BARNHART

He’s the Second Host of Jeopardy!, And His Role Was By No Means Trivial

Who is — and forever will be — the great Alex Trebek?
  • Jeopardy! fans will know this is a recent picture of Alex Trebek — he shaved off his signature mustache in 2018 at the request of his wife. (ABC/Eric McCandless)
    Jeopardy! fans will know this is a recent picture of Alex Trebek — he shaved off his signature mustache in 2018 at the request of his wife. (ABC/Eric McCandless)
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    This board game caused families to get into yelling matches long before cable TV news did, and it sparked the TV revival of Jeopardy! with a new host.

    “What is Trivial Pursuit?” is the correct response, though you may have been thrown off by the word “revival” in that clue. Jeopardy! has been airing on American TV for a generation with a single host, but neither he nor the show is the original. Most popular game-show formats have to take a break and return either with new talent or rule tweaks. Before Drew Carey hosted The Price Is Right, Bob Barker did — and before him it was Bill Cullen. Family Feud has had six hosts in 43 years.

    The original Jeopardy! aired in daytime on NBC from 1964 to 1975 and was hosted by this former actor who played himself in the “Weird” Al Yankovic music video, “I Lost On Jeopardy!” If you said, “Who is Art Fleming?” then you not only know your TV history, you also practice good Jeopardy! etiquette. (Contestants always use the present tense to refer to a person, whether they are living or not. Fleming passed in 1995.) It was this incarnation that SNL based its first Jeopardy! parody on, featuring a wild-and-crazy Steve Martin.

    The host was different and the show itself was different, because the cultural forces that shaped it were different. As the Weird Al video suggests, being a Jeopardy! contestant back then meant you had a freakish talent for recalling bits of useless knowledge at will. Eventually competitive trivia would democratize this skill (and keep bars busy on weeknights). But in the Sputnik era, popular culture had a thing for smart people. They were good television. 

    Shows like The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One were hugely popular because every week they presented the irresistible drama of some fresh-faced veteran, housewife, or professor agonizing over impossible, multi-part questions — and then, to everyone’s amazement, answering them correctly. (If you thought Who Wants to Be a Millionaire dragged things out, watch this excruciating broadcast of 64K.) 

    If you’ve seen Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show, however, then you know that was all a sham. In their rush to promote good old American know-how, the producers of these big-money quiz shows fed the answers to contestants prior to broadcast. The resulting scandal led to a congressional investigation and a huge black eye on the television industry.

    Jeopardy! was the first post-scandal quiz show to succeed, and it did so by taking the drama out of solving problems. Fleming, a fast-talking movie actor of the old school, could rattle off dozens of clues every half hour with ease, a tennis-ball machine loaded with knowledge. Jeopardy! transformed the quiz show from staged drama into competitive sport. Back then, sports were squeaky clean (or so we assumed), so the Jeopardy! format was crucial to getting quiz shows back in the public's good graces. 

    Eventually, though, the public's tastes changed and viewers gravitated to sillier games — The Price Is Right, Let’s Make a Deal, Truth or Consequences, Beat the Clock, and the king of them all, Match Game, in which host Gene Rayburn played Mad Libs with a celebrity panel that included Betty White, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Richard Dawson (who parlayed his appearances into the Family Feud job).

    Among the new game shows was High Rollers, which signed on in 1974. Contestants rolled enormous fuzzy dice in between questions asked by this former CBC announcer, whose friend Art Fleming would recommend him as his successor on Jeopardy!

    Of course: Who is Alex Trebek? 

    The revival of Jeopardy! began in 1984, after the trivia boom convinced TV stations that a revival would work in evening syndication. In that time period the audience would be larger and so would the prizes. The show would tape in Hollywood and not be as cheap-looking as its New York predecessor. A design flaw of the original Jeopardy! would be fixed — contestants would no longer be able to buzz in while the host was reading the clue. A savvy player could simply buzz in and think of the answer in the time it took Fleming to finish, and that was a cheat. And cheating is the sword of Damocles that still hangs over all TV quiz shows, as evidenced by the UK Millionaire coughing scandal that is being made into a TV drama

    So now, a player who buzzes in too early gets punished, locked out. Winning at Jeopardy! today requires developing this two-word skill now used by marketing gurus to describe the art of timing things just right. (“What is buzzer management?”)

