TV TATTLE

Alex Trebek's Jeopardy! maintained a safe space for smart viewers in the darkest, dumbest times

  • "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," Hank Stuever says in an appreciation of Trebek, who died Sunday at age 80 after battling pancreatic cancer. "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 Daily Double 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." Stuever adds: "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 ... 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."

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    • Alex Trebek pulled off the tricky feat of being a lovable smarty-pants: "Game shows are good value in today's TV landscape, and when casting a host there's a tendency for networks or production companies to try to find the biggest names possible," says Daniel Fienberg. "It's not the worst strategy; a big-name host can help you cut through the clutter and, especially when rebooting a familiar brand, you can tailor a star persona to the nature of the game and the result can be an appealing alchemy. It's not the worst strategy. But it wouldn't yield another Alex Trebek. Trebek wasn't a small name when he took over hosting duties on Jeopardy! in 1984, but what he was known for was game show hosting (or general 'presenting' for Canadian audiences), and it was the Jeopardy! format — refined over three previous incarnations all hosted by Art Fleming — that was the star. The resulting alchemy wasn't merely appealing. It was unique, as Trebek formed a bond with the game itself, with the contestants on the game and with the audience at home that couldn't be manufactured. With Trebek's death on Sunday (November 8) after a very public battle with pancreatic cancer, it feels like we've lost a friend, a frequent dinnertime companion and a patient teacher — one of the most beloved forces for erudition, patience (such a strange attribute for the emcee of a show that ran on a tight clock) and constancy the medium has ever seen."
    • “Host” never seemed quite the right term for what Alex Trebek did: "'Host' suggests that the show you’re watching is a party, a social get-together — which is how most hosts, especially on game shows, treat the job," says James Poniewozik. "They want to invite you in, entertain you, get you to like them. Trebek, who died on Sunday at 80, was not like that. There was nothing ingratiating about him. When he crisply welcomed you to Jeopardy!, he invited you for a half-hour of play that he took seriously. It would be fun, his hearty, efficient manner suggested, because it was fun and bracing to exercise one’s brain. He served up TV’s favorite healthful indulgence — a mindful good time that went down as easily as a mindless one. Watching Jeopardy! year after year was like auditing a seminar led by a gentle but firm professor with a rotating roster of star pupils. It’s not as if Trebek had no showbiz in him. He was a game-show veteran — you can still find him on YouTube, rocking a Gabe Kaplan ’stache and a loose ’70s manner on High Rollers. But when he assumed the post once held by Art Fleming in the 1984 revival of Jeopardy!, he adapted his style for a show in which the star was what was between the contestants’ ears. He had courtly formalities that are increasingly scarce in TV today. The 'Shall we?' at the outset of a match. The little wince when someone would fumble a Double Jeopardy question. His Picard-like cool was his appeal, in an environment of emotive syndicated Kirks. When he delivered one of his trademark careful pronunciations — 'Comintern,' 'Argentina' — it seemed not showy but respectful. It was the spirit of Jeopardy! to care about getting things right."
    • Trebek was uniquely suited to preside over this week-nightly ritual rooted in a belief in knowledge and truth: "He spoke in articulate and measured tones," says Jen Chaney. "He always dressed in a proper suit and tie. (There is no casual Friday on Jeopardy!) He was dignified and seemingly erudite, the personification of objective honesty, a quality whose supply has seemed to dwindle in American culture in recent years. He also possessed a wry sense of humor and could toss a genial hand grenade of shade when he wanted to, as he did when a contestant from Bowie, Maryland, attempted to explain her obsession with nerdcore hip-hop. 'It’s people who identify as nerdy, rapping about the things they love: video games, science fiction, having a hard time meeting romantic partners,' the young woman explained. 'Losers, in other words,' Trebek responded."
    • Imagine what it would be like to be known for one thing?: "To have your identity to the world be that consistent, that confidently singular," says Mary Elizabeth Williams. "Whatever other achievements he's had as a voice artist and humanitarian, Mark Hamill seems to gladly accept that to generations of fans, he's forever Luke Skywalker. Bobby McFerrin, who was tirelessly touring right up until the pandemic, knows that his lengthy creative career can be summed up by many with the four words 'Don't worry, be happy.' For 36 years, the Emmy-winning Trebek simply was Jeopardy! — he and the iconic quiz show are synonymous with each other. With his cool poise and his penchant for an occasional well-timed jibe, he consistently personified the show's middlebrow sophisticated brand. Sure, the guy was literally holding the right responses in his hand, but he had a way of delivering them that could make you feel like he already knew, of course, the ancient capitals of the legendary Tangun Dynasty as exhaustively as he knew memorable Matrix quotes. What, like it's hard? That's why it's hard to believe that both Trebek and Jeopardy! existed successfully long before they found each other. In the mid sixties, Merv Griffin reportedly created the show as a cheeky reaction to the quiz show scandals of the prior decade — why not have a competition where the whole premise was that the contestants were already provided the answers? The twist would be that they'd have to come up with the questions. The original incarnation of the show had a broad appeal, running in various incarnations through 1979."
