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Alex Trebek doesn’t know how he’ll top ‘Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time’

Trebek TCA
Host Alex Trebek, center, with contestant Brad Rutter, left and executive producer Harry Friedman at the panel for “Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time” at the Television Critics’ Assn. press tour in Pasadena.
(Stewart Cook / ABC)

Alex Trebek has spent nearly half of his life hosting “Jeopardy!” — 36 years, if you‘re counting. And, he says, it’s taken this long to gather three contestants formidable enough to warrant the kind of showdown unfolding on “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time.”

Kicking off Tuesday, the primetime tournament brings together the three greatest contestants in the game show’s history — James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter — for the ultimate trivia showdown. Jennings came out on top on night one. But he’ll need to outsmart his opponents in two more matches if he wants to scoop up the $1 million grand prize.

Especially in light of host Alex Trebek’s health woes, the “Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time” tournament is an ideal time to appreciate a TV institution.

“‘Jeopardy!’ has not only been part of America’s television life for so long, it’s been a part of my television life for a long time also,” Trebek, 79, told reporters. “We’re always trying to push the envelope and do something a little different, a little more advanced from a technical point of view or from a content point of view. And this tournament would not have been possible if it weren’t for James’ appearance on our program, because there was never a third candidate that we could put in against Ken and Brad and make it plausible. And now, all of a sudden, ‘Hey, this is great television.’ It’s made for television. It’s a competition that people have been looking forward to for a long time. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Trebek was discussing the long-awaited battle of the brains — a ratings hit so far, drawing a whopping 14. 4 million viewers — at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena. It’s been such a success that he doesn’t know how the game show will top itself: “We were talking backstage about how we would outdo this particular ‘Greatest of All Time’ tournament. My suggestion was do ‘Greatest of All Time’ seniors tournament in 10 to 12 years, or 15 years. Bring them [the contestants] all back again. I don’t know. I’m up for anything, if it makes sense.’”

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He was joined Wednesday by the three male contestants, as well as executive producer Harry Friedman. But the bulk of the roughly 40-minute panel gave way to questions about Trebek’s legacy and his health as he battles Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

“Some days are better than others,” Trebek said. “My resistance is lower than most of you, of course, because of the treatments I’ve been having — the chemotherapy and, as you can tell, I have the cold that seems to be going around. But this is the second time I’ve had it in the past month and a half. They’ve got me off one of the chemo drugs, which was killing me. I go in for some tests tomorrow. It will be maybe another week or so before I find out where things stand. But I have good days and I have bad days.”

‘Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time’
Host Alex Trebek, left, with contestants James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on the “Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time” tournament airing this week on ABC.
(Eric McCandless / ABC)

Trebek said he felt some of those bad moments while taping this week’s prime-time event.

“I saw all those shows after they were ended,” he said. And he asked to his wife: " ‘Did you notice anything about the way I handled the shows?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t notice anything at all.’ And I said, ‘I did. I seem a little slower in the ad-lib portions. I could still deliver the clues at a rapid pace to try to keep up with these three bright contestants.’ I feel I was not having one of my best weeks."

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That doesn’t mean Trebek’s days of hosting the long-running game show are winding down: “For some reason, I can suck it up when [announcer] Johnny [Gilbert] introduces me. It doesn’t matter how I’ve been feeling before that moment in my dressing room, backstage. It’s just showtime and I get to spend time with bright individuals.” But he knows the time will come eventually. And while he has a plan, it’s not fully thought out.

“I don’t have to work on my [goodbye],” he said. “I made the decision a long time ago, that what I’d do, it would be the same as when I shaved my mustache — I did it on a whim. On that particular day, I will speak to Harry and I will speak to Clay [Jacobson], our director, and tell him, ‘Give me 30 seconds at the end of the program.’ That’s all I need to say goodbye. That’s going to be the last show.”

What would come next, when he’s signed off from the show?

“Drink,” he joked. “No, I’ll work around the house. Keep in mind, I’m 79 now. I don’t foresee that 30-second moment coming up in the near future.”

“Jeopardy’s” top earners of all time — Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer, Brad Rutter — faced off in their first match Tuesday. One was the clear-cut victor.

But if he could have a say in his legacy, it’d be this:

“I hope I’ve been an influence of good and an influence of not minimizing the importance of knowledge in one’s life. Even though you are not going to use [it] in a practical way in daily life ... it becomes part of you and enriches you, and makes you a better human being. And I think the more you know, the easier it will be to understand everything else in the world. If you have limited knowledge, then you’re approaching other people with a limited point of view and that can be disastrous.”

Ever the consummate host, Trebek ended his time onstage by trying to put things back on track.

“One final word, if I may ... the reason we’re here today is because of ‘The Greatest of All Time’ tournament starring these three. And I encourage you to watch that competition, particularly tonight.”


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