With Alex Trebek, We Say Goodbye To An Era In Television

The audience takes its seats, members murmuring amongst themselves. Some comment on how the soundstage looks smaller in person than on the small screen, an optical illusion caused by wide-angle lenses. Others note the set’s cool temperatures, intended to offset the stage lights’ heat. As the production staff provide information and instructions about what they are about to see, the guests just take it all in.

Preliminaries concluded—audience briefed, crew in position—the theme music starts, the lights come up, and the cameras roll. The show’s voice for nearly two score years intones the introduction, rising with the audience’s applause to reach his crescendo:

“And now, here is the host of ‘Jeopardy!’—Alex Trebek!”

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In the last episode of his documentary “Baseball,” filmmaker Ken Burns highlights the inherently nostalgic nature of a national pastime that has as its prime objective “going home.” Home, of course, means many things to many people. In many cases, it represents a sense of place—a feeling or place of being—more than a physical place itself.

Johnny Gilbert recognizes that. At the start of a “Jeopardy!” taping, the announcer introduces himself as “the person who’s been yelling at you for years.” (He’s only half-joking; the Hollywood legend in his own right—at a spry 96 years young—still gets physically animated as he enunciates his script.) He adds that “I feel like I know all of you—you’ve welcomed us into your homes every night.”

Gilbert’s comments hit on the way Trebek feels like an extended member of the family to millions of Americans, someone who has come into their homes every evening, five days a week, for more than 36 years. It seems somehow fitting that Trebek represents merely the public face of a close-knit “Jeopardy!” crew, a television family with names and faces still in the same roles as when I appeared on the show more than a quarter-century ago.

To me, and some of my fellow contestants, Stage 10 at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Overland Avenue represents a home. But for nearly four decades, “Jeopardy!” and Trebek have served as a home for millions—even those who have never set foot on the Sony Pictures Studios lot.

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What has made Trebek feel like a member of so many Americans’ families? Why the outpouring of support and compassion when news of his cancer diagnosis became public? Familiarity helps, of course. Hosting a television show for more than three decades makes one a constant presence in American culture.

But, as evidenced by his behavior at a taping last fall, Trebek has commanded respect precisely by shying away from the limelight. Yes, he hosts a popular quiz show, which has brought him no small amount of fame and fortune. But most regular viewers don’t tune in to see Trebek—they tune in to compete against the material, and watch the contestants strut their intellectual stuff.

Unlike other game shows, where hosts can show off their outsize personalities, hosting “Jeopardy!” requires a light touch—gently moving the game along, and deferring to contestants rather than using them as fodder for comedy bits. In fact, one of the few times Trebek seemed out-of-place on stage—a Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate he moderated in 2018—arose precisely because he inserted himself into the discussion far too often.

In general, Trebek deprecates, both on camera and off. Asked about his health by an audience member, he responds by saying, “I’m doing fine,” and then elaborates only slightly: “I have good days and bad days, and today’s OK.” As might be expected from someone battling a major illness, Trebek doesn’t seek to make his condition a major topic of discussion—he has a job to do, and wants to get on with it for as long as he can.

Trebek also employs humor to self-deprecate, responding to audience questions with quick quips, often at his own expense. Asked for his hobbies and outside interests: “I drink.” If he couldn’t host game shows, what would he have done with his life? “Pope. I’m fine with the celibacy, and I like wearing white”—accentuated with a few faux pontifical blessings for comical emphasis. And when Gilbert jokes that a gift bag contains boxes of Depends, Trebek shouts out: “I’ll take ‘em!”

In 2007, Britain’s Labour Party tried to humanize their otherwise-dull prime minister, Gordon Brown, with a marketing campaign: “Not Flash, Just Gordon.” Trebek holds little of Brown’s dour Scottish demeanor but, due in large part to his working-class Canadian roots, he eschews flashiness, or a desire for cheap headlines. He has functioned in the background of American life, ever-present, but rarely foremost in prominence.

Now, however, that voice seems conspicuous by its absence.

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At that November taping, one of the contestants in particular struggled mightily. Early in the episode, she couldn’t master the signaling button to ring in. But once she learned how to use the buzzer, she rang in—and froze. She rang in for the wrong clues, and forgot responses under the glare of the stage lights. On this particular day, everything that could go wrong for her did.

Having over-compensated when behind in a match myself, I couldn’t help but feel compassion for the contestant, who seemed shell-shocked by the experience. With a negative score heading into Final Jeopardy!, the producers escorted her off the stage, while the two remaining contestants played out the last clue.

At the end of the match, the producers brought the contestant back on stage while the show’s closing credits rolled. While the two other contestants chatted with Alex, this third contestant stood there awkwardly, likely wishing she was standing anywhere else in the world than on that soundstage.

Trebek noticed her discomfort, and pulled her aside for a quiet conversation as the cameras switched off. I know not what words he spoke to her, or whether his words helped to put the episode in proper perspective. But I couldn’t help but recognize the fact that a man fighting for his life took time to comfort this distraught contestant. That heartfelt gesture had an impact on me, an observer watching from a distance; I can only imagine it had a similar impact it had on her.

* * *

Towards the end of the day, I had a surprising feeling. I had flown out to Los Angeles solely to attend a “Jeopardy!” taping. Given Trebek’s ill health, and the impact “Jeopardy!” had on my life—I met my sister through the show—I wanted to go back to Stage 10 while I still could. I got on a plane, went straight from the airport to the studio, and after several patient hours of waiting, got escorted onto the set.

Yet despite all the effort and all the drama, an hour or so into the taping, that emotion had all subsided. The show felt like just another “Jeopardy!” taping, one of the many I have seen in Washington and Los Angeles. I even thought to myself that I could come back for another taping in the coming months.

I soon stopped myself, realizing that day would never arrive. Trebek’s illness had numbered his days, and the coronavirus—not on anyone’s radar that day last November—closed the “Jeopardy!” set to audience members.

But as usual, Trebez’s pitch-perfect professionalism and quick wit had calmed my emotions, and made me feel at home, just as he has made millions of people feel at home for decades. And because he made them feel at home, Americans welcomed him, and his show, into their homes, night after night, for good-natured entertainment in the form of answers and questions.

Alex Trebek has himself gone home now, having left us with many fond memories and a powerful legacy. Requiescat in pace.

Photo U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill



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