Appreciation: A ‘Jeopardy!’ champ remembers Alex Trebek, a steady hand when we needed it most
Here are a few ways your relationship to your father might be similar to your relationship with Alex Trebek: It seems like they know literally everything, even when you know in your heart that can’t possibly be true. They’re both slightly intimidating and you desperately want their approval. When they turn on the charm, there’s seemingly no one more worldly or affable. And when they pay attention to you, even for a minute, there’s no better feeling on Earth.
When Trebek died on Sunday at the age of 80, many of us who had grown up listening to his cool, careful speech, effortless quips and comebacks and the occasional pitying “Ooh, sorry” on “Jeopardy!” felt like another part of us had been tossed on the ash heap of 2020. We knew he was sick, but after 20 months of assuming that no news was good news since he’d announced his cancer diagnosis, we hoped that somehow, some way, he’d beaten it.
I wish I could tell you that I got to know Trebek — that during a three-game stint on the show as a contestant eight years ago, we struck up a fast friendship and remained in touch, exchanging emails and catching up every so often and enjoying gin and tonics on cool summer evenings at his lake house.
We didn’t, of course — he had better things to do, I’m sure, but this was also built into the show. By design, contestants are not really supposed to get to know him.
After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, the celebrated game show host passed away at his home.
This is because after the 1950s quiz show scandals, rules and regulations were tightened in response to the rigging of such televised contests. “Jeopardy!” was no exception. The show was organized so that your contact with Trebek is limited to tapings, and occurs only while in front of many, many other people. There couldn’t even be the suggestion of impropriety.
During my taping, one of the producers recounted a time when a contestant accidentally took a wrong turn, wandered backstage and bumped into Trebek. The resulting DEFCON situation briefly shut down the entire production while auditors and higher-ups ensured no funny business had transpired.
But while your contact with him was minimal, you still got a peek at the kind of person he was. He clearly loved the game, and his job. After the Double Jeopardy! round of my first, extremely close game, Trebek nodded approvingly at us three contestants and said that it had been the best game of the season so far. We beamed.
He loved chatting with the audience, and graciously answered questions I’m sure he’d heard time and time again. He had an undeniable silly streak behind the austere façade: After the first commercial break, he listened patiently while each contestant talked about their dog, or rare button collection, or what have you. I told a story about how I’d found a live scorpion inside a pair of shorts I put on. During the next commercial break, Trebek started jumping around yelling, “I’ve got scorpions in my shorts! I’ve got scorpions in my shorts!” to the amusement of the entire studio.
In his decades on “Jeopardy!” Alex Trebek, who died Sunday from pancreatic cancer, became more than a TV host: He was, in his way, a leader.
Failure is built into “Jeopardy!” — everyone gets questions wrong and, since they did away with the five-game cap in 2003, everyone eventually loses (even 74-game champion Ken Jennings). You inevitably walk out of the Culver City studio shaking your head at one particular question, or wishing you’d done just a little bit better. For your own sake, of course, and the national television audience watching you, but also because you wanted Alex’s approval. You wanted to impress him.
What we “Jeopardy!” fans have lost obviously pales in comparison to the loss of Trebek’s loved ones. But it’s a particularly tough time for the country to lose someone like him. Even though he had the answers written down, he offered impartial truth during an era when that concept has been warped and rendered all but meaningless.
For 22 minutes a day, five days a week, there was an adult in the room. Someone who loved learning; someone who could say, definitively, who was right and who was wrong; someone to whom we could look for answers.
And someone we tried to be better for.
When: Weekdays, 7 p.m.
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)
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