Celebrating a Life in Answers and Questions
To celebrate one of personal favorite entertainers, I’m reposting an article I wrote on Alex Trebek last year. I believe it still resonates.
I rarely try to keep my voice from entering these columns, mainly because I wish to remain professional in my criticism. But an announcement last week that it is fair to say stunned the world has made me feel that I must, for a change add my own commentary.
As the rest of the world knows, Jeopardy host Alex Trebek announced last Wednesday that he is suffering from stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. This is not the first ailment that the beloved emcee has suffered — he tore a rotator cuff in 2010 and suffered a heart attack in 2015, yet managed to stay so faithful to the demanding shooting schedule of his series that I, along with countless other viewers, only learned about it after the fact. But despite the bravado of Trebek, and his own determination to beat the odds, I think it’s fair to say the chances of him surviving this disease are not that good.
This is a devastating blow to me in a way I can’t hardly put into words. I have been watching Jeopardy for as long as I can remember, and have been playing along at home for almost as long. I’ve managed to muddle through the loss of other great actors and actresses, but Alex Trebek has been coming into my home for so long, it’s hardly an exaggeration that I consider him part of the family. And I have no doubt that there are millions of people who feel the same way. Jeopardy and all its accoutrements have been coming into our homes for so long that everything about it — the Daily Doubles, the ‘think music’; categories like Potent Potables and Potpourri have in their own way become part of our lives. Even the spoofs of Celebrity Jeopardy on SNL — which, if anything, give the celebrities too much credit — have been treated with just amusement that the writers have turned the satirical categories into genuine ones.
Trebek has been associated with Jeopardy for so long, it is actually rather shocking to know that the series once existed without him, and he without the series. Jeopardy was a 1960s and 1970s series, played for much lower stakes on morning TV, by pioneering Game Show host Art Fleming. And Trebek didn’t even get his start on Jeopardy — he originally got started on a far more gimmicky game show called High Rollers. (They made a reference to it a few years back, and he was actually miffed that none of the contestants recognized the show.) And if he wasn’t busy enough in the late 1980s, he also did double duty in the remake of Classic Concentration, the card matching, rebus solving came.
I think it’s fair to say that few game show hosts in history have had more work to do than Trebek does on Jeopardy. He has to keep track of which of thirty clues a round have been picked, which are still available, be careful not give anything away in the reading (in my quarter-century of watching, I think he’s messed up less than a dozen times total), keep charge of the scores, and do so with an inflection that Conan O’Brien has parodied to perfection over the years. He has gravitas, something that has gone out of style for game show hosts — and indeed for most people on TV — and has always had the good sense that when it comes to Jeopardy, his job is to not take any attention away from the contestants. He probably has more work to do of any TV show host in history, and he’s already set a record for having done it for longer than anybody else.
It’s hard to imagine Jeopardy without Alex Trebek, though even before his diagnosis, there were signs that it might happen just as a matter of the passage of time. Trebek is 78, and his contract was scheduled to run out in 2020. He renewed it late last year until the 2021–2022 seasons. Even then, there were discussion of who might one day have to succeed Trebek, and while he made suggestions, some serious, some whimsical, and even though other people, including Jeff Probst have hosted other forms of the series, its very hard to imagine anyone doing with even a scintilla of the class and distinction that he has done for so long.
Jeopardy has always had a special place in my heart. Every year for the past decade, I set aside time to replay three of their ultra tournaments that have occurred in the past century that I had the good sense to record in one form or another over the years — the Million Dollar Masters in 2002, the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005, and the Battle of the Decades in 2014. Earlier this year, I intended to add to this the Jeopardy All Star Challenge. I shall continue to watch them as I have, but I think now they will have a certain level of poignancy now that there is a very good chance they will be among the last tournaments that Trebek will ever host. I will hope for the best — I have no doubt that he has the hopes and prayers of millions — but I know that when it comes to what has made this series last so well, the answer will always be… Who is Alex Trebek?