More than 30 years ago, “a student from New Orleans, Louisiana” — that would be me — appeared on “Jeopardy!” In the time since, whenever people find out about my quiz show claim to fame, they have two questions: “How did you do?” And: “What is Alex Trebek really like?”
The first question has a simple answer. In an exciting game, I went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead over the second-place challenger, missed the question, and left with some nice parting gifts, including a case of Pepsodent and several packages of dried prunes.
The second was much harder, for Trebek — then in just his third year of hosting — had a reputation for standoffishness. In my very limited experience, he appeared only when the show started taping, kept to himself during the commercial breaks, and exchanged some small talk with us after the match was over. He seemed perfectly pleasant, very polished, and smart in a quiet sort of way. It would be years before his more casual, fun-loving side would come out on the show.
Alex Trebek died Sunday. He was 80. His death was not unexpected — he had announced last year that he was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, had taken short breaks because of that treatment, and said in interviews that he sometimes hosted the show in incredible pain — but it is still a tremendous loss.
I know it is for me, a longtime game show fan and player.
You have to remember, when he took over “Jeopardy!” in 1984, Trebek was considered something of an interloper. “Jeopardy!” was, then as now, the crown jewel of quiz shows. Even when the original debuted on NBC in 1964, it was intelligent and thoughtful, a must-see for the college students who were taking a lunch break at its 12 p.m. Eastern time slot. Its only competition among quiz shows was (the much-missed) “G.E. College Bowl,” but “College Bowl” never had “Jeopardy’s” audience or cachet.
Back then, “Jeopardy!” was hosted by Art Fleming, a former St. Louis radio personality, and announced by the legendary Don Pardo, an NBC mainstay. That version went off the air in 1975. When it returned in prime-time syndication in 1984, Trebek was the host.
Oh, Trebek was brighter than Wink Martindale or Tom Kennedy, but what about bringing back Fleming? Or using Bill Cullen? Or whomever? I mean, Trebek was the guy parodied by SCTV as “Alex Trebel.”
But pretty soon he’d won everybody over. It helped that, thanks to a shrewd marketing decision, “Jeopardy!” — originally run in graveyard time slots (see No. 29) — was packaged with the top-rated “Wheel of Fortune” and became a hit. Trebek could relax, and generations of trivia geeks like myself had an outlet for our knowledge that actually drew more viewers (and paid more money) than weekend high school “brain bowl” challenges. In fact, until “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” became a surprise hit in 1999, “Jeopardy!” was pretty much it for successful American quiz shows.
By that time, Trebek was “Jeopardy!” Sure, the success was helped by the show’s bulletproof structure and secure time slots, but it was also through Trebek’s polite, witty, and very Canadian personality. He announced players were wrong with that amusing, “Oh, sooorry.” He once appeared without pants. He was a source of great fun.
And he could make fun of himself. You don’t get to be an institution without taking a joke.
There have been rumors in recent months about who would replace Trebek when his hosting stint was over. Trebek himself couldn’t resist a wry suggestion. Now that Trebek has passed, the rumor mill will spin into high gear.
But the answer is, nobody can replace Alex Trebek. They will merely follow him.
RIP, good sir.