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Trebek Trekked Back In Book

Category : “The Answer Is…”

$100 – “Alex Trebek Biography” . A : What is The Answer is… A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sad death of Alex Trebek. So, being a fan of the show he put on the map, Jeopardy, and since he was Canadian like me, with only one degree of separation from me (we had a mutual acquaintance), I figured I’d get his recently-released autobiography and read it.

$200 – “North American Countries”. A: What are the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico. While Mexico doesn’t play much into the story, Trebek is a Canadian who found fame and fortune in the U.S., married an American (“someone who was going to complete me as a human being”) and eventually became an American citizen. The book contains a lot of interesting stories about his childhood and youth in Canada, from his parents – a beer-drinking, cursing father who taught himself English and became a respected cook and his church-going, teatotaller mom who coincidentally had family in the States, which began his love affair with the U.S. – his rather disreputable youth and iffy relationship with school and its authority figures, to a photo of him in a denim jacket and jeans …a “Canadian tuxedo” as he proudly calls it. And about his life in the more populous country to the South, and all the steps along the way to becoming the best-known and respected game show host on TV.

$300 – “Jeopardy” – A: What is the TV show Alex Trebek hosted for over three decades. Given that it was what made him famous, and conversely, a show he made famous and a ratings hit, it’s appropriate he spends a good chunk of the book talking about it. And also, the best-forgotten game shows he had to take part in along the way to get him the spot, which initially was low-paid and low-prestige by comparison. The saving grace of that was that creator Merv Griffin paid little attention to it, allowing Alex and a few writers to basically shape it as they saw fit. We get Trebek’s reflections on his favorite players, not something that happened overnight as he also tells us he really didn’t talk to them much outside of what we saw on the program. He wanted to avoid getting too close to them both to avoid allegations of favoritism, and to emotionally distance himself anyway so as not to be upset when they inevitably lost. However, he did gain a soft spot for contestants like all-time champ Ken Jennings (who is slated to replace Alex when the show resumes next year), Eddie Timanus, a blind contestant, and Cindy Stowell, a multi-game winner who always seemed awkward on camera and a tiny bit “off”… and died before her shows aired. Turns out she was suffering from terminal cancer and very ill while filming, but she kept going… something of a guide for Alex himself a few years later on.

$400 – “Content” – A : What was Alex in 2020. When he wrote the book, he already knew he had cancer and little chance to survive. He speaks poignantly about the ill effects of the cancer as well as the harrowing treatments and how he knew in the end, he was unlikely to prevail. Yet, we also see that at 80, he was fine with it. He felt he’d lived a good, long and blessed life, loved some fine people and been loved in returned. He was remarkably at peace with the idea of this being his last year on Earth, although the pandemic frustrated him. When your days are numbered down to triple digits at best, you want to do all that you can when you feel up to it… and simple joys like going to the movies with his wife and kids had been taken away by Covid.

$500 – “Honestly Fun” – A: What was Alex Trebek. He surprises in the book, largely with his candor. He sometimes swears, he has a fast and sometimes PG sort of sense of humor and he made mistakes along the way, as we all do. He doesn’t shy away from any of those in the book, nor from his political convictions. He says he’s voted for Democrats and Republicans at different times and isn’t partisan, but he also left little doubt whatsoever about his feelings of the White House at the time of his death “If you start off by saying ‘Here’s the way we’re gonna solve it’…and worse if that certainty has no basis in fact and is being pushed by someone who just doesn’t have the mental capacity to adjust, you’re in deep trouble. And that’s what we’re seeing today.”

All that plus his thoughts on sleeping nude, his favorite celebrity fan, comedy parodies of himself and of course, the moustache. The Answer Is… that Trebek’s book is worth reading.

What Is ‘A Sad Day For Television, Alex’?

“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.