When word began circulating Wednesday that “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the reaction was as if one of America’s foremost icons had been struck down.
I’d argue that Trebek, though Canadian, is one of America’s foremost icons.
Those old enough to remember undoubtedly recall that Art Fleming, and not Trebek, was the original host of the popular “answer-and-question” game show. But Trebek, a veteran of the game-show circuit, was chosen to be the host when it was resurrected in 1984 and he’s certainly made it his own over the past 35 years.
If you watch any of the old game shows on those nostalgia networks, you’ll see Trebek pop up on shows like “Classic Concentration,” and you’ll note that he was never as corny as, say, Wink Martindale; or as hopped up as the guy who wore the crazy sweaters and hosted “Supermarket Sweepstakes.” I want to go back in time just so I can punch him.
The nature of game shows almost make it necessary for the hosts to be like carnival barkers (not all of them named Bob). They come off like hucksters, every one of them seemingly graduates of the Steve Harvey/Pat Sajak school of n’yuks. A lot of that stuff is cringeworthy.
However, Trebek has always been more understated and more cerebral. And he took that to new heights once he got the “Jeopardy” gig. He plays at being a bit of a snob, he loves to accentuate his French pronunciations (or any pronunciations, for that matter), and he’ll gently chastise contestants who flub up questions he thinks they should know. You can tell when he gets a kick out of a contestant and when he finds one less-than-interesting.
There was a memorable night when there was an American football category where none of the three contestants even knew enough to buzz in on any of the five “answers.” He was aghast, and had no trouble conveying that feeling.
The game’s rules play into Trebek’s persona as sort of an elitist. That’s because you can trip yourself up on a question by saying a “the” where it doesn’t belong, or by making an answer plural rather than singular (and vice versa). When that happens, he can be almost insufferably smarmy and you want to just hit him.
But that’s fine. That’s what makes the show so much fun to watch. Otherwise it would be like watching televised trivia at your local bar and grill. The byplay between Trebek and the contestants gives “Jeopardy” a dimension other game shows just don’t have. Also, you actually have to have accumulated some knowledge on some of these subjects to be able to play.
Trebek is the glue that holds this all together. Beyond the fact “Jeopardy” is, by far, the most challenging game show of them all, Trebek gives it its extra panache. You tune in — or at least I tune in — to see how many questions I can answer. In fact, if my wife and I are not home together at 7:30 on weeknights, we DVR it and watch it when we are. And we compete.
But we also watch “Jeopardy” for Alex, to see if he gently upbraids a hapless contestant who misses a gimme, or when he solemnly informs a contestant that “you didn’t phrase the answer in the form of a question.” Reminds me of “you didn’t say ‘may I.'”
We (or I) watch in hopes of being able to scream, or to gesticulate, at him if he deems a question incorrect on an answer due to overly-stringent criteria.
Hearing this terrible news about Trebek is a tough pill to swallow, not just for him, but for “Jeopardy” cultists everywhere who stop dead in their tracks at 7:30 (or, thanks to the DVR, at some point in the evening) to watch — and learn. He’s been coming into our homes for so long he’s undoubtedly considered part of many families.
I cannot imagine “Jeopardy” with any other host.