be so giant that she wouldn’t be able to fit out the door.” When discussing weight gain, Price announcer Gray says, “There’s a lot of guys that would not be entirely upset with a petite woman that’s curvy”; Richards repeatedly uses the term “huskadoo.” He saves his praise for Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the former cohost of The View and Fox & Friends: “She’s, like, kind of my type. You know—blond, good-looking.”
After seeing a photo of Triffon standing by two friends at a lake, he says one-piece swimwear is “genuinely unattractive.” “Not good. Not becoming. Not flattering.” Richards says that the swimsuits had made her friends “look really frumpy and overweight,” which prompts the following exchange:
Triffon: It’s so funny because no one’s overweight.
Richards: But they all look terrible in the picture. They look fat and not good in the picture. It’s bad. You look great. You look like a Sports Illustrated model, and then you’ve got one-piece malones on either side of you, which are just horrible.
Triffon: I can’t wait till you meet my roommate, because she’s literally gonna be like, walk up to you in a bag and be like, “Hey.”
Richards: “Hey, what’s up? I’m wearing a smock.” And then I’m gonna give her a smack.
There are multiple conversations in which Richards makes remarks about Triffon’s height and appearance. He repeatedly calls her a derogatory term for little people, a word that he also uses to describe the actress Kristin Chenoweth. (Both that word and the R-word, which Richards uses in a January 2014 episode, are considered slurs.) In the podcast’s third episode, Triffon discusses some acting roles she has auditioned for; Richards says she should try out for Taiwanese roles because of her height. In another episode, after Gray makes a nonspecific comment about big noses, Richards jumps in. “Ixnay on the ose-nay,” he says. “She’s not an ew-Jay.”
Richards also makes disparaging comments about Triffon’s economic status. During an episode in which Triffon discusses problems at her apartment, he says, “Does Beth live, like, in Haiti? Doesn’t it sound like that? Like, the urine smell, the woman in the muumuu, the stray cats.” In another episode, Triffon talks about losing her job and says she qualified for unemployment insurance benefits totaling $389 per week. Richards says, “The dangerous side about the crack that you just took is that not everyone is like you. But everyone can collect unemployment, which is why we have so many people on unemployment right now. Which is why we have so many people on food stamps. Because what if you got unemployment and food stamps? You’d be like, ‘Good lord, I’m making—.’ You know what I’m saying?”
He goes on to ask, “Do you feel dirty? Seriously, and I’m not trying to be mean. Do you feel a little dirty?”
In an episode released two months later, Triffon tells a story about giving a dollar to an unhoused woman. Part of the exchange that follows is below:
Richards: Oh my god. You’re perpetuating the circle. … If you gave away money that was given to you by the government, that’s the circle of no life.
Triffon: No, Mike, it was just a dollar.
Richards: That’s the sound of America going down the toilet.
Triffon: I thought that she needed it!
Richards: She didn’t even ask you for it.
Triffon: So she could get some coffee or some food!
Richards: Or some crack! Or some meth!
But Richards himself has recently received government assistance. According to Small Business Administration data made available by government watchdog group Accountable.US, a consultancy that was incorporated in 2018 and lists Richards as the CEO and sole shareholder received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for $127,906 in May 2020, as well as a COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan for $150,000 later that year. Richards did not respond to The Ringer’s request for comment about these loans.
And Richards’s podcast comments about the unhoused stand in contrast to the actions of his Jeopardy! host predecessor. One of Trebek’s last major gifts was $500,000 to the Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, to which the show contributed an additional $250,000. The organization is building the 107-bedroom Trebek Center to provide shelter to those in need.
There are at least two occasions on The Randumb Show when Richards discusses how he sees himself in the showbiz sphere. In an episode from September 2013, he brings up Jeff Probst, whose eponymous talk show was canceled after a single season on CBS. “Jeff Probst had a daytime talk show, which I was cheering for because I like, you know, the average white-guy host,” Richards says. “I cheer for him to succeed because I feel like through his success I could have some success hosting.”
And in an episode from earlier that year he discusses Ryan Seacrest, whom Richards says he was passed over for to host American Idol. “Listen, again, my family—not huge Seacrest fans,” Richards says. “Me, I think it’s great what he’s done. And I think he’s actually made the world a safer place for what I like to call the skinny white host, like George [Gray] and I. Which is, you’ll take a chance on someone that you don’t know.”
Many people who have spoken at length on the radio or on podcasts would surely like to take back some of what they’ve said, and neither Pat Sajak nor Trebek was completely devoid of controversy. But in an online, socially conscious world, Richards has a tall task ahead of him in proving not only that he deserves the Jeopardy! job after a long and contentious process whose integrity many fans doubt, but also that he can embody the qualities—intellectual curiosity, cultural open-mindedness, and reverence for the topics, both silly and serious, that appear on the board—that have made Jeopardy! into a beloved touchstone.
Richards will become just the third permanent host in Jeopardy! history after Trebek and Art Fleming. Trebek’s edition of the show, which he also produced for the first three years of its run, was markedly different from Fleming’s, both in atmosphere and substance. And whereas Fleming made no secret of his trivial humility—“If I didn’t have that sheet in front of me, you wouldn’t have found me within a mile of the studio,” he said—Trebek made a point of his own academic bona fides. Though he long insisted that Jeopardy! was a young person’s game, much of his mystique as host was tied to the perception that he could sidle up to a buzzer and defeat any of the day’s contestants in a battle of the wits.
Richards’s Jeopardy! will be different as well. There are some early signs of what he has in mind, and it’s bigger and glitzier. The decision to bring in Bialik exclusively to host prime-time specials—the kind of decision that would fall squarely under an EP’s purview—suggests Jeopardy! intends to make what had been a very occasional foray into the post–8 p.m. network TV time slot into a multiple-times-a-year hoopla. These tournaments might flip much of what viewers consider to be Jeopardy! on its head: a college tournament originally announced last year will use teams; it and a recently advertised competition for college professors have been promoted by a professional casting agency, indicating Jeopardy! will seek to move beyond the build-it-and-they-will-come contestant recruitment efforts of yore.
Changes seem to be trickling into the nightly edition of Jeopardy! too, according to multiple recent contestants. Beginning last season, Richards’s first as EP, contestants invited to compete in an upcoming episode have also received instructions: Jeopardy! has a new producer, the contestant coordinators now explain, and he wants to class up the show. Players are told to bring a wardrobe of “dressy interview wear,” and sent images of nattily dressed men in suits and women in the sort of stiff primary colors that might be spotted on the morning news. Jeans, long verboten but seldom fussed over, are now firmly off limits.
One of Trebek’s preferred quips about Jeopardy! was that he was simply its host and not its star; the stars, he often said, were the contestants. To the show’s community of longtime viewers and former contestants, this has long been part of Jeopardy!’s magic. It’s not just a wholesome pop culture fixture; it’s a celebration of learning, an identity, a way of life.
After months of auditions, focus groups, and roiling comment sections, Sony has decided that Richards is not just capable of keeping that magic alive—he is the best person to do it. On the eve of taping his first episodes as permanent host, it’s clear that not everybody feels the same way.
“I think that one reason why Jeopardy! was aspirational for many of its contestants was its sense of integrity,” says Sausville, the 2015 champion. “There was something intrinsic to the show and Alex Trebek’s hosting of it that elevated it above other game shows. The baggage Mike Richards has brought from his previous experience as an executive producer, as well as the optics of what comes across as his self-selection as host, have tarnished that. I think there’s a real danger of Jeopardy! becoming just another syndicated game show, and that makes me concerned for its longevity and standing.”