What's it really like to guest-host 'Jeopardy!'? Bill Whitaker can tell you

Emily Yahr
Washington Post

When "60 Minutes" correspondent Bill Whitaker got a call from his agent asking whether he would be interested in filling in as a guest host on "Jeopardy!" this spring, he was surprised but intrigued. He's a huge fan of the show - he and his wife watch it every night if he gets home in time - so he barely gave it a second thought before he said, "Sure, I think that might be fun."

At the time, Whitaker didn't realize how much attention would be laser-focused on one of the highest-profile job openings in Hollywood. Beloved "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek died in November after 36 years at the helm of the game show, and once fans had mourned his passing, the Internet turned to the pressing question: Who was going to replace the legendary host?

"60 Minutes" correspondent Bill Whitaker, will guest-host "Jeopardy!" for the first two weeks of May.

"I have been really blown away by the coverage this all gets. I truly did think, silly me, that I was going to be a 'Jeopardy!' guest host and carry on with my life as usual," Whitaker said, laughing. "But these hosts: They're gossiped about, they're tweeted about, they're in People magazine, the Hollywood Reporter. I'm going, 'Oh my God, I had no idea that this was going to be this wild and crazy.'"

Whitaker, whose two-week slate of episodes starts tonight, is the seventh host in the hot seat, following Ken Jennings, Mike Richards, Katie Couric, Mehmet Oz, Aaron Rodgers and Anderson Cooper. (His appearance will surely please the probable large crossover of "60 Minutes" and "Jeopardy!" fans.) The experience was a whirlwind, Whitaker said. While he has been on TV for decades as an award-winning journalist - he joined CBS News in 1984 and was named a "60 Minutes" correspondent in 2014 - he quickly learned that hosting a TV game show had a learning curve.

"I work in television news, which is a totally different animal. I'm used to talking to one camera," he said. "Here, you had, I think, four cameras - one swoops in from the side, you talk to that one at the end of one commercial, and then swoops to another one you have to talk to after a commercial, and then the contestants are over on the other side. The thing that I was most surprised about was just how fast-paced it is."

Whitaker got a taste of the intense "Jeopardy!" protocols on the first night at his Los Angeles hotel. His first day on the set was a rehearsal, in which staffers stood in for contestants and ran through a game from a previous episode. But a staffer still showed up to hand-deliver the next day's script that contained the clues and answers - and even though it was from a game that already aired, Whitaker was given strict instructions to never let it leave his sight, a sign of how seriously the show takes security.

He got only one day to rehearse ("I probably could have used two," he admitted) on the Monday he arrived. He practiced how to say each clue, became familiar with the camera angles, got to know the producers, and learned the "Jeopardy!" lingo: Contestants give "responses," not answers, and hosts say a response is "incorrect" instead of wrong. He marveled at how quickly the producers helped him feel like part of the "Jeopardy!" family. "I know it sounds hokey but it's true," he insisted. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he taped five games each.

The moment he walked onto the famous set was jarring Whitaker said, especially as an avid viewer. "A couple of times I had to pinch myself to say, 'Oh my gosh! Look where I am. This is crazy,'" he said. "It looks just like it looks on television. You're not watching on the box, you're actually there. The big screen and the questions and the podiums with the guests and the directors and the producers and the whole thing. It is quite surreal."

The two days flew by, and the nerves soon melted away as Whitaker had a blast. He enjoyed chatting with the contestants during the interviews and the end of episodes, and he developed a new appreciation for hosts who ad-lib and make jokes while balancing the rapid speed of the show. Hosts wear an earpiece during the taping, and Whitaker frequently heard, "Pick up the pace, keep it going!" Eventually, he got the hang of the rhythm.

"It becomes easier, show by show," he said. "Around show seven, I was like, 'I think I've got this!' I was feeling a little bit more comfortable. Then you've got show eight, nine, 10 and you're out."

And yes, Whitaker has watched all the other guests hosts but politely declined to name a favorite so far. He said he has been very impressed by them all, and now watches the show with a much different eye since he has gone through it himself. There was zero talk on the set of who might eventually get the permanent hosting gig. "I love my day job, so this was just a change of pace," he said.

While Whitaker was there, he also kept thinking about Trebek and how amazing it was that the veteran host made the challenging job look so easy.

"He was always kind and personable and he seemed to be brilliant himself. He made the contestants feel welcome and appreciated," he said. "There's so many things to think about, so many moving parts. To be able to do that and make the contestants all feel as though his focus is on them, that's remarkable."

Whitaker has a memory of when he lived in Los Angeles years ago, and he and his wife were at the Hollywood Bowl on a beautiful summer evening. Suddenly, they saw Trebek walking up the stairs, and there was a noticeable rumble as the other patrons noticed. A few people started clapping, and by the time Trebek got to his seat, there was a full-on standing ovation.

"He had that kind of impact, made that kind of an impression on people. Everybody liked Alex Trebek," Whitaker said. "So it was intimidating and wonderful to be tapped to stand on the same stage where he ruled for so long."