In filing a scouting report on Aaron Rodgers after the first week of his two-week run as a guest host of “Jeopardy!”, it seems fitting to begin by asking a question, even if it is not delivered in the show’s proper format as an answer in the form of a question:
Do you remember Rolf Benirschke?
If you’re a fan of high-octane NFL offenses or ’80s placekickers with cool names, you might. He was the kicker for the “Air Coryell” San Diego Chargers from 1977-86, for whom he booted a lot of extra points after Dan Fouts touchdown passes.
He is lesser known for his brief, sixth-month stint in 1989 as the host of the daytime “Wheel of Fortune.” Benirschke hosted that edition of the show (which was canceled in 1991) while Pat Sajak continued to host the nighttime version, as well as his own short-lived talk show.
As far as game-show hosts go, Benirschke was a pretty good placekicker. He fit the suit, and he was genial enough, but was inexperienced and out of his element. He was chronically awkward as the host, and by the end, there was something merciful about replacing him with the returning Sajak in June ’89.
Benirschke’s stint came to mind this week while watching Rodgers find his comfort zone on “Jeopardy!”, a game that for myriad obvious reasons is a more complex hosting assignment than “Wheel of Fortune.”
Rodgers doesn’t make it look easy. But his easy manner does make the viewer forget how difficult it is, and that in itself is an accomplishment.
Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers begins his two-week run as “Jeopardy!” guest host today. As the show continues to look for a replacement for the great Alex Trebek, who died in November at the age of 80, Rodgers taped the Jeopardy episodes during two days in February. pic.twitter.com/HznkWV4yy0
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 5, 2021
Rodgers, the Packers quarterback, reigning NFL MVP, and former “Celebrity Jeopardy!” champion, revealed in an interview with The Ringer’s Claire McNear that he studied old episodes of the show — yes, the quarterback watched a different kind of game film — to try to pick up tips on how legendary host Alex Trebek handled certain circumstances.
“I would watch the show on mute,” said Rodgers, who taped his 10 episodes over five days in February. “That was a good way to practice. So you watch the show on mute and you practice reading the clues and then calling on the contestants.
“I was excited about it — I was in quarantine for the early part of the [NFL] offseason and I spent that time watching episodes and writing notes and practicing and learning the best points of the show.”
Rodgers’s manner comes across as attempting to be erudite, as Trebek, who died in November from pancreatic cancer at age 80, so effortlessly was. But with Rodgers, it comes across as more subdued, at least when he’s reading the questions and speaking to the camera.
Where he has stood out is in his easy interaction with the contestants, more than one of whom has appeared to be star-struck. He’s personable, engaging, and displayed a wry sense of humor.
That humor was evident on his first show Monday, when contestant Scott Shewfelt, not knowing the answer in Final Jeopardy, wrote, “Who wanted to kick that field goal?”, a reference to a curious coaching decision in the Packers’ loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship game. Rodgers laughed, immediately adding levity to what could have been an awkward situation, then told Shewfelt afterward he was hoping someone would bring that up.
The contestant to Aaron Rodgers 💀💀💀… and Rodgers agreed with him!! pic.twitter.com/ST5OZtbRms
— Harold R. Kuntz (@HaroldRKuntz3) April 5, 2021
Each show seemed to have at least one genuine moment of humor. On Tuesday, when champion Brandon Deutsch told a story about how he’d been seated next to actor Burt Reynolds on a plane as an infant, Rodgers name-dropped “Turd Ferguson,” a reference to a classic “Saturday Night Live” recurring skit that posited Reynolds as a “Celebrity Jeopardy!” contestant.
Wednesday, when contestant Sebastián Martínez Valdivia mentioned that he once got to visit singer and marijuana advocate Willie Nelson’s tour bus, Rodgers deadpanned, “Lotta smoke?”
Rodgers is the fifth guest host the program has used as it gracefully seeks a successor for the beloved Trebek. Rodgers acknowledges that he covets the full-time hosting job and told McNear, who wrote an excellent recent book on “Jeopardy!”, that he believes he can do it while he’s still an active NFL player.
“I don’t think I’d need to give up football to do it,’’ he said. “They film 46 days a year. I worked 187 this year in Green Bay.”
There is a broader history of NFL players becoming television and game-show hosts than one might think. There was poor Benirschke, of course, with Michael Strahan (who hosts “$100,000 Pyramid” along with his “Good Morning America” and “Fox NFL Sunday” gigs) on the other end of that spectrum.
Lynn Swann (“To Tell The Truth,” 1990-91), Ahmad Rashad (”Caesars Challenge,” 1993-94), and — here’s an obscure one — Jimmy Cefalo (”Trump Card,” 1990-91) all went from the gridiron to the sound stage, at least briefly.
Rodgers already rates just below Strahan as the best NFL player to host a game show, a week into his run. But how does he rate among the other “Jeopardy!” guest hosts?
An extremely unscientific poll of the three other habitual “Jeopardy!” watchers in this household ranks Rodgers as the second-best so far, behind Ken Jennings, slightly ahead of Mike Richards (the program’s executive producer) and Katie Couric, and far, far ahead of Dr. Mehmet Oz, another shameless Oprah-foisted “expert” whose stilted interactions with contestants suggested he wasn’t listening to what they said. That’s a lousy trait in a doctor and a game-show host.
Rodgers has done a fine job finding his own comfort zone on the show, even if his default level is “mellow.” But where he’s really thrived is putting contestants at ease, and that seems like one of the toughest parts of all, especially from a relative novice host.
The hunch here is that Jennings will be the choice. But as it turns out, Rodgers, the superstar quarterback is, in another arena, a pretty darned good backup.
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