Alex Trebek, 1940-2020
Many, many years ago—I’m going to say sometime in the early ’90s, possibly even the late ’80s—on a week night, my family was settling in for our evening routine when our television, a gigantic tube monstrosity, blinked out. The picture just went black. This was probably around six at night. So, largely at the behest of my mother, though without objection from anyone else, a small selection of my family went out and bought a new TV. There was a certain urgency to this, because Jeopardy! was on in less than an hour. So as I’m sure you can appreciate, this crisis was no joke.
The habit of watching Jeopardy!, the iconic quiz show that required its contestants to answer “clues” in the form of a question, has been with me for just about my whole life, and though certain things about it have changed—some rules have been tweaked, the set and answer board have been upgraded to the latest game show set style and answer board technology—it has always felt, in the best way, like the same show. This is entirely because Alex Trebek has hosted the current iteration of the show (earlier versions aired in the ’60s and ’70s) since its debut in 1984. Trebek, born in Sudbury, Ontario, in 1940, passed away this morning after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, one of the most hideous and hateful forms of that hideous and hateful disease. Through it all, he was very candid about the physical pain and psychological toll, recently telling the Los Angeles Times that occasionally he was so discouraged that he felt suicidal. But, he continued:
“You can’t be telling people ‘Keep your chin up, fight on!’ and then all of a sudden you counter that by: ‘What happened to Trebek?’ ‘Oh, he killed himself. He just got too discouraged,’” the quiz show host says in an interview from his office. “‘Well, hell, he was telling us to be positive. And then he did this negative thing.’ So, yeah. That’s the responsibility that has bothered me.”
Yet despite all this—the cancer, the painful treatment, even the suicidal thoughts—Alex Trebek continued to host Jeopardy! And even though every one of the show’s millions of fans knew what he was dealing with, they only knew because they knew, because he told them, and not because you could tell by watching him. As the disease progressed, then retreated, then returned, Trebek hosted the game show—perhaps the last, at least in the United States, that specifically rewarded intelligence and erudition—with the same grace, smoothness (his facility with the pronunciation of seemingly any word in any language was staggering, if you stopped for a minute to think about it), sympathy, humor, and even taste for gently ribbing contestants who have guessed poorly, as he ever had.
Since news of Trebek’s death broke just a few hours ago, social media has been filled with people mourning him, and the absence they’re already feeling. If that sounds dramatic to you, consider the fact that Trebek inspires this emotional response not merely by virtue of having done this particular job for so long. Lots of people in media and entertainment hold the same job for as long or longer but do not enjoy this kind of loyalty from their fans. Some of it has to do with the show itself: Jeopardy! can be very suspenseful, partly due to the amount of money that could be won by its smartest and best contestants (see the jaw-dropping runs of victory by the show’s most famous champions, Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer). In addition, it’s one of the few game shows in which the home viewer could reasonably pretend to be a full participant. There is no part of the show that could not be done from your couch, aside from literally buzzing in. But none of this would matter nearly as much with someone other than Trebek at the podium, a host who, among his many other virtues, seemed to be as smart as the clues it was his job to read.
Trebek exuded intelligence. Did he know as much as he seemed to? No, because nobody knows everything. But while attending the University of Ottawa he was a member of the English Debating Society, graduating with a degree in philosophy. And while his career in broadcasting was long and included other game shows before Jeopardy!, how many other game show hosts boast a similar eclecticism of interests? This air of scholarship—which could sometimes be mistaken for pomposity if you didn’t watch the show often enough—contributed to the show’s frequent bursts of comedy, as when Trebek, in reading a clue, had to quote rap or rock lyrics that he was clearly unfamiliar with (and if you think in these cases he didn’t realize the joke was on him, you’re wrong).
For all its celebration of learning the show could often be quite funny, because Trebek himself was funny. And blunt. In this clip, which seems to make the rounds on Twitter any time Trebek is in the news for any reason, Trebek responds to a contestant’s description of the kind of people who make and listen to nerdcore hip hop, with “Losers, in other words.” Unnecessary, maybe, but off-the-cuff, unexpected, and funny.
The show could be quite moving, too. Several of the most memorable such moments have occurred in the last year and a half, such as last November when contestant Dhruv Gaur wrote “We love you Alex!” as his Final Jeopardy answer, requiring an obviously moved Trebek to read it out loud. And just last week, winner Burt Thakur tearfully explained to Trebek that the reason this moment meant so much to him was that he had learned English by watching Jeopardy! with his grandfather. Jeopardy! is going to remain an emotionally moving show until sometime after Christmas. According to a press release issued by ABC and the show’s producers, Trebek’s last day of taping was October 29, and the show will continue to run through the holidays. So we will all continue to watch for about two months with Alex Trebek still present as the host, but we’ll know he’s gone. That will be a very strange experience. Each new episode will be sad.
Not because of anything visible on screen. But because we’ll know.