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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. 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.
Trebek wasn’t the only great pure game show host in his generation, but I think the contract binding the host of Jeopardy! to those who watch and compete is different from that of nearly any other program. Nobody expects Pat Sajak to truly know what’s behind the tiles on Wheel of Fortune. Nobody would have felt betrayed if Bob Barker himself didn’t know how much a new sofa set on The Price Is Right cost.
Alex Trebek knew every damn answer on Jeopardy!
And yes, I know he really didn’t.
Of course he didn’t.
But did you ever hear him read a question or answer — with Jeopardy! the exact terminology gets muddled — without absolute confidence that the information he was providing was merely the start of the information he could provide if one were to broach the subject over drinks? It’s just preparation — consummate and unceasing preparation, and smooth, polished execution gestated from decades in front of the camera. But with Trebek, it felt like magic or, heaven forbid, knowledge. One mispronounced name or uncertain delivery of a foreign phrase and all of the pieces fall apart.
I don’t know how many Jeopardy! fans are aware or give consideration to how bordering on impossible it is to be a likable smarty-pants for four decades, especially one as dapper and immaculately coiffed as Trebek. When your job is telling some of the cleverest people in the world that they’re wrong, it would be easy to come across as supercilious or aloof, especially looking down the barrel of one of history’s great mustaches. With the rare exception of shows in which that’s precisely the gimmick — something like Win Ben Stein’s Money comes to mind as a successful example — nobody wants to be on a game show hosted by a snob, or to relax on the couch enjoying a post-work beverage watching somebody who’s sure they’re better than us.
Trebek, instead, conveyed only openness, admiration and the sense that it was fun and cool to be surrounded by bright people for 30 minutes every night. You could see and feel it in every contestant conversation he had over the years, as his relationship with the show and its devotees deepened. He encouraged people to embrace their geeky obsessions and esoteric quirks, and when he made fun of a particularly odd fascination the result never played as condescension.
And Trebek indeed loved to bust his contestants’ chops. There were things Trebek said to Jeopardy! players over the years that might have read as insulting if you saw them in print. Somehow they never did on TV. The idea that Alex Trebek might chide you for your niche hobby or silly 9-to-5 job was part of the dream of Jeopardy! — that and, in recent years particularly, telling him how much he meant to you. Especially in the past year, barely a week has gone by without a contestant’s passionate testimony to Trebek going viral.
Players get on the show certain that they know Trebek. It’s why Trebek was so spectacular at playing himself, something he did countless times over the years. I’d point to the classic “What Is… Cliff Clavin?” episode of Cheers as a pinnacle of a certain kind of cameo, one in which his mere presence was good for a chuckle and then his actual delivery of superb sitcom writing only elevated the gag. He cultivated his image, but didn’t appear precious about it, which allowed him to also do things like the legendary “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” episode of The X-Files, in which he played a so-called Man in Black who bore a striking resemblance to Alex Trebek.
The last year has given Trebek the chance to be even more of an inspiration than he had been before, and to receive even more accolades, which is hard to imagine for a guy who won the outstanding game show host Daytime Emmy seven times. On a personal level, I’m pleased the Television Critics Association was able to give him our lifetime achievement award earlier this summer, just months after he made one of the more emotional visits in memory to our semi-annual press tour, an introspective panel that it felt like a privilege to attend.
I’m sure Jeopardy! will go on and that some big name will be tapped to host.
Alex Trebek won’t be replaced, though. He can’t be.
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