Hosting a game show is not as easy as it looks. It can’t be. If it were, more people would be good at it, as opposed to the very few who are good at it now. There’s a tough balance to strike between authority (keep the game moving, maintain control) and charm (get some jokes in, woo the audience). I don’t know if that can be taught either, or even learned through decades of experience. A big part of it has to be natural if you’re going to really pull it off, the whole “one part schoolteacher, one part lounge singer” routine. In the right hands, though, it looks natural, almost like the host was born to do that specific thing, and like, maybe, until specifically proven otherwise, they might live in the studio, in the back, in a swanky apartment right behind the stage, where they mix up cocktails for guests and maintain a library with many leather-bound books and go to sleep at night in a full suit.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a post about Alex Trebek.
Ken Jennings won the Jeopardy! Greatest of All-Time tournament this week, and good for him. It was cool and fun to watch and I’m sure he’ll find a decent use for one million smackers. The entire operation was built on a fraudulent premise, though. It seemed to imply that the Jeopardy! GOAT was, or could be, anyone other than Alex Trebek. Impossible. Inconceivable. The only way I would even entertain the idea is if the winner of the three-person trivia battle royale then had to defeat Alex at a game or activity of his choosing, like a boss level of a video game. I choose to believe Alex would choose arm wrestling and then rip off the sleeves of his dress shirt to reveal surprisingly rocked-up arms. You will never convince me otherwise.
The thing I’ve always liked best about Alex Trebek is that he makes it cool to be smart. He legitimately enjoys when people come on the show and get answers right, in part because it makes the game flow better and Alex lives for a smooth game of Jeopardy, and in part because he just digs intellect. He takes pride in pronouncing things correctly, he likes witty turns of phrase. The best is when a group of contestants whiffs on a whole category and Alex goes from disappointed to annoyed to openly contemptuous. Like, for example, here, where he has no tolerance for three people who know nothing about football.
The first viewing of that makes it seem like he’s irked by them being dorks who use words like “sportsball,” like he’s the cool kid mocking the nerds. I don’t think it’s that, though, really. I think Alex just likes when people know things, when they have a broad base of knowledge, everything from opera to Keanu Reeves movies to 1990s NBA All-Stars. The clues are worth different amounts of money, sure, but none of the correct responses have more inherent value than another. That’s not to say he’s above poking fun at the contestants. He’ll get in some good-natured jabs. He can’t help himself sometimes. There’s a ham inside that suit that can’t be contained 100 percent of the time, as this fan of nerdcore found out.
That’s the other great thing about Trebek: he has a great sense of when to pull back and cut loose. Jeopardy! is a game by and for smart people, make no mistake. But it is a game. Games are meant to be fun. That’s what makes Jeopardy! and Trebek so special and such a great fit. The man can present confidence and knowledge in a category about 17th-century poets but he also might, say, stroll onto the set for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions without any pants on, just to cut through the tension and remind everyone — the contestants, the audience, maybe even himself — that the point of it all is to entertain.
Host and program are almost perfectly intertwined at this point, for good reason. Trebek has been hosting the show since its revival in 1984, a period coming up on 36 years, which means, for a solid number of the show’s viewers in total and 100 percent of the millennial and under crowd, there has never been a world in which Alex Trebek has not hosted Jeopