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Former “Jeopardy!” Producer Mike Richards Opens Up About Being Fired After 1 Day on the Job (Exclusive)

The former 'Jeopardy!' producer, who was hired to replace Alex Trebek, reveals what really happened behind the scenes before he was fired — and what else fans don't know about the search to find a new host

<p>Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions</p> Former

Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions

Former 'Jeopardy!' producer and host Mike Richards

Mike Richards certainly knew he had big shoes to fill when he was chosen as the new permanent Jeopardy! host in August 2021, replacing the late Alex Trebek, who had died of pancreatic cancer nine months earlier.

But what he didn't know was how the public would react to the news that he was taking over once it was announced — or that he'd only last one day on the job before it all came crumbling down.

"We never discussed how to replace Alex once we knew he was sick," Richards, 48, tells PEOPLE of searching for a new host. "A conversation like that would have been so disrespectful."

Richards, a longtime game show producer who had been brought in at the time to replace longtime producer Harry Friedman in 2020, adds: "But we had talked about people coming in and guest hosting if Alex got too sick, but we always knew Alex come back until the day he decided he couldn't."

Related: 'Jeopardy!' Producer Harry Friedman Shares Why the Show Has Worked So Well for 40 Years

In fact, Trebek did continue to host the show for months despite undergoing treatments and being incredibly sick for much of the time — something that blew Richards away.

"I don't think I will never see anything like it again," he says of Trebek's strength. "I've never seen someone in that much pain or that ill in my life, let alone going out and pitching five perfect games a day."

Eric McCandless via Getty Images Alex Trebek on 'Jeopardy!'
Eric McCandless via Getty Images Alex Trebek on 'Jeopardy!'

But eventually, Trebek did decide that he would retire from the show to be with his family and continue treatment in peace. After he died in October 2020, Richards says the show executives decided to try out guests hosts, knowing they couldn't just replace Trebek overnight.

"I actually thought we should just name a new host," Richards says. "But when Alex passed away, it was hard on everyone. Jeopardy! fans, the country... there's was a whole staff of people where he was the only boss they've ever known. He had a place in everyone's heart, and while we all knew he was ill, his passing was very sudden, if that makes sense. It seemed to happen quickly. We were all legitimately in mourning."

Related: Alex Trebek Wanted to Be Remembered as a 'Loving Husband and Father' Before His Death

Richards says testing guests hosts would be a good way for them to understand who the Jeopardy! audience was a little bit better, especially since they were considering shaking things up a little bit.

"We could find out of they liked a Katie Couric-type, or maybe Anderson Cooper, or Mayim Bialik," Richards says, adding that he assumed they'd automatically go with current host Ken Jennings.

Instead, he says, a company who specialized in focus groups was brought in to help make the decision. "ESPN sportscaster Joe Buck took to it the quickest," Richards says, noting that hosting Jeopardy! is deceptively hard. "Alex made it look easy because he was so naturally gifted."

As for the other guest hosts, he calls Robin Roberts one of the nicest people he'd ever met, and says Couric, 67, also did an excellent job.

"The show had a different look with Katie Couric," he recalls. "She was so impressed by everyone's knowledge. I always wondered if that was a missed opportunity, to reboot the show with her, a completely different host."

He also notes that football star Aaron Rodgers really wanted the job because he was such a personal fan of the show. "Aaron Rodgers was definitely the most prepared," Richards says of the Jets quarterback. "I was blown away by that, the intensity in which he prepped, and he was so lovely to everyone on staff. But ultimately I worried about his other job that he does on a pretty high level. I was like, 'How are you going to work this out with football scheduling?' He said, 'You'll figure it out!'"

Roy Rochlin/Getty; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty; Jason Kempin/Getty; John Lamparski/WireImage From left: 'Jeopardy!' guest hosts Katie Couric, Mayim Bialik, Aaron Rodgers and Bill Whitaker
Roy Rochlin/Getty; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty; Jason Kempin/Getty; John Lamparski/WireImage From left: 'Jeopardy!' guest hosts Katie Couric, Mayim Bialik, Aaron Rodgers and Bill Whitaker

Because Richards had had on-air experience hosting himself, like with the reality show Beauty & the Geek, New Year's Rocking Eve in 2005 (when he worked for Dick Clark Productions), as well Million Dollar Pyramid and Divided on GSN, he says he was thrown into the mix of guests hosts.

