The Rare Authority of Alex Trebek

Of course, he had impressed Lucille Ball. In the late seventies, the actress, a regular on the game-show circuit, had been a fan of the f...


Of course, he had impressed Lucille Ball. In the late seventies, the actress, a regular on the game-show circuit, had been a fan of the flashy daytime competition “High Rollers”—in large part because of its dignified host, a young mustachioed Canadian named Alex Trebek. So when Ball heard that her friend Merv Griffin was looking to revive his cancelled quiz show, “Jeopardy!,” she recommended that Griffin hire Trebek as the program’s new host. In September, 1984, Trebek hosted his first episode of “Jeopardy!,” and, sometime around Christmas, his last will be aired. After a year-and-a-half-long battle with pancreatic cancer, he died on Sunday, at the age of eighty, in Los Angeles.

For more than thirty years, Trebek presided over the blue game room. His suits were starched and his eyebrow was arched; his presence alone made contestants and audiences instinctively straighten. Like Art Fleming, the original host of “Jeopardy!,” Trebek needed to project moral fortitude. (A number of cheating scandals on quiz shows in the fifties had eroded public trust in the format.) Trebek’s chic professorial demeanor—the glasses tipped down the nose, just so; a mop of brown hair that, in later years, became a trimmed flash of white—telegraphed to viewers that this game was fair. One of the hallmarks of the show is its consistency. The game has always followed a strict pattern: Jeopardy!, Double Jeopardy! (worth twice as much), and the Final Jeopardy question. But there is also a sort of drama that transpires each time. Contestants race to press their hand-held buzzers, and whoever is first offers their answer, while looking to Trebek—all the way over there, at his lectern—for his reaction. One objective is to get the answer correct. Another is to please Alex Trebek.

It’s easy to forget to appreciate the freak ubiquity of “Jeopardy!” One of the most popular, longest-running television shows of all time is a trivia gauntlet that, by design, casts bookish obsessives. (Some of the most common professions among the show’s contestants are attorney, software engineer, graduate student, and stay-at-home mom.) It’s a miracle that the show is so exciting to watch. This is due almost entirely to Trebek. As a host, his command was warm but curt. He was not an m.c.—Johnny Gilbert, his voice-of-god announcer, brought the vestigial showmanship—not a “personality.” He never changed his demeanor, even as the landscape of game-show television tipped, over the years, toward the loud and the carnivalesque (“Family Feud,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”). Trebek took the game seriously, giving us permission to, without embarrassment, find pride in procuring, while yelling on the couch, our little trinkets, our factoids. Under Trebek’s stewardship, watching “Jeopardy!” counted for righteous mental exercise. No matter how busy you were, you could always afford the half hour; it was dinnertime, anyway.

George Alexander Trebek was born in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, in 1940. His father was an immigrant from Ukraine, and his mother was French-Canadian. Between the two of them, they spoke English, French, Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian. (“It was like a mini United Nations,” Trebek said, in 2011, during a speech at the Ukrainian Cultural Center, in L.A.) In his early twenties, while attending the University of Ottawa and in need of money to finish out his degree, Trebek took a job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as an announcer for radio segments. He quickly segued into a smattering of hosting gigs—a photo of a handsome twenty-three-year-old Trebek, on the set of “Music Hop,” the Canadian equivalent of “American Bandstand,” has gone viral in recent days. He hosted more than a dozen short-lived game shows—at one point, he was hosting three at the same time. He projected a suaveness and decorum that could be excitingly incongruous with the over-all vibe of a show like “The New Battlestars” or “Double Dare.” And, occasionally, he would venture into the realm of news, taking on the role of the handsome everyman broadcaster. (Trebek’s surreal, meandering moderation of a 2018 Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate, which put on display his refusal to conform to the norms of American political theatre, is a fascinating misstep in his career.)

