“What is the passing away of Alex Trebek.” Correct for $600. Category is “2020 Bad News” .
I was sad but hardly surprised to hear of Trebek’s death yesterday. After all, he’d been publicly battling “aggressive” pancreatic cancer for almost two years and the survival rate for that disease is low, even for people much younger than Alex’s 80 years. But it was still a little shock and undeniably sad. He seemed to defy the odds and rebound so many times, both from this and the sickness the chemotherapy had caused, and from prior medical problems like blood clots and a heart attack. It seemed like it would be a Tuesday night we’d hear of Alex being in hospital and Wednesday morning he’d be on set, asking Judy, a nurse from Peoria, to name the Shakespeare play with MacDuff and Banquo, busy filming two weeks worth of Jeopardy.
Trebek was special to me for two big reasons. One, he was a fellow Canadian and one who showed some of the best qualities of our country, and two, because Jeopardy has for years been my favorite game show, and at times, a family ritual. He was synonymous with the show, and the show was a constant in ever-changing, often weird or unpredictable times.
Alex grew up in Sudbury, a mining city about a five hour drive north from where I grew up. It’s the nickel-mining center of the continent. My family took a trip up there when I was little. I don’t remember much of it other than the “Big Nickel”… which was, yes, a huge, over-sized sculpture of a five cent coin! A rough-and-ready, and at one time prosperous city, Alex outgrew it young nonetheless. He set off to Cincinnati to spend time with a girl, back to Canada to get a degree in philosophy and then to the CBC – the Canadian governmental national broadcasting network – to do everything from be a news correspondent to (briefly) rubbing shoulders with an older friend of mine on a music show, to most importantly, hosting a quiz show for Canadian high school students, Reach for the Top. Important because this in turn caught the attention of Hollywood, and soon he was recruited for a new version of a rather drab and at the time moribund game show, Jeopardy. Sure, Jeopardy had run on and off with hosts like Art Fleming and John Harlan on different channels and at different times through the late-’60s and into the ’70s, but it was far from a cultural hallmark … or even an ongoing entity when it was brought back in 1984, with Alex, big hair, moustache and all, at the helm. The rest, as they say, is history.
Week in,week out, for over 8000 episodes, Jeopardy tested our knowledge, and that of the three contestants a day, in topics ranging from “potent potables”, aka booze, to The Renaissance. River cities, men in black, famous last words, 1990s news, Shakespeare, shakes and spears… it was all in a day’s work for the show. Sometimes just guessing the topic the oft-mysterious categories were was half the fun! In an era when contest shows seem to rely on cheap laughs and ditzy contestants (a novel I’m reading neatly suggested “there’s a game show on. Martin can’t follow it; the rules seem too complex, there are too many flashing lights, too many glaring teeth.”) , Jeopardy stayed the course, steered clear of most flashy gimmicks (episode with IBM computer as a contestant notwithstanding) and rewarded often drab contestants with wide-ranging knowledge. At the center of it all, Alex Trebek. “Erudite” in the words of USA Today; “unflappable” in the opinion of NBC correspondent Harry Smith. Indeed, Trebek, who tested himself with all the questions before every game, seemed to suggest the types of qualities we Canadians generally admire. A quiet confidence and knowledge that mixes a slight detachment with a warm nature and a wry sense of humor. As Smith, who once took part in a celebrity edition of the show, noted, Trebek was “kind” and never overshadowed the game itself. The sense of humor? Months before his demise, Trebek was asked about a possible replacement as host. He answered “probably a woman. Somebody younger, somebody brighter, somebody personable. Somebody with a great sense of humor. So I nominate Betty White.” It’s said he laughed as much at the spoofing of him on TV variety shows and in Weird Al songs as we did.
I’ve not been a huge fan of game shows overall, though I’ve caught most of them along the way from The Price is Right to Family Feud to Ellen’s Show of Humiliating Contestants (I think it’s called). Mildly interested in a few, annoyed by many. Too many fools being showcased, too many rewards to whomever can scream the loudest and longest and jump up and down the most. Jeopardy though, has been a part of my life as many days as not for over thirty years. I watch along, test my knowledge against the contestants, roll my eyes when one thinks “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” is a line from Star Wars, cheer for the surprise comebacks for the underdog, the ones who stay home looking after parents with Alzheimers or volunteer at nature centers on weekends. I always figured I could do alright on Jeopardy, maybe win if the categories would come up good for me, and be steam-rollered over if Ken Jennings was back. I’d need to study up on Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution and African nations beforehand, I’d decided. It was also one of the few shows that crossed my family’s great divides. Both my parents watched regularly, long after they divorced and had very little in common. If I was at my dad’s place, 7 o’clock was time to get to the basement and put on Jeopardy. “Did you see that woman on Jeopardy tonight?”, my mom would ask in our regular calls before she passed away. One time she called to tell me there was a guy on the show who looked like me.
Trebek himself perhaps summed up the reason for his popularity when asked about what legacy he hoped to have. He says he wanted to be remembered as the guy who “always seemed to be rooting for the contestants… (when they) perform at their best, that would make the show a success.”
A success it is, or was. As was Alex Trebek.
“What is Jeopardy in 2021?” Correct for $200, category “things that will forever be a little worse in the future.”
RIP, Alex. Reports today say the final episode he taped will air as a Christmas gift to people like me, this December 25th.