What a battle over game-show-host succession reveals about cancel culture and elite status competition.
The basic gist of the decades-old quiz show Jeopardy! is known almost as universally as was Alex Trebek, whose time hosting the show from 1984 until his death last year (with a few of his episodes aired early this year) made him almost a byword in popular culture for intelligence. Show contestants are known for, and succeed by, their proficiency in answering questions, albeit in the show’s idiosyncratic manner: They must respond to descriptive prompts of varying cash value (added to their total if answered correctly, subtracted from it if not) in the form of a question. But there is one prompt that, if it appeared on an episode today, would have no clear response: “This individual will serve as the new host of Jeopardy!” And there is a reason for this besides the difficulty of replacing someone so esteemed as Trebek — something that is likely to place all future hosts, and maybe the rest of us, in some form of jeopardy, if not resisted.
Last week, Mike Richards, a member of the production staff of Jeopardy! who had been named the official successor to Trebek (after a series of guest hosts filled in during the interim), resigned from his position as host. He had secured it only a week prior, a circumstance that may have borne a superficial resemblance to Dick Cheney’s chairing George W. Bush’s vice-presidential selection committee and recommending himself for the job. At any rate, the grounds for his resignation were not a conflict of interest but, rather, offensive comments he made in a podcast in 2013–14. You can judge for yourself whether they are worthy of the demotion he received (a sampling: calling a woman a “booth slut” and another one “fat”). Many media outlets are loath even to mention specifically what he said, simply noting that what he said was “controversial” and that, as a result, he became “embattled,” that unenviable descriptor of the prominent public figure caught in a public-relations crisis. I myself would not, and do not, speak as he did. And maybe there is a case for holding our Jeopardy! hosts to higher standards of propriety.
But for these comments to come to light at the precise moment Richards was set to assume one of the most prominent hosting gigs in modern popular culture seems awfully convenient. Surely any number of the guest hosts and others vying for the position would have a large interest in seeing to it that negative information about Richards emerges now. In the political realm, this is known as “leaking oppo”; it would not be surprising to see the same behavior appear in another realm of elite status competition, though it would still, of course, be vexing. And even if it were a genuinely spontaneous impulse that led The Ringer to examine Richards’s past for problematic material, either origin would classify this incident as yet another instance of “cancel culture”: the attempt to use some offensive statement to gin up online outrage against a selected target to weaken or, ideally, remove it in the public sphere.
Examples of this phenomenon are so common nowadays that it’s not hard to find a comparable instance. In 2018, shortly after he was named as host of the next Academy Awards ceremony, Kevin Hart stepped down from the prospective role. Tweets had emerged that offended modern sensibilities. Hart’s career, however, did not end, raising questions once again about the nature and intent of this particular instance of attempted cancelation. Yet the episode did succeed in essentially blowing up the modern Oscars ceremony; since Hart’s removal, there hasn’t been a single individual designated as Oscars host at all. A similar fate may await Jeopardy! Mayim Bialik, an actress known for her role on The Big Bang Theory, has already been named a permanent guest host for show specials. But she, too, has opinions some (though not I) could easily deem problematic, being notably pro-Israel for a Hollywood personality. Her past comments on vaccines also drew criticism of late, but she’s clarified she’s not an anti-vaxxer and has received the COVID-19 vaccine. If hosting Jeopardy!, like hosting the Oscars, simply becomes a war of all against all, it is possible that, eventually, no one will win — except maybe Watson, a supercomputer contestant who has defeated the best human competitors on Jeopardy! and lacks a history of controversial tweets or podcasts.
It is true that all societies have a kind of cancel culture. All societies will have a set of precepts they enshrine, and a corresponding set they condemn. Rightly so; some people do, in fact, deserve to be “canceled.” But when you combine the rapidly shifting definition of what is considered acceptable in modern liberalism and the cultural environments it controls, the seemingly arbitrary nature of targeting, the surfeit of ammunition provided by nearly everyone’s digital existence, and the ever-present nature of contests in status and power between elites for what will always, fundamentally, be a fixed amount of coveted posts, you get what we have today. That is, you get an environment in which competing status-seekers and ambitious strivers must constantly maintain awareness of what is seen as dogma . . . and are constantly on the lookout for things that can be construed as deviations on the part of peer-competitors. Hence Richards’s comically brief tenure as Jeopardy! replacement host.
What can be done about this? One option, however impractical, is to minimize (or eliminate) one’s digital footprint and otherwise to live as uncontroversial a life as possible. Another is simply never to enter the kinds of environments in which this kind of cutthroat competition has now been supercharged by a weaponization of cancel culture, although that would amount to a kind of stunted ambition and may ultimately prove fruitless if cultural mores “trickle down” to other more workaday spheres of life. Still another is for people and institutions to realize that cancellation mobs are often powerless and evanescent (and unmerited), a fearsome tide from far off that recedes to nothing closer to shore, and simply wait them out before acting rashly.
In the long term, the best solution is to work to change this culture, not to one in which cancellation never happens — again, this has never been true anywhere, nor should it be — but that holds out the possibility of forgiveness and redemption for the unjustly targeted (and the truly contrite). Unfortunately, this solution is also the most difficult to enact. That is no reason not to aim for it, however. It’s our best answer — even if it doesn’t come in the form of a question.