Ken Jennings on 'Jeopardy!' Tournament of Champions, 'misogynistic' Mayim Bialik critics

No longer in a state of, well, jeopardy, the game show's Tournament of Champions is back for the first time since 2022.

Producers pushed last year's annual clash of top contestants amid the Writers Guild of America strike, which stretched from May to September, forcing the show to recycle clues in the interim.

“Part of what that means is we have the largest field of ‘Jeopardy!’ greats ever in a Tournament of Champions,” says host Ken Jennings, who holds the record for most consecutive wins with 74.

The lineup of 27 players salivating over the prestigious title features competitors with the most victories under their belt since the November 2022 matchup, winners of Seasons 37 and 38 and Season 39 Champions Wildcard throwdowns, the conqueror of the High School Reunion Tournament and comedian Ike Barinholtz, the winner of the first season of ABC's primetime “Celebrity Jeopardy!”

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The first Tournament of Champions since 2022 begins Friday, Feb. 23.
The first Tournament of Champions since 2022 begins Friday, Feb. 23.

“This year, because of the strike, we had a series of second-chance competitions to allow people who had lost their very first ‘Jeopardy!’ game a shot at redemption, and it's been amazing,” Jennings says. “Some of them turn out to be incredibly strong players who just had a rough Game 1. It's tough to just go from ‘Jeopardy!’ on your couch to ‘Jeopardy!’ in the studio, and not everybody who could be an all-timer wins that first game. I almost lost my first game.”

The first round begins Friday. Each day's winner progresses to the semifinals that kick off March 7. The Top 3 then battle in the finals beginning March 12, competing to be the first to notch three victories, win the $250,000 grand prize and a slot in ABC's “Jeopardy! Masters” competition this spring.

Barinholtz plays March 4. Cris Pannullo, who leads competitors with a 21-game streak, makes his tournament debut Monday.

Jennings reveals when the show will resume normal game play, addresses Mayim Bialik’s departure from the syndicated show (they haven’t spoken) and talks his first season hosting “Celebrity Jeopardy!” (Edited for length and clarity.)

Question: Following Tournament of Champions, there's another tournament. When does the show return to regular play?

Answer: We know there have been a lot of tournaments. We are sympathetic with tournament overload, but this is one we're really excited about. For the first time this year we're going to do a “Jeopardy!” invitational tournament where we bring back some favorite contestants from the past years, in some cases the past decades. And one winner of that competition will advance to “Jeopardy! Masters.”

It will be early spring for the first time in many, many months, we will finally have new players back on.

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Earlier this month executive producer Michael Davies said at the Television Critics Association press tour that he was “forced” into having two hosts, yourself and Mayim Bialik (who announced her exit from the syndicated program in December). Davies said you “really won the job.” Do you have a reaction to his comments?

I saw that, and I think he was right. He talked about how “Jeopardy!” is a symbol of consistency and reliability for a lot of our viewers. It's part of the ritual of their day, and they want to tune in and know what they're going to see and not wonder, “Oh, which host do I see tonight?” And I do understand that.

I'm not blowing smoke here. I really enjoyed Mayim’s hosting. You could tell she was just a born performer, very confident on stage in a way that I was not at first. I learned a lot from watching her, and I really enjoyed her hosting. But I do understand – there's a reason why TV shows don't tend to have two hosts.

Ken Jennings with the winner of Season 2 of "Celebrity Jeopardy!" Lisa Ann Walter
Ken Jennings with the winner of Season 2 of "Celebrity Jeopardy!" Lisa Ann Walter

During the panel, Davies also talked about diversifying hosts of potential tournaments, saying, "I don’t think a straight, white man is the only person to host 'Jeopardy!' and as we expand, we will fail if it is seen that is the only person to host 'Jeopardy!' " What are your thoughts?

Agree 100%. I love that I get to host “Jeopardy!” and it's my dream job, but we have seen straight, middle-aged white guys host “Jeopardy!” for decades. It's kind of been done, and I do feel like some of the criticism that Mayim got was clearly misogynistic. It was people who were not there to see a woman host “Jeopardy!” and whether they understood that about their soul or not, they were not ready to accept a woman in that position of authority.

And one thing I love about Michael talking about broadening the franchise – different kinds of “Jeopardy!,” different levels of “Jeopardy!” for different outlets – is that I think you will see a bunch of different hosts, and it will look more like America.

You hosted “Celebrity Jeopardy!” for the first time this season. How have you adjusted to the expansion of your hosting duties?

It was a little intimidating. Your average “Jeopardy!” contestant is a little bit terrified to be on camera for the first time, and “Celebrity Jeopardy!” (is) quite the opposite. They are nothing if not comfortable on camera. They are there to have a good time, to tease each other, roast each other and I really enjoyed that because the “Celebrity Jeopardy!” format (is) an hour. So we have a little more time to enjoy that kind of interplay, to let the stars joke around a bit and only occasionally do I have to be the mean substitute teacher who's like, “Alright, quiet down back there. Somebody's going need to pick a clue. I need you to settle down now, Steven Weber.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions: Ken Jennings on long-awaited return