The Country Mourns One of Its Most Beloved Icons
Who Was Alex Trebek?
How many television personalities in any era have the longevity of almost forty years? When Johnny Carson left the air in 1992, the world missed him, but how many of my generation even know his name? So many of the men and woman who made up television for decades in the 20th century — Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar — are remembered from black and white footage and will probably be gone when the last viewers of them disappear into the ether.
But even in era where everything is disposable, it’s difficult to imagine the world forgetting Alex Trebek. Jeopardy will no doubt continue in some form in the years to come — it did exist before Trebek was known to anybody — but that person will only succeed Trebek; they will not replace him.
Alex Trebek’s passing should not have come as hard as it did. He told the world a year ago that he was suffering from Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which even among those in relatively good health is usually a death sentence. Millions no doubt hoped he would beat the odds, and as long as he was there on TV every night, it was easy to forget this. But it was inevitable, and this Sunday he finally succumbed. Millions are no doubt mourning as we speak, not just those in Hollywood, but the ones who became champions on his show and who became famous because of their accomplishments on it.
And I’ll be honest. It hurts. A lot. For nearly thirty years of my life, since I was twelve, every night at seven was set aside to watch Jeopardy. Most of those years were spent testing my intelligence against the material, and the intellectual stimulation came from it. But during that period, Trebek became part of my family. He was always there, even through Christmases and Thanksgivings, through blizzards and heat waves (though not always through thunderstorms) through good times and bad. And I have no doubt that a lot of celebrities knew that they were part of the Zeitgeist when Alex Trebek read their name as part of a Jeopardy clue.
Even the satires of him seemed surprisingly gentle. Yes, Will Ferrell spent a good part of his career on Saturday Night Live ‘impersonating’ Alex Trebek, but that was always more of a satire of the celebrities who performed so badly time after time than of Trebek of himself. (He and the writers took it in good humor, and would from time to time; list as categories the kinds that SNL would use.) Conan O’Brian has satirized his tone in reading out clues, and Alex seemed more amused by that than hurt. I’ve been paying attention to Hollywood for a very long time, and I don’t remember anyone saying anything even remote unpleasant about him. How rare is that?
It’s easy to forget that he was not always like this. He started out as a more traditional game show host on High Rollers in the 1970s, and in the early days of his time on the show, he hosted Classic Concentration for much of the 80s. But on Jeopardy, in addition to having style, he also had that rarest of things — gravitas. It’s hard to imagine even Regis Philbin managed to do what he did.
As was the tradition with so many other syndicated shows, Jeopardy recorded several weeks in advance. Alex Trebek will therefore be seen on TV for another few weeks. Will it be eerie watching his final episodes? I have no doubt of that. But it will give millions of devoted fans a chance to say goodbye to one of the legends of television. And no matter who replaces him, I don’t see him fading into obscurity. He’s left us with too many years of memories for that.