It was “Jeopardy!” that best suited him. He led one of our last wholesome routines—a celebration of facts, from the arcane to the accessible—with a kind of tangible enthusiasm. He also had an entertainer’s subtle edge, a jesting streak that hit like electricity when it was activated. If a contestant’s answer was silly, he might scowl imperceptibly, deflating them with a small “No.” If the answer was not given in the proper format, he might not say anything at all until the contestant self-corrected. The theatre was not based in snobbery, and neither is the show’s culture. Trebek simply respected the correctness of things too much to let error live.

With returning champions such as Ken Jennings, who has parlayed his unbroken record into a consulting producer role, and James Holzhauer, whose blitz technique awed as many as it irked, Trebek built a rapport. The prime-time special “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time,” featuring Jennings, Holzhauer, and Brad Rutter, the highest earner in the show’s history, proceeded rather like a reunion. A multi-episode run wasn’t always necessary for this kind of intimacy; in one of the many “Jeopardy!” clips currently making the rounds on the Internet, Trebek lightly roasts a first-time player for liking “nerdcore hip-hop.” (“Losers, in other words,” he says, deadpan.) But humiliation, the engine driving every iteration of modern reality television, never figured into the production. Trebek wanted the contestants—the zealots who had drilled themselves ad nauseam to qualify for the competition—to do well. If the clues were too hard, Trebek would critique the writers afterward.

One got the sense that Trebek wanted the contestants to thrive. In 2016, a woman named Cindy Stowell was featured on the show. While running a fever, Stowell, a Stage IV cancer patient, went on a seven-game run, earning more than a hundred thousand dollars. She died before her episodes were aired, becoming the first posthumous “Jeopardy!” contestant. When paying tribute to her, in a segment aired at the end of her streak, Trebek grew emotional. He explained to viewers, “Appearing on the show was a fulfillment of a lifelong ambition for that lady.”

Recently, interest in Trebek’s personal life has been piqued. He seemed to know everything. We did not know much about him. When, in March of 2019, he announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, many came to terms with the depth of his significance for the first time. That Trebek would be on television every weeknight had always seemed like a foregone conclusion. As his illness ebbed and surged, he sometimes looked gaunt and tired. He kept his composure, except for the time that the contestant Dhruv Gaur, aware that he’d already lost the game, spent his money in Final Jeopardy on this answer: “We love you, Alex.”

In Trebek’s memoir, “The Answer Is . . . : Reflections on My Life,” published earlier this year, the host processes, with engrossing reluctance, the weirdness of his renown: “I’m part of the family more than an outside celebrity who comes into your home to entertain you,” he wrote. “They find me comforting and reassuring as opposed to being impressed by me.” There was an effacing aspect to the job. “Jeopardy!” wasn’t supposed to be about Trebek. He tried his damnedest to keep the attention on the pursuit of knowledge. Over time, though, he has become synonymous with knowledge itself. Among “Jeopardy!” diehards, there has long been a question: Did Trebek, after hosting the show for so many years, possess a genius?

Even if Trebek was just reading from the cue cards, it will be difficult to replace him. Not many cultural figures have garnered such trust from the public. His idiosyncrasies are also baked into the action of the game; expert players literally hang on his every word, studying his careful speech patterns, in order to hit the buzzer first. Many wonder if “Jeopardy!” should even continue without Trebek. It should. It will have to be different.

Trebek taped episodes up until October 29th. (In a prime-time interview from this past January, he said that he would prepare a final statement, to be aired when he left the show, which fans are hoping he had the opportunity to do.) Last night’s “Jeopardy!,” the first taped episode to air after Trebek’s death, began with an emotional statement from the show’s executive producer, Mike Richards, followed by a moment of silence in a darkened studio. Then, after the opening credits, Trebek steered the show like he always had. Elaborating on a contestant’s correct response concerning an acronym popularized by Drake, Trebek sounded hip: “YOLO: you only live once.” When interviewing the contestants, midway through the episode, Trebek asked the returning champion about his success as a “vocal percussionist.” Excitedly, the man recounted opening for James Brown. “Meeting him is one of the high points of my life,” he said. Then he gestured deferentially to Trebek. “Now the second highest point in my life.”

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Newsrust: The Rare Authority of Alex Trebek
The Rare Authority of Alex Trebek
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