Ken Jennings Knows Jeopardy! Viewers Will Have a Hard Time Not Seeing Alex Trebek at the Podium
On Friday, Jan. 8, Trebek will sign off in his final episode, which was pre-taped before his Nov. 8 death at age 80 from pancreatic cancer.
Beginning Monday, Jan. 11, former Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings will begin his stint as guest host, while producers decide who will take over permanently for Trebek. Jennings, who says the experience has been "dizzying," knows that viewers will probably have a hard time seeing him at the podium instead of their beloved Trebek.
"I understand better than anybody that these are very big shoes to fill," he tells PEOPLE for this week's issue. "I expect people to be a little discontented when they see me. I'm right there with them. The only thing I can do is to try doing the job the best I can.”
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Jennings, 46, who rose to fame when he was a contestant in 2004 at age 30 and won more than $2.5 million over the course of a 74-game winning streak, remained very friendly with Trebek throughout the years. He says stepping in as host has been a lot harder than he thought.
"It’s extremely nerve-wracking," he says. "I grew up watching Alex, and he did that job perfectly. But I also knew that it was a hard job from watching him — he just did it so effortlessly."
While Jennings — who is also participating in ABC's upcoming game show The Chase — had to swallow nerves over his new temporary gig, he recently made headlines after some insensitive tweets resurfaced, in which he made a joke about people in wheelchairs.
"I want to apologize to people who were (rightfully!) offended. It wasn't my intention to hurt anyone, but that doesn't matter. I screwed up, and I'm truly sorry," he said in a public apology.
Despite his former social media misstep, Trebek was enamored with Jennings from the first time they met, and always loved watching him win.
“When Ken finally lost after 74 games, that was a sad moment for me,” Trebek told PEOPLE in 2018. “I shed a tear, just because this marvelous streak had suddenly come to an end. And it’ll never be matched. Nobody will do it. That was the perfect wave.”
As for their famous friendship, Jennings says that Trebek was a lot more relaxed in real life than he appeared to be on TV.
“He was a smart guy, but he wasn’t as stern or strict as he could appear. He was a real charmer," Jennings says. "He was loose and funny and told goofy jokes. He just delighted the audiences. He loved having a full audience; he was miffed about lockdown, when they weren’t in the studio anymore.”
Jennings adds that he was actually grateful that there wasn't a studio audience while he took over as guest host.
“I think it was kind of a relief for me not having 100 people there watching me flub stuff!" he says with a laugh.
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