    Not only do the rules have to eliminate any whiff of dishonesty, but you need a host who exudes trust. And who better than a Canadian? Trebek “absolutely will not interact with contestants off-camera,” according to this former contestant, who added that the host is actually a lot of fun when bantering with the studio audience. 

    But a funny thing happened. Jeopardy! became a much, much bigger hit than it ever was on NBC. And that meant that the host became a much bigger deal than any contestant on any of those corrupt old quiz shows. Dick Wolf always insisted that the real stars of Law & Order were New York City and the show’s cookie-cutter format. And then Jerry Orbach died and the show was never the same. The same could be said of Jeopardy! Originally the host was simply there to fire off questions (or answers, whatever), and viewers tuned in mostly to see if they could keep up. But you don’t have to be a programming genius to know that Jeopardy! today owes its durability and enduring popularity to the public’s affection toward Trebek, its host of nearly 36 years. 

    Somewhere amidst the SNL takeoffs and the high-profile contestants, Alex Trebek became America’s Quizmaster. (He also hosted the National Geographic Bee before handing it off to Mo Rocca in 2015.) He’s wonderful at both modestly downplaying this reputation and basking in it. “People think because I’m the host of a fairly serious, intelligence-based quiz show that I must know all the answers,” Trebek told David Marchese in a wide-ranging interview in 2018. “I do, because they’re written on a sheet of paper in front of me.” 

    As someone who watches Jeopardy! at least twice a week, I’m delighted that ABC is giving Trebek two victory laps in prime-time this month. His time on the show is drawing to a close, and he will likely sign off at the end of this season, if not sooner. Tonight, a one-hour special will look back on his long career and his battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a disease that’s back in the news after Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon, revealed he’s battling it, too. It makes sense that ABC would do this, since nearly all of its owned-and-operated stations depend on Jeopardy! to drive viewers to its local newscasts.

    That special will be followed, starting Jan. 7, by a multi-night competition, Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time, featuring the show’s three best-known contestants — James Holzhauer, Brad Rutter, and Ken Jennings. The only reason this competition could even happen is because, in the early 2000s, the show’s producers made a tweak to the rules, allowing contestants to stay on as long as they kept winning. Before then five days was the maximum stay. 

    This rule change, coinciding with the rise of blogs and then social media, ensured that future Jeopardy! champs would become stars in their own right — another ironic echo of the old corrupt quiz shows. Holzhauer’s 32-game run in the spring of 2019 propelled Jeopardy! back to the top of the syndicated TV ratings, and had the unintended effect of focusing even more attention on Trebek after he announced that he had a rare and virulent form of cancer.

    Unlike watching TV news, Jeopardy! is an entirely pleasant ritual for me. It gives me some small amount of satisfaction knowing I am superior to 99 percent of the show’s contestants in knowledge 19th-century U.S. history (then again, I ought to be), and helps me forget how horrible I am at 17th-century British history or scientific knowledge from any era. These days, it’s also satisfying to turn on the TV and find a place where facts are still verifiable, where people from various walks of life (and, no doubt, political persuasions) can agree if an answer is true or false, even though big money is at stake. Much of that has to do with the people who write the questions, and the format Merv Griffin dreamed up nearly 60 years ago.

    But no small amount of credit for Jeopardy!’s enduring appeal must go to the man behind the podium. Like Ellen DeGeneres, he offers a calming presence in a time of partisan rancor. He wasn’t the show’s first host, and he will not be the last. But whoever succeeds him will be hard pressed to match this Canadian icon known for his good manners, dry wit, devotion to accuracy, Francophone pronunciations of the word “genre,” and association with the greatest quiz show of all time.

    Who is — and forever will be — Alex Trebek?

    The ABC News special What is Jeopardy!? Alex Trebek and America's Most Popular Quiz Show airs tonight at 8:00 PM ET on ABC.

    People are talking about Alex Trebek and Jeopardy! in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Alex Trebek, ABC, Family Feud, Jeopardy!, Art Fleming