Earlier this year, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation announced that its first-ever PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion will be LeVar Burton. He was selected by the organization as a way to recognize his ongoing contributions to literacy, through 155 episodes of Reading Rainbow, his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, and his decades of support for book geeks everywhere.
Although that’s an incredible honor, Burton is still crossing his fingers that another intellectual institution will notice what he’s been doing since the early 80s. Burton’s first episode of Reading Rainbow aired more than a year before Alex Trebek and his luxuriant mustache said “Welcome to America’s favorite answer and question game” for the very first time. And for the past several months, Burton has been not-so-subtly hinting that he should be Jeopardy’s next host—or that he should at least be given a couple of weeks behind the podium to see how it goes.
“I've asked friends and family to help me identify someone out there who's more qualified for the job than I am," he recently told Entertainment Weekly. “I think my whole career is an advertisement for being the host of Jeopardy.”
Honestly, he’s 100 percent right—and Jeopardy, which is presumably a show by and for smart people, would be absolute muppets if they didn’t give him a call-up. (Here’s where I casually mention that I’m a former Jeopardy champion). A lot of people agree with him too: as of this writing, more than 231,000 people have signed a Change.org petition encouraging the show to go with him.
“Between hosting 21 seasons of the educational Reading Rainbow, playing the brainiac engineer Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and filling the roll of Kunta Kinte in the ever important mini-series Roots, LeVar Burton has inspired and shaped the minds of several generations of trivia-loving nerds,” Joshua Sanders wrote on Change.org. “This petition is to show Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and producers Mike Richards and Harry Friedman just how much love the public has for Burton, and how much we'd all love to see him as the next host of Jeopardy!”
“Oh my god, I never dreamed it would get this kind of response,” Sanders told VICE. “But of course he’s the best option. I literally can’t think of anybody who would do a better job than him. For kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s, LeVar Burton probably did more to encourage them to learn how to read than their own parents did. I was about 13 when Star Trek: The Next Generation came on, and he was the smart guy character. He was my hero, and the one I wanted to be like, you know?”
Sanders, who said he’s tried out for Jeopardy a couple of times, originally shared the petition in Star Trek Shitposting, a Facebook group where more than 94,000 members post a lot of memes about how the Enterprise-D bridge crew would prep their pizza rolls. “I think it got up to 100,000 signatures within the first week, just because of the reach of the group,” he said. “When Jeopardy announced the first list of guest hosts, and he wasn’t on it, I kind of tucked my tail between my legs in defeat. But then last week, he re-posted it and that was the real turning point.”
Burton retweeted the link, writing “Leaving this here in the event the powers that be are listening.” The Late Show host Stephen Colbert tweeted his support, suggesting that Burton should host as Geordi La Forge. And the Change.org petition was shared by comedian Dick Van Dyke, who is apparently still alive. Burton has also been a frequent topic of discussion in Facebook groups for former Jeopardy contestants, and is often mentioned by those who think he’d be a brilliant host, and by those who are frustrated that he hasn’t been given a chance yet.
Jeopardy has to think about three things when they’re trying to find their next host,” Celeste DiNucci, a five-time regular-season champ and 2007 ‘Tournament of Champions’ winner, told VICE. “One of them is just who would be a good host, and Burton checks all of the boxes: he’s personable, his on-camera presence is welcoming, and he presents a kind of friendly curiosity about the world. The other two things the show needs to consider are the next generation of Jeopardy fans, and what they want the legacy of the show to be.”
With her 11 total appearances, including during the invite-only ‘Battle of the Decades’ tournament, DiNucci had more interactions with then-host Alex Trebek than the average contestant, but she says that whoever’s standing behind the podium can have a huge effect on the defending champ and the two challengers.
“The host is the person who’s going to determine, in a lot of ways, how you come off on camera,” she explained. “The host needs to be someone you can trust, someone who’s rooting for you in a certain way, and who’s happy to have you there. The highlight of my episodes was that Alex and I got to have a little banter, which made it fun. It reminded me that it was a game, which frankly, I think is why I did as well as I did.”
Anyone who’s seen three minutes of Reading Rainbow knows how encouraging and supportive Burton can be, which would benefit everyone involved. A lot of contestants have never been on television before they made it to that Culver City studio, so having his steady presence and calming vibe would be a huge deal. He also knows what it’s like to compete on the show too: in 1995, Burton absolutely dominated his appearance on Celebrity Jeopardy, collecting two Daily Doubles and outscoring the speed skater in second place by more than $11,000. (It’s also impossible to imagine Burton making fun of contestants for missing a clue, the way Dr. Mehmet Oz allegedly did during his time as host, according to one recent champion.)
Another entry on Burton’s mile-long list of qualifications is the fact that he’s a legit icon for a generation of now 30-and 40-somethings, and they’re significantly younger than the average Jeopardy viewer. According to one demographic report, only Wheel of Fortune is watched by a more elderly contingent than Jeopardy—and it’s probably best for any program, going forward, if their target audience isn’t currently reading about affordable burial options.
“I think as they move into the future, Jeopardy owes it to all of us to start modeling something a little different,” DiNucci said. “Not only would Burton be great, but he would be more representative of a broader audience. With the Reading Rainbow connection, it makes sense to bring in a new generation of kids who grew up with that. He also seems to love learning, which is another thing that I think Jeopardy needs to get back to.”
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is still guest-hosting through the end of the week, and he’ll be followed by CNN host Anderson Cooper, 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker, Big Bang Theory star Mayim ‘She’s Still Blossom to Me’ Bialik, Today show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, and CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
According to Clare McNear, the author of Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy, there are still seven weeks’ worth of episodes that have not yet been assigned a guest host. If there’s anything good and pure in this world, LeVar Burton will be behind that podium for at least two of those weeks, or the Jeopardy producers will surprise all of us and announce that he’s taking over the gig next season. (If Burton isn’t given the same opportunity as Dr. Oz then I will personally scream “JEOPARDY FUCKING SUCKS” through the open windows of every retirement community in my area.)
“I just can’t stop thinking about how I think LeVar would do better than anyone,” Sanders said. “I don’t see how they can ignore him at this point. He’s said he wants the job, and they should at least give him the chance. They have to. And if he is asked to host, I’ll consider this petition as one of my greatest life achievements.”