Alex Trebek Made ‘Jeopardy’ Nerds Look Cool

Trebek made me feel cool, when it was a Friday night and I was sitting at home, catching up on a week’s worth of Jeopardy episodes instead of going out with friends. Whenever I convinced someone to watch the show with me, I’d play along, calling out the answers. Every time Trebek smoothly confirmed that I was correct, the person next to me would ask, dumbfounded, “How did you know that?” I felt like I had just revealed a secret superpower.

For Trebek, hosting Jeopardy meant navigating dozens of personalities; he’d act as a kind of mediator for the seemingly difficult players, who’d go on to become folk heroes of sorts. One of my favorite contestants was Matt Jackson, an overeager paralegal who enjoyed a 13-episode winning streak five years ago. His blank stare at the beginning of each episode and intense style of game play made him seem formidable. He had a habit of answering hastily and interrupting Trebek. But Trebek would have none of that. During his first game, Jackson accidentally cut the host off from introducing a commercial break. “Hang on, hang on,” Trebek said. “You came up with a correct response and you want to keep going, and I understand that, but we have to pause.”

But the little jibes that Trebek made about Jackson’s manner made the contestant more likable. Jackson was aware that he came across as extreme, and played into that image throughout his run, smiling only when the camera zoomed in on his face at the end of a game. Jackson’s endless enthusiasm for the game was infectious, and the depth of his knowledge envy-inducing. If only I knew so much, I’d think, I could be just like him, joking around with Trebek on TV.

Jackson was eventually defeated by Alex Jacob, a professional poker player who won six regular-season games and the Tournament of Champions through a series of risky bets. A quiet contestant who looked almost bored at times, Jacob came alive during the brief interviews that Trebek held with contestants right before “Double Jeopardy.” The host gave Jacob the space to share charming anecdotes, such as how, when he was a kindergartner, he declared that he wanted to be a game-show contestant when he grew up.

These short exchanges between Trebek and the players were filled with such stories—small snapshots from the contestants’ lives that gave viewers another way to relate to people who might have otherwise seemed like robots spitting out memorized minutiae. Because contestants were always the show’s biggest fans, it was easy for devotees at home to see themselves on-screen, alongside Trebek. His confident manner rubbed off on nervous contestants, in turn making them seem more self-assured and impressive.

Clips of Trebek’s exchanges with contestants often went viral—awkward “Final Jeopardy” answers, creative introductions, and Trebek’s off-color remarks. Some nonviewers assumed that Trebek was, at times, intentionally rude or dismissive, but Ken Jennings, the holder of the longest-ever Jeopardy streak, explained that was never the case. “Not everyone likes that a big part of the Jeopardy! host’s job is to correct wrong answers—er, questions—no matter how gently Alex offers his traditional ‘ooh, noooo, sorry,’” Jennings wrote in 2019.

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Who Will Replace Alex Trebek on ‘Jeopardy’?

Jeopardy has remained popular even as the media landscape has shifted around it. When journalists and critics have written appraisals of Jeopardy in recent years, they’ve remarked on its commitment to facts and truth, and marveled at its appeal at a time when trivia questions are easily Google-able. These may be fruitful lines of inquiry, but perhaps they obscure a simple, enduring reason for Jeopardy’s popularity: Viewers enjoy testing their knowledge and, even more, the satisfaction of shouting out a correct response.

Trebek’s polite, steady demeanor helped create an environment that invited trivia newbies and experts alike to play along at home. “Whenever it was something that you knew, Alex would make you feel good that you knew it,” Bob Boden, a TV executive and game-show expert, told me. “And whenever it was something that you didn’t know, Alex made sure that you felt good about learning it.”

Boden, who has worked on dozens of game shows, also thinks that Trebek was effective on-screen because of how he treated contestants. “A good game-show host should have sympathy, should enjoy the highs and be disappointed in the lows,” he said. “Alex had just the right approach toward being sympathetic, relatable, and kind.” This was on display whenever Trebek would offer gentle encouragement to contestants who stumbled, perhaps reminding them of the opportunities that lay ahead in the next round. (Trebek did say in a late-career interview, though, that he was aware he took on a “You’ve disappointed daddy” tone when contestants bungled easy clues.)

In his onscreen interactions, Trebek savvily avoided drawing attention to himself. “He never believed that he was the most important part of that show,” Boden said. “He made the contestants the stars.” This was the magic of Alex Trebek: He managed to cultivate a persona while remaining almost entirely ego-free.

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Trebek’s appeal was remarkably broad in such a polarized era. His devotees have a range of ages and backgrounds; last week, one contestant said to Trebek, “I learned English because of you,” explaining that he had watched the show as a child sitting on his grandfather’s lap. In 2013, Reader’s Digest published a list of the most trusted Americans. The poll was not exactly rigorous, but Trebek came in at No. 8, behind Tom Hanks and Maya Angelou, but ahead of Jimmy Carter and Julia Roberts.

Jeopardy is expected to continue after Trebek, but finding someone as well liked to succeed him will be tough. Trebek himself speculated in a 2018 interview that the show’s producers might consider a woman for the job. Boden, for his part, said that the “the trend today is to put celebrities in as game-show hosts,” so that is a possibility as well.

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Trebek remembered for grace that elevated him above TV host

Alex Trebek never pretended to have all the answers, but the “Jeopardy!” host became an inspiration and solace to Americans who otherwise are at odds with each other.

He looked and sounded the part of a senior statesman, impeccably suited and groomed and with an authoritative voice any politician would covet. He commanded his turf — the quiz show”s stage — but refused to overshadow its brainy contestants.

And when he faced the challenge of pancreatic cancer, which claimed his life Sunday at age 80, he was honest, optimistic and graceful. Trebek died at his Los Angeles home, surrounded by family and friends, “Jeopardy!” studio Sony said.

The Canadian-born host made a point of informing fans about his health directly, in a series of brief online videos. He faced the camera and spoke in a calm, even tone as he revealed his illness and hope for a cure in the first message, posted in March 2019.

“Now normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this and I’m going to keep working,” Trebek said, even managing a wisecrack: He had to beat the disease because his “Jeopardy!” contract had three more years to run.

Trebek’s death came less than four months after that of civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, also of advanced pancreatic cancer and at age 80. Trebek had offered him words of encouragement last January.

In a memoir published this year, “The Answer Is … Reflections on My Life,” Trebek suggested that he’s known but not celebrated, and compared himself to a visiting relative who TV viewers find “comforting and reassuring as opposed to being impressed by me.”

That was contradicted Sunday by the messages of grief and respect from former contestants, celebrities and the wider public that quickly followed news of his loss.

“Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did. He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him,” tweeted “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings. “Thinking today about his family and his Jeopardy! family — which, in a way, included millions of us.”

“It was one of the great privileges of my life to spend time with this courageous man while he fought the battle of his life. You will never be replaced in our hearts, Alex,” James Holzhauer, another “Jeopardy!” star, posted on Twitter.

Recent winner Burt Thakur tweeted that he was “overwhelmed with emotion.” When he appeared on Friday’s show, Thakur recounted learning English diction as a child from watching Trebek on “Jeopardy!” with his grandfather.

The program films weeks of shows in advance, and there was no immediate reply from Sony about how many shows with Trebek are completed and if they will air.

“Jeopardy!” bills itself as “America’s favourite quiz show” and captivated the public with a unique format in which contestants were told the answers and had to provide the questions on a variety of subjects, including movies, politics, history and popular culture.

They would answer by saying “What is … ?” or “Who is …. ?”

Trebek, who became its host in 1984, was a master of the format, engaging in friendly banter with contestants, appearing genuinely pleased when they answered correctly and, at the same time, moving the game along in a brisk no-nonsense fashion whenever people struggled for answers.

“I try not to take myself too seriously,” he told an interviewer in 2004. “I don’t want to come off as a pompous ass and indicate that I know everything when I don’t.”

The show was the brainstorm of Julann Griffin, wife of the late talk show host-entrepreneur Merv Griffin, who said she suggested to him one day that he create a game show where people were given the answers.

“Jeopardy!” debuted on NBC in 1964 with Art Fleming as emcee and was an immediate hit. It lasted until 1975, then was revived in syndication with Trebek.

Long identified by a full head of hair and trim mustache (though in 2001 he startled viewers by shaving his mustache, “completely on a whim”), Trebek was more than qualified for the job, having started his game show career on “Reach for the Top” in his native country.

Moving to the U.S. in 1973, he appeared on “The Wizard of Odds,” “High Rollers,” “The $128,000 Question” and “Double Dare.” Even during his run on “Jeopardy!”, Trebek worked on other shows. In the early 1990s, he was the host of three — “Jeopardy!”, “To Tell the Truth” and “Classic Concentration.”

“Jeopardy!” made him famous. He won five Emmys as its host, including one last June, and received stars on both the Hollywood and Canadian walks of fame. In 2012, the show won a prestigious Peabody Award.

He taped his daily “Jeopardy!” shows at a frenetic pace, recording as many as 10 episodes (two weeks’ worth) in just two days. After what was described as a mild heart attack in 2007, he was back at work in just a month.

He posted a video in January 2018 announcing he’d undergone surgery for blood clots on the brain that followed a fall he’d taken. The show was on hiatus during his recovery.

It had yet to bring in a substitute host for Trebek — save once, when he and “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak swapped their TV jobs as an April’s Fool prank.

In 2012, Trebek acknowledged that he was considering retirement, but had been urged by friends to stay on so he could reach 30 years on the show. He still loved the job, he declared: “What’s not to love? You have the security of a familiar environment, a familiar format, but you have the excitement of new clues and new contestants on every program. You can’t beat that!”

Although many viewers considered him one of the key reasons for the show’s success, Trebek himself insisted he was only there to keep things moving.

“My job is to provide the atmosphere and assistance to the contestants to get them to perform at their very best,” he said in a 2012 interview. “And if I’m successful doing that, I will be perceived as a nice guy and the audience will think of me as being a bit of a star. But not if I try to steal the limelight!”

In a January 2019 interview with The Associated Press, Trebek discussed his decision to keep going with “Jeopardy!”

“It’s not as if I’m overworked — we tape 46 days a year,” he said. But he acknowledged he would retire someday, if he lost his edge or the job was no longer fun, adding: “And it’s still fun.”

Born July 22, 1940, in Sudbury, Ontario, Trebek was sent off to boarding school by his Ukrainian father and French-Canadian mother when he was barely in his teens.

After graduating high school, he spent a summer in Cincinnati to be close to a girlfriend, then returned to Canada to attend college. After earning a philosophy degree from the University of Ottawa, he went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Co., starting as a staff announcer and eventually becoming a radio and TV reporter.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1997. Trebek’s first marriage, to Elaine Callei, ended in divorce. In 1990, he married Jean Currivan, and they had two children, Emily and Matthew.

Trebek is survived by his wife, their two children and his stepdaughter, Nicky.

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