Trebek, whose final Jeopardy! episode airs tonight exactly two months after his death from pancreatic cancer, once said of his job as host, "we are informative and influential but we must be entertaining, too." As the author of a recent Jeopardy! book, Claire McNear says: "The magic of the Jeopardy! format and the reason it has not simply endured but thrived for decades is somewhere in this decision: Its material is hard enough to be a real test of its brainy competitors, but not so hard that it’s not fun to play along at home, too. Trebek understood that the beauty of Jeopardy! was welcoming in the audience watching from their couches across the world. He believed, moreover, that it was his responsibility as host to stay out of his contestants’ way—that anything he might do beyond simply guiding players through the rules was a distraction." Trebek told The Washington Post in 1988 in describing the ideal game show host: "Anything else he does that interferes with the contestants playing the game should be held against him. After all, the game is the thing." McNear adds: "He forever downplayed his own influence. When I interviewed him in early 2019 as I was reporting out my book on Jeopardy!, he insisted, as always, that it was the format, writers, and contestants who made the show, not him. 'I would hope that after 35 years, (audiences) have a pretty good idea that I’m just an ordinary guy who’s doing his best to help the contestants do their best and earn a lot of money,' he said. Few who’ve watched Jeopardy! would agree. And Trebek’s legend only grew larger up close. He was doing even more work on the set than most fans would’ve imagined, from his crack-of-dawn review of game material to get the pronunciations just right to his control of the dreaded, entirely at-his-discretion boop-boop-boop signal when contestants fail to ring in. (The revelation of that latter point last month prompted myriad contestants to recount moments of locking eyes with Trebek and giving him the slightest shake of their heads—an air traffic controller par excellence.)" McNear also points out that Trebek would've preferred to be a movie actor or weatherman before settling into his Jeopardy! role. "He joked that game show hosts found themselves in a perpetual game of 'musical hosts,' cycling between different shows ad infinitum, but never able to 'break out of the game-show mold,'" McNair says of Trebek. “Financially, I suppose game shows are not a bad trap to be in,” Trebek told UPI two months into Jeopardy!’s run. “But a trap is still a trap no matter how plush.” Even in 2002, Trebek seemed perplexed that he was still hosting a game show. “God knows, I didn’t start out to do a quiz show,” he told Parade in 2002, “but it’s a show that I really enjoy doing. Someone once said, ‘If you find something you do well—and like doing it—that’s fulfillment.’”
Alex Trebek's legacy extends to his mastery of small talk: "For future anthropologists, the beloved host’s historical contribution may not be his status as trivia icon, but rather his friendly role in the show’s awkward small-talk sessions," says Beth Bloom. "The real test of a contestant’s mettle on Jeopardy! often begins after the first commercial break, when competitors put down their buzzers and tell Trebek about themselves. Described as 'the oddest 2 minutes of television' by Chad Mosher, the creator of a Jeopardy! stories Twitter account, the anecdotes can be captivatingly bland: what does the contestant who likes telling 'dad jokes' have in common with the one who was once at an 'incredibly cold football game' or the other who tried to jump-start a car, only to make the cables melt? Through their narratives, these contestants are engaged in what the sociologist Harvey Sacks called 'doing "being ordinary."' The verb 'doing,' in this curious formulation, suggests the work that being ordinary takes, and points to the effort involved in constructing an agreeable and innocuous social façade."
Jeopardy!'s longtime announcer, 92-year-old Johnny Gilbert, considered retiring after Trebek's death: “I thought, ‘Gee, can I go on doing this? Can I still do what the show needs?’” he tells The New York Times. “And I decided, yes, I would go on. I would go on because Alex wanted the show to go on.” But announcing the show without Trebek "was a very bizarre feeling. I have never thought of anyone as host of the show except Alex.” In his memoir Trebek wrote of Gilbert: "We’ve been together longer than either one of our marriages, and we’ve never had a cross word." When Trebek died, "it was a very bizarre feeling,” says Gilbert. “I have never thought of anyone as host of the show except Alex.”
It's hard to imagine watching Trebek's final episode: "Will we see glimpses of the suffering he thus far has so miraculously shielded viewers from? Selfishly, I hope not," says Michael Ausiello. "If at all possible, I would very much like to remain in denial through his final Jeopardy! sign-off. The harsh reality can hit me at 7 pm on Monday, Jan. 11, when interim host Ken Jennings takes the stage instead of Trebek. I’ll hopefully be ready by then."
Ken Jennings recalls speaking with Trebek shortly before he died: "I actually talked to him on the phone the same weekend he passed," Jennings tells E! News. "We had talked about the possibility of me guest hosting for him at some point and he was so sweet. He was thanking me very genuinely for helping out and I was like, 'Alex, you gave us 37 years. We should be thanking you. It's the least I could do.'"
Sony TV should take its time in picking Trebek's successor: "With respect for the pressure on Sony to choose its next host wisely, and with the expectation for that host to last through the many years to come, I hope they choose one not only with iconic swagger and intelligence but one who cares so deeply and works as passionately as their predecessor," says Aila Oakes, adding: "While Sony hasn’t yet told us how many of these interim-hosted episodes will air, I hope they continue the bulk of the season this way, using them as live auditions of sorts to see how well the show performs while internally hosted before considering a bigger celebrity as a permanent replacement."