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SNL's "Celebrity Jeopardy!" sketches worked because Alex Trebek was "so unassailably good"

  • Longtime SNL producer Steve Higgins says his wife came up with the idea for "Celebrity Jeopardy!," which was a staple on Saturday Night Live from 1996 to 2002, with Will Ferrell playing Trebek. "She said to me, 'You should write a "Celebrity Jeopardy!" sketch, because these celebrities don’t know that much," Higgins recalls to Variety. "So I took it to (then-head writer) Adam McKay. Norm Macdonald already did a Burt Reynolds impression, and I loved Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery. Martin Short was hosting that week, and Martin Short’s Jerry Lewis is one of my favorite impressions that he does. So we just put those all together." Higgins adds: "Trebek was a great host because of his confidence. You could easily be a smug jerk in that job, knowing all the answers and reading them off cards. But so rarely did he do that. He was so unassailably nice. That’s what was fun about Sean Connery and Burt Reynolds hating him so much in the 'Celebrity Jeopardy!' sketch on Saturday Night Live — not really hating him so much as just wanting to f*ck with him. People would talk about the sketch and say that the celebrities were dumb. But that wasn’t it. It was that they didn’t care. They just wanted to burn Alex Trebek. And why? Because he’s so unassailably good....Trebek told Lorne (Michaels) that he loved the sketch. I was always very happy about that. That would have been terrible, if he’d thought it was anything but love. You really can’t parody something if you don’t love it, or else it’s just mean. Norm and I used to play Jeopardy! in his office. It’s just one of those things that is pure goodness. The show is about knowledge and gamesmanship. No one cheats."


    • Alex Trebek knew how to poke fun at himself: "As the years passed, Trebek seems to have had the realization that what started as the brisk officiousness of the game-show hosts of yore had started instead to strike audiences as a personality trait," says Claire McNear. "If Trebek had begun his hosting career with the hope of projecting competence, control, and maybe just a hint of slick-talking charm, it read to some as the performance of a brusque smart aleck—sometimes fussy or outright mean. So Trebek set about building it into a character. In his many cameos on other shows, he mostly played Disappointed Trebek, or Judgmental Trebek, or Insufferable Know-It-All Trebek. He voiced himself on a 1997 episode of The Simpsons, sending studio goons—er, 'judges'—after poor Marge to extract her negative winnings after a game didn’t go her way. More recently, he turned up as an overinvolved guest narrator during a live episode of the sitcom Hot in Cleveland, barging in to interrupt two characters struggling to remember the name of the Kathy Bates movie adaptation of a Stephen King novel....He appeared on The Weird Al Show in 1997, where he advertised 'the Know-it-all Correspondence School.' 'Would you like to make more money?' he asked. 'Impress your friends? Be like me and know everything in the world? Sure you would!'"
    • Trebek was skilled at making nerds look cool: "For Trebek, hosting Jeopardy! meant navigating dozens of personalities; he’d act as a kind of mediator for the seemingly difficult players, who’d go on to become folk heroes of sorts," says Mansee Khurana. "One of my favorite contestants was Matt Jackson, an overeager paralegal who enjoyed a 13-episode winning streak five years ago. His blank stare at the beginning of each episode and intense style of game play made him seem formidable. He had a habit of answering hastily and interrupting Trebek. But Trebek would have none of that. During his first game, Jackson accidentally cut the host off from introducing a commercial break. 'Hang on, hang on,' Trebek said. 'You came up with a correct response and you want to keep going, and I understand that, but we have to pause.' But the little jibes that Trebek made about Jackson’s manner made the contestant more likable. Jackson was aware that he came across as extreme, and played into that image throughout his run, smiling only when the camera zoomed in on his face at the end of a game. Jackson’s endless enthusiasm for the game was infectious, and the depth of his knowledge envy-inducing. If only I knew so much, I’d think, I could be just like him, joking around with Trebek on TV...These short exchanges between Trebek and the players were filled with such stories—small snapshots from the contestants’ lives that gave viewers another way to relate to people who might have otherwise seemed like robots spitting out memorized minutiae. Because contestants were always the show’s biggest fans, it was easy for devotees at home to see themselves on-screen, alongside Trebek. His confident manner rubbed off on nervous contestants, in turn making them seem more self-assured and impressive."
    • Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was "genuinely bummed out" by the news of Trebek's death: "Whether it’s watching Jeopardy! at my grandparents’ house during our week in the summer where it was just one of the grandkids with the grandparents," says, Rodgers, who won Celebrity Jeopardy! against astronaut and recently elected U.S. senator Mark Kelly and Shark Tank's Kevin O'Leary in 2015. "Every weeknight we watched it, me, at that point, not able to answer any questions, to jumping at the opportunity to be on Celebrity Jeopardy! and getting the chance to meet Alex and just hitting it off. We had a couple of fun conversations. It was just fun to meet someone whose voice you can hear and attach to so many different memories. I mean literally, I’ve told friends of mine and people that come and visit and people I’ve dated, six o’clock at my house, is Jeopardy! And that’s just the way it goes. I’ve watched it for years and, sadly, he’s gone. When I heard about the initial announcement, I was worried because pancreatic cancer doesn’t have a super-high success rate. But I was definitely holding out hope and sending good thoughts and prayers his way, and it was just sad to hear the news (Sunday)."
    • Former Jeopardy! contestant says the limited interactions with Trebek were by design: "I wish I could tell you that I got to know Trebek — that during a three-game stint on the show as a contestant eight years ago, we struck up a fast friendship and remained in touch, exchanging emails and catching up every so often and enjoying gin and tonics on cool summer evenings at his lake house," says Lucas Kwan Peterson. "I wish I could tell you that I got to know Trebek — that during a three-game stint on the show as a contestant eight years ago, we struck up a fast friendship and remained in touch, exchanging emails and catching up every so often and enjoying gin and tonics on cool summer evenings at his lake house. This is because after the 1950s quiz show scandals, rules and regulations were tightened in response to the rigging of such televised contests. Jeopardy! was no exception. The show was organized so that your contact with Trebek is limited to tapings, and occurs only while in front of many, many other people. There couldn’t even be the suggestion of impropriety. During my taping, one of the producers recounted a time when a contestant accidentally took a wrong turn, wandered backstage and bumped into Trebek. The resulting DEFCON situation briefly shut down the entire production while auditors and higher-ups ensured no funny business had transpired."
    • Trebek's High Rollers sidekick Ruta Lee recalls talking to Trebek the day before his death: “We clicked immediately,” says Lee, who formed lifelong friendship working with Trebek on their NBC game show starting in 1974. “I was Canadian-born, he was Canadian-born, and I just knew he would make a great addition to my coterie of Hollywood friends.” They remained friends through his Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis. In fact, they spoke the day before he died. “His voice had become softer, but he was the same," she says. "We talked about family, about his kids; he was very proud of how well they were doing.”
    • Watch NFL Films' tribute to Alex Trebek
    • Here are eight books on Jeopardy! and Trebek
    • Trebek's Canadian hometown is planning a tribute, possibly naming a new library after him
    • One year before Jeopardy! launched, Trebek starred in a game show pilot featuring a digitized puppet
    • From public space to homeless shelters: Here are all the ways Alex Trebek gave back during his life

    TOPICS: Alex Trebek, High Rollers, Jeopardy!, Saturday Night Live, Aaron Rodgers, Ruta Lee, Steve Higgins, Will Ferrell, Game Shows, NFL Films