Alex Trebek, the late host of Jeopardy!, was a modest voice of declarative truth, trusted authority
The Jeopardy! brand will live on, but there's something especially poignant now about saying goodbye to Alex Trebek because of what his show represented: a place of empirical, uncontested truth in the media.
For more than 35 years, he was introduced with, “And now, here is the host of Jeopardy! … Alex Trebek!” But “host” never seemed quite the right term for what Trebek did.
“Host” suggests that the show you’re watching is a party, a social get-together — which is how most hosts, especially on game shows, treat the job. They want to invite you in, entertain you, get you to like them.
Trebek, who died on 8 November at 80, was not like that. There was nothing ingratiating about him. When he crisply welcomed you to Jeopardy!, he invited you for a half-hour of play that he took seriously. It would be fun, his hearty, efficient manner suggested, because it was fun and bracing to exercise one’s brain. He served up TV’s favourite healthful indulgence — a mindful good time that went down as easily as a mindless one.
Watching Jeopardy! year after year was like auditing a seminar led by a gentle but firm professor with a rotating roster of star pupils. It is not as if Trebek had no showbiz in him. He was a game-show veteran — you can still find him on YouTube, rocking a Gabe Kaplan ’stache and a loose ’70s manner on High Rollers. But when he assumed the post once held by Art Fleming in the 1984 revival of Jeopardy!, he adapted his style for a show in which the star was what was between the contestants’ ears.
He had courtly formalities that are increasingly scarce on TV today. The “Shall we?” at the outset of a match. The little wince when someone would fumble a Double Jeopardy question.
His Picard-like cool was his appeal, in an environment of emotive syndicated Kirks.
When he delivered one of his trademark careful pronunciations — “Comintern,” “Argentina” — it seemed not showy but respectful. It was the spirit of Jeopardy! to care about getting things right.
With some celebrities, you might fantasise that, if you ever met them, they would like you. With Trebek — as you sat on the couch, struggling to remember characters from The Aeneid, thumb clicking a phantom buzzer — you dreamed that, if you ever made the big show, he would respect you.
You sensed there was a line with him: He would joke around to a point, but class was in session, and he took it seriously. It was a game-within-a-game to find the rare contestant who could come up with a clever enough response during his midgame interviews to be rewarded with a laugh: “Pick up that signaling device! What a great answer!”
Trebek himself was not an oversharer, which was why it was so striking when the occasional story came out about his life outside the studio, like his injuring an Achilles’ tendon while chasing an intruder at his hotel in 2011. The idea of this umpire of the mind having a physical exploit — surely he could just stop a burglar with disappointed passive-aggression? — was surprising and delightful.
And maybe this was why, when he announced that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, fans both intense and casual were swept up with such feeling. All of this time, the news made us realise, we had felt for him not just respect but a quiet Remains of the Day kind of love.
In January, ABC aired the Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time championship in prime time. Sure, it was a chance to see the game’s three most celebrated players face off. (Ken Jennings won, albeit by adopting James Holzhauer’s “all in” style.)
But come on: We knew what the real occasion was. The tournament was like a homecoming, a chance to see a few successful students come back to campus, and offer what was most likely their final toast to the man who had put them through some heart-pounding exams.
Amid the white-knuckle bets and trash talk, there was an “O captain, my captain” feel to the tournament. On Night 3, Holzhauer used the Final Jeopardy round to submit the question-answer “Who is the G.H.O.S.T.? (Greatest Host of Syndicated TV),” and I would like to see This Is Us come up with anything as tear-jerking.
The Jeopardy! brand will surely live on.
But there is something especially poignant now about saying goodbye to Trebek because of what his show represented: a place of empirical, uncontested truth in the media. On Jeopardy!, after all, there were not alternative facts, only actual ones.
They did not change depending on how you felt about them or the person revealing them.
Trebek was that rare thing in contemporary media: a voice of simple, declarative truth and trusted authority. But it was an authority he wore lightly, like a well-tailored jacket.
On a show that was usually scheduled between the depressing evening news and a night of reality and crime shows, Trebek did more than teach us trivia and betting strategies. He gave us, five days a week, a place to go where it was okay to know things. He was our trusted man with the answers, even in times when reality came to us in the form of a question.
James Poniewozik c.2020 The New York Times Company
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