Sports

Alex Trebek Made ‘Jeopardy!’ Great Because He Wanted All Of Us To Find The Answers

In a devastating year that’s taken so much from so many, 2020 barreled forward on Sunday by taking Alex Trebek from Jeopardy! fans, too. Trebek died after a long and very public battle with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, and by the time a ball drop ends this wretched period, Trebek will be gone from our screens and the Jeopardy! soundstage for good.

Few fans can even remember a Jeopardy! without Trebek, and since his cancer diagnosis in 2019 the very real possibly of his retirement or worse was on the minds of fans, especially when the coronavirus pandemic shut down production this spring. The show’s safety-focused return to production this summer brought new episodes in the fall, which will now show us the last moments we have of Trebek until the backlog of taped episodes with him at the helm run out on Christmas Day.

Tributes will come from many, as will an announcement about his eventual replacement hosting a show with which he became synonymous. It will be difficult and sad, like most things have been this year, and eventually Trebek’s death will settle in with all the heartbreak and sorrow we’ve accumulated in the months after Ken Jennings won the Greatest Of All Time Tournament on primetime in January. Trebek and Jeopardy! meant so much to so many, and even days before his death touching tributes to the show’s host were going viral. Everyone seems to have a personal Jeopardy! story, and nearly every one of those involves Trebek in some way.

“There’s this continuity where it doesn’t feel like a TV property anymore. It’s just a part of America, almost like the national parks or something. It’s really an institution,” legendary Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings told me by phone earlier in the month, before Trebek’s death. “It’s just a fabric of all of our lives. It’s Biography now, we feel like it’s part of us.”

Untangling Trebek from that institution will be painful. The aura he projected as host was truly that of someone who knew all the answers, and it was one he worked hard to perfect behind the scenes, putting in the time to learn proper pronunciations and making notes on clues and categories. As our Brian Grubb put it earlier this year, Trebek is the true Jeopardy! GOAT, and this January’s tournament served as much a celebration of Jennings, James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter as it was the show’s legendary host and the personality he showed over the years.

Oftentimes the moments from Jeopardy! that proved most popular were about Trebek himself, not the contestants. People loved seeing him poke fun at contestants who had weird interests or used what may be their only ever appearance on syndicated television to share a startlingly mundane story about themselves. In the hours after his death became public, people flooded social media with memories of Trebek on the show, reciting Cardi B lyrics or saying the word “bitchin.” Another popular video was one of Trebek poking fun at a woman who admitted she liked nerdcore hip hop, only to get roasted by Trebek for defining the genre.

“It’s people who identify as nerdy, rapping about the things they love,” the contestant, Rebecca, said. “Video games, science fiction. Having a hard time meeting romantic partners. You know, it’s really catchy and fun.”

Trebek paused for a moment, then delivered some of the trademark dry humor fans have loved seeing over the years.

“Losers, in other words,” Trebek offered before moving on to the other two contestants and their biographical information.

The clip has gone viral online several times over, to the point that every few months people share it assuming it’s new and further replicating its enduring popularity. The video is a moment that in many ways fits our current cultural climate and the oftentimes outright hostility with which we treat strangers. But though I’ve never met or even interviewed Alex Trebek, I don’t think he was trying to roast this poor woman who likes nerdcore, nor do I think he would want that moment to be his lasting legacy in pop culture. Trebek had jokes, sure, but unlike those of us who watch the show very rarely did put others down for his own gain.

Part of the fun of watching Jeopardy! is, of course, playing along at home. It’s always nice to beat contestants to an answer, something you know that those who actually passed the test to make it on the show did not. For many that edge often comes in sports categories, as even the most learned intellectual simply doesn’t give a sh*t about football enough to know what offside is. One of those famous instances was one of the first Jeopardy! things I wrote about at Uproxx: Trebek somewhat chiding contestants for whiffing on an entire category of very basic football questions.

It’s another moment that often recirculates online, and did once again on Sunday. But that video is not the end of that story: in March of this year, days before the pandemic locked down an entire country, Jeopardy! ran another football category. This time it was written by Trebek himself, complete with crude drawings he made to illustrate the signals a football referee makes. He also acted them out at the podium, much to the amusement of the studio audience and social media. Contestants did much better this time, in part thanks to Trebek’s pantomime and coaching, and he seemed downright chuffed by the results.

Of all the Jeopardy! moments Trebek has given us over the years, I think this is what will stay with me most. More than anything, Trebek always seemed to be on each contestant’s side. There were no favorites, there was no malice or disdain. The judges were to blame for a scoring correction here and there. And while he couldn’t help but poke fun in certain moments, he always wanted players to answer correctly. He didn’t want clues left on the board, because the people behind the scenes worked hard on those clues and, hey, it’s not his money the show is giving away. Everyone gets a payday and a picture, no exceptions.

In a social landscape where too often kindness and compassion are confused for weakness, Trebek was rooting for everyone. The joy through which he worked will endure, both in those who work on the show and contestants who appear on its stage and think the same way he always seemed to think. His genuine sense of wonder and interest in those who adored the show and his work was on display to the very end. The latest viral moment from Trebek was not him dunking on a nerdcore enthusiast, but thrilled by a contestant beatboxing to the point where the Jeopardy! host nearly joined in. It was a moment of growth, maybe, of letting people just enjoy the things they enjoy and appreciating them for wanting to play a role in the world Trebek helped create.

Alex Trebek made Jeopardy! great because he wanted everyone to win, both at the podium with signaling devices and those playing with ballpoint pens in hand at home. When I will think about Jeopardy! in whatever form it takes after Trebek leaves our screens, I hope the same sense of hope and earnest positivity remains. None of us have all the answers, not even Alex Trebek. He will not have taken any particular secrets with him when he passed. What he showed in his 80 years, though, is that no matter what the category our instincts should lean toward compassion, and the answer should always be the desire to get a little bit better every time.

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