He says the testing group said he did well — but when he was offered the job, he couldn't believe it.

"No one was more surprised than me," he says. "They told me, 'We'd like you to be the host of the syndicated version of Jeopardy!' I paused, and said, 'Oh wow. Thank you. What's the media plan?' Because I was very concerned that this was going to be scrutinized as closely as a Presidential election. There was widespread belief that whoever got the job first wouldn't make it."

He wasn't wrong. "Everyone was so angry because it looked like I had gone into a room and picked myself," he explains. "And that's not what happens in television, but I understood that that's what the outward appearances were."

About two weeks later, Richards stood at the podium and began his first day on the job. "I hosted one day," he says. "And then the anti-defamation league was called in to do an investigation on me."

Related: Mike Richards Out as 'Jeopardy!' Executive Producer After Losing Hosting Gig amid Controversy

The investigation had come after an article on Ringer.com was published, noting that Richards had said disparaging things about marginalized communities while hosting his podcast The Randumb Show in 2014.

At the time, Richards offered a public apology, telling PEOPLE in a statement: "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."

Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions Mike Richards on 'Jeopardy!'
Carol Kaelson/Jeopardy Productions Mike Richards on 'Jeopardy!'

At the same time, it also came to light that while he was executive producer at The Price Is Right, he had been named in former wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuits filed by the show's models. He says he fully cooperated with the ADL investigations.

"I told them, I'll answer anything. I'm an open book, proud of what I've done. I'm proud of my track record as a boss," he recalls.

Still, the damage was done. Richards was out at Jeopardy!, and says the fallout was both painful and frightening when it came to the hate he and his family received. He notes that it was COVID, the country was divided over everything from politics to vaccines, and that he definitely bore the brunt of many people's anger.

He also says that a lot of what was written about him was half-true, or taken out of context. "But by then everyone was like, 'Oh he's just a horrible person.'" He adds, "It was the price you pay for getting thrust into the zeitgeist in a very inopportune moment."

Related: 'Jeopardy!' Hall of Fame: The Biggest Winners in the Game Show's History

Since leaving the show as both host and executive producer, Richards says he's mostly spent time with his family. "I did spend a lot of time reflecting on everything that had happened," he shares. "I mean, it was quite a firestorm that engulfed my family."

As for why he's speaking out about it now, two years after it happened, he says he's come to terms with being canceled — and is hoping for more open discourse moving forward.

<p>Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images</p> Ken Jennings hosting 'Celebrity Jeopardy!'

Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images

Ken Jennings hosting 'Celebrity Jeopardy!'

"Why I am talking now is that I feel like I can be a force for good as far as having open, honest conversations," he says. "We can all disagree about a lot of things. We can disagree about politics, we can disagree about who hosts Jeopardy!. We can disagree about liking a final Jeopardy! clue. And we should. But I felt like there was a this rush to judgment, and a lot of people got joy in saying, 'I got you.'"

But he's not bitter. He says he thinks Jennings is a great host, noting, "I always thought Ken was the guy."

Related: Jeopardy! EP Breaks Silence on Hosting Shake-Up, from Mayim Bialik's Firing to How Ken Jennings 'Won the Job'

For now, he's working on packaging and selling more shows, and says more than one person has told him he should write a book about what really goes on behind the scenes at game shows since he has the stories.

"If I wrote a book, it would be as a fan," he explains of getting the chance to work with people like Dick Clark, Bob Barker, Monty Hall, Pat Sajak and of course, Trebek. "Unless it's about those people? I'm not interested."

Of course, he's also still pitching game show concepts, but as for getting behind the podium again? He's not gunning for it.

"If I pitched a show and someone asked, 'Would you be you hosting it?' I say, only if you think I'm the right man for the job. I don't care if you have someone else in mind," he says.

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Jeopardy! airs weekdays at 7 p.m. ET on ABC.

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