    • Trebek was more than a game show host -- he was family: "I interviewed him for the book about Jeopardy! that I have spent the last two years reporting," says Claire McNear, whose book Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy! will be released on Tuesday. "He was characteristically humble about his role—anyone who had been on a show as long as he had would be revered the way that he was, he insisted. Forgive me the correction, but I think the judges will agree with me: Trebek was a singular talent and a singular delight, whose decades at the helm of Jeopardy! put him in rare company. He was a modern-day Walter Cronkite, as contestant Ken Jennings once put it—an emblem of knowledge and sincerity and a tradition unto himself. For those who grew up in the blue glow of his 'We hope you’ll join us tomorrow, folks,' he felt like a member of the family."
    • Trebek stood above other great game show hosts: "There have been many great game show hosts across the years," says Robert Lloyd. "Gene Rayburn, Allen Ludden, Monty Hall, Peter Marshall and Richard Dawson are some I grew up on; Jane Lynch, Drew Carey, Anthony Anderson and Steve Harvey are among those currently holding aloft that torch. But Trebek stands apart — a beloved figure, a historical personage. You could be well into middle age and never have known a world in which Trebek did not host Jeopardy! Until now. He hosted other shows — you will likely not remember him as the host of The Wizard of Odds, Double Dare, High Rollers, Battlestars, The New Battlestars, Classic Concentration or To Tell the Truth, nor his decade-plus in Canadian broadcasting, including CBC Championship Curling, before moving to America. But none suited him as well, or was as well-suited to him, as Jeopardy! There are marriages, and there are marriages made in heaven. (It was a second time around for the show too, originally hosted by Art Fleming.)"
    • Jeopardy! should've been terrible, but its perfect host made it great: "Jeopardy! should be terrible," says Dan McQuaide. "The premise for the show is incredibly stupid: The show supplies the answers, and contestants have to respond with the correct question. It does not really make sense. One clue last week was 'Charge down the road in its Charger.' The correct response was 'What is Dodge?' If someone asked you 'What is Dodge?' and you responded with “Charge down the road in its Charger,” you might get punched in the face. But Jeopardy! works. It is the best game show ever. The quiz show is a throwback to the early days of American television in the 1940s and ’50s, when there were 200 different quiz shows on TV. While I do think the show’s premise is quite silly, it doesn’t really matter. The clues are written in such a way that often viewers might be able to figure out the correct response from context, even if you don’t know the answer. It makes you think. You learn things from Jeopardy! The show might be good with just anyone in charge of the game. But Alex Trebek was the perfect host. Trebek, who died today at the age of 80, was incredible at his job. He was quick with a quip. He came off as a genius, like he’d know the correct responses even if they weren’t given to him. Most importantly, though, he had such a warming presence on the show for so long that he felt like a part of my life."
    • What it was like to meet Alex Trebek as a Jeopardy! contestant: "There’s an assumption that contestants on Jeopardy! got to meet him backstage and hang out before a taping as if he were a newfound pal. In fact, it was the opposite," says Steve Greene. "Whether hardened by tens of thousands of episodes of those small 30-second, post-commercial break meet-and-greets on camera or (almost certainly) a desire to preserve the impartiality of a game show where thousands of dollars had the potential to change hands, Trebek was at a bit of a remove from the people who were playing the game. Yet, with those tiny interactions that did come after the final tally, he had such a presence and a charisma that all it took was a few sentences of back-and-forth for you to feel like you had walked away with something substantial, something significant."
    • For scores of first-generation Americans and their families, Alex Trebek helped teach them English five nights a week: "Jeopardy! was that wholesome show that you never had to be embarrassed to put on with your immigrant parents," said Elly Shariat, who immigrated from Iran as a young girl and only spoke Farsi. "It brought our whole family so much closer together and the loss of Alex Trebek is going to leave a huge hole in our hearts and our home."
    • Trebek maintained that his best impersonator was fellow Canadian Eugene Levy: "Eugene Levy to this day I maintain did the best Alex Trebek ever, better than Will Ferrell. He looked more the part, too. He had the dark hair and he had the black mustache."
    • Jeopardy! fans can't imagine the show without Alex Trebek as host: “Alex Trebek was Jeopardy!,” said Monica Thieu, a contestant who won the college championship in 2012. “We have no idea what the show is going to be without him.”
    • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says "we have lost an icon": "Almost every night for more than three decades, Alex Trebek entertained and educated millions around the world, instilling in so many of us a love for trivia," Trudeau tweeted. "My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all who are mourning this tremendous loss."
    • NHL team mourns Trebek after this year's special draft moment
    • Read a negative review calling Trebek's 1984 Jeopardy! debut a "disgrace" and a "pitiful echo of its former self": "The host is Alex Trebek, one of the generation of game-show host clones who popped into view during the 1970s," wrote TV critic Mike Duffy. "He used to host High Rollers, which should have been a tip-off the new Jeopardy! would be a joke."

    TOPICS: Alex Trebek, Jeopardy!, Game Shows




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