In a realm of the unknown that is far too cosmic to ever make the cut as a “Jeopardy!” category, we have to stop and marvel at the universe’s decision to claim the legendary and resilient 80-year-old game show host Alex Trebek on Sunday morning, just as American voters had elected a new president whose defining attribute is an abiding faith in the intelligence and competence of the people.
At its essence, Trebek’s “Jeopardy!” was a nightly recognition of intelligence and competence, and there were times when the show seemed to be one of the last places where it’s a wonderful thing to be a know-it-all – where broad, general knowledge is something to be celebrated rather than scorned or resented.
Never outlandish or garish, the “Jeopardy!” that Trebek hosted for 36 years championed intelligence with a rare and relatively quiet hush, especially if you compare it with the rest of television’s constant blare. With subdued buzzers and a soft musical interlude during its final question (the loudest thing about the show was the exclamation point in its title, and perhaps the alarm that accompanies the Double Jeopardy question), Trebek maintained a safe space for smart viewers in the darkest, dumbest times. His show, and the way he hosted it, proved that polite order can be more fascinating than brute chaos. In 2020, that seems like a downright revolutionary idea.
When Trebek revealed a devastating pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2019, he did everything he could to reassure his loyal fans that the fight was more than worth fighting and that “Jeopardy!” would go on. Whatever fear or pain he endured never made it to the lectern-style desk from which he continued to host the show. That he was willing and able to keep working – indeed, that he often shared upbeatreports on his health – seemed to be a small blessing in otherwise dire times. In a world that seemed to be falling apart, Trebek stayed on with new episodes, until the nation’s coronavirus pandemic shut down taping; even then, he added new introductions to old episodes.
One longs, in this particular moment, to see data on how the most fervent fans of “Jeopardy!” voted in last week’s election. The best hunch, which is still only a hunch, is that they did not go for the candidate who rejected science, badmouthed the credentials of top experts, showed little to no interest in history and never encountered a fact that he could not convert into a lie.
Trebek, a Canadian who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, was far too well-mannered to let his show ever veer into the stink of the political. He stood for the gallant style of neutrality that comes from deep, broad knowledge of the world, its cultures, languages and entire history. The more we know a little about everything and everyone, the harder it gets to become petty, to go low, to bend truth. “Jeopardy!” may hinge on one’s mastery of the arcane, but it also insists that a fact is a fact, no matter what.
Little wonder then, that Trebek’s own reliability and competence became its own celebrated style – dryness as friendliness, the bland become brand. Popular culture extolled and referenced and riffed on Trebek’s counterintuitive studliness out of a deep appreciation for his values. He was the guy with the answers to which the question was the answer. He rarely if ever erred or stumbled, and if so, deferred to his referees. In conjuring the archetype known as the “game show host,” we often forget that the best ones treat the word “host” as the most serious aspect of the job – to put the contestants at ease, to welcome them politely while not seeming too interested in their wins or losses. To step back as host and not really make the show about yourself.
Trebek acknowledged the cult status he attained without stoking it; in all those years and thousands of episodes, he kept the focus on the game. For the opposite effect, tune into today’s prime-time network game shows, rife with reboots and celebrity pandering, where Ellen DeGeneres gleefully drops her contestants through trap doors on “Ellen’s Game of Games” (adults who, it should be noted, struggle with even the simplest questions) or Chris Hardwick fawns over “good people” desperate to improve their lives with money they may or may not earn by answering trivia questions and dropping balls through “The Wall.”
As you can see, it’s tempting to get elitist about such things. Trebek never did, which is why “Jeopardy!” remains aspirational, able to draw in just about anyone. As such, his “Jeopardy!” never grew musty, irrelevant or confined; it never arbitrarily decided that ancient history, revered literature and settled science had a cutoff point. It treated the never-ending story of human civilization as an unfolding and evolving body of knowledge. You can’t win the show if you don’t keep up with the latest discoveries, the newest in culture.
Under his watchful eye, “Jeopardy!” brought people into our living rooms whom we otherwise might never meet, diverse in every possible way, including neurologically. Here at last was a home for the nerdy, the bookish, the hypercompetent others.
As recently as last week, the show’s Twitter account released a video of a contestant, Burt Thakur, who took a moment to tell Trebek how he’d learned English by watching “Jeopardy!” with his grandfather, who had raised him. “I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day,” Thakur said, trying to hold back his tears.
Thakur’s story is only the most recent in a long line of those viewers and contestants who are deeply grateful for the reliability and reach of “Jeopardy!” To imagine the show without Trebek is difficult. But what better way can there be to honor him than to continue, with a new host and three new contestants, and the endless desire to know more than we already think we do?