Remembering Alex Trebek, TV's serene god of knowledge
The late host made Jeopardy! a brainy-fun ritual for more than three decades, before a cancer diagnosis brought new poignance to his steady grace.
Who was Alex Trebek? On Jeopardy! he came off like the kind of professor you only see in old movies: a smile stern yet warm, posture unbent by any keyboards, handsome in an untroubled way. He was an Ontario boy who would get visibly excited about Canadian categories, but his appeal was the opposite of personal, and he was never trying to be relatable. When a contestant made the wrong guess on a Daily Double, a longtime viewer could sense the weather shifting in the studio in the pause before Alex said “Nooo.” When all three contestants couldn’t solve a clue, the camera would cut to him, and his eyes might glow a little when he told them what they were missing. There was disappointment in those moments, but also amused generosity. When he said the correct response, he was also saying — to them, to us — Now you know this thing you didn’t know, and I hope you won’t forget it.
The great old blank men of television became figures of fun and satire for the brash generation that followed. Trebek was a character in an early David Foster Wallace short story, and a starmaking persona for Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live. He played along, demanding Marge pay out negative winnings on The Simpsons, riding shotgun with Jesse Ventura on the craziest X-Files, sending off Ferrell on the funnyman’s last SNL. He had a good job he could keep forever, so maybe he knew he would outlast any parody. The finale of The Colbert Report was one of the great cameo parties: Gloria Steinem, Ken Burns, Ric Ocasek, Yo-Yo Ma, Big Bird! Only Trebek got to be some kind of god, appearing as himself in holy trinity with Santa Claus and Abraham Lincoln.
Jeopardy! is the rare great TV show that is also, I think, unquestionably good for you. The format values knowledge and wit, mixing memorize-the-encyclopedia topics with don’t-be-slow wordplay. Trebek wasn’t a scholar — he came to Jeopardy! after years in the network game show spin cycle — but he was proud of the series’ brainy bona fides. Other game show hosts fake excitement with physical gesticulation or audible exclamation points. The whole mood Trebek created for Jeopardy! was composure, and it was wonderful to see him in awe of the great players. Other quiz shows are just dumber, frankly. It was something Trebek was already complaining about back in 2000, when he took light shots at the famously remedial Millionaire. “People on our program aren’t there for the money,” he said. “They’re there for glory, to show off their intellectual prowess.”
His 36-year tenure was a recurring event in the zeitgeist, popping whenever a Ken Jennings or a James Holzhauer kept winning big. There was a lot to admire in the day-to-day grind. I loved how Trebek started every episode with a “Thank you, Johnny,” tipping his hat to announcer Johnny Gilbert. I treasured the sweet awkwardness of the contestant introductions, Alex moving down the line reading one eccentric biographic detail off a note card. These were pro forma moments, and you lived for when the conversation would spark something with the host. Last April, he introduced Tyler Lee, from Hollis, New York:
ALEX: “Your grandfather watches our program every day. Many grandparents do. But yours doesn’t speak English at all?”
TYLER: “After 30 years of watching Jeopardy!, he still has not learned English.”
ALEX: “Why does he watch?”
TYLER: “I think he likes to hear your voice.”
ALEX: [turning toward camera] Thank you, Granddad. [puts hand to ear] I’m very happy that you watch our program on a regular basis. [flashes a thumbs up]
There’s a lot to like in that moment — the hand on his ear as if he is somehow transmitting via hearing aid, the suggestion that he can communicate across languages simply by speaking in complete sentences, the sly self-deprecation in “Many grandparents do” — but I’ve never stopped thinking about the old man watching Jeopardy! every day, enjoying it religiously without understanding a word. A bit of a tall tale, maybe, yet the myth cuts to the core of what makes television appealing. Jeopardy! is a solidly constructed game that tests the knowledge of endearing nerds, and yet so much of a typical episode is the voice of Alex Trebek, reading clues, calling contestants by name, offering a hearty “yes!” when they get one right.
So: A sturdy career for a sturdy man. Then came the cancer diagnosis, revealed to the public in a March 2019 video. His explanation of his condition is a marvel of grace under pressure. “Normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging,” he says in the clip, “But I’m gonna fight this, and I’m gonna keep working.” He does not want us to worry. He makes a joke: He has to beat the low survival rate, he can’t violate the terms of his contract!
Chemotherapy followed, and what he described as “sudden massive attacks of great depressions.” The hair and makeup department could only hide so much. And incredibly, he did keep working: The same rhythms, the same voice, “Thank you Johnny!”, the clues, the wave to the camera at the end promising he’d be right here 23-and-a-half hours from now. Can you perhaps imagine that the average Jeopardy! viewer — a person who admires knowledge and the people who have a lot of it — was looking for something to get inspired about from 2019 through 2020? So now every episode became a little triumph of human endurance, and a portrait of resolve.
This final act had a victory lap, the Greatest of All Time miniseries, with Jennings and Holzhauer battling Brad Rutter for the title. Viewership crossed the 15 million mark. It could have been a farewell, but there was season 36 to finish, a memoir to write, season 37 to start. He worked through cancer and he worked through the coronavirus pandemic, and his last filmed episode won’t air until Christmas. Cancer forces a person to stare into the void, and in his suffering he maintained that newsman serenity, a tone that seemed old-fashioned in the ‘90s and looks positively immortal today. He must have had so many questions; when it comes to our own mortality, we all will. But only Alex Trebek had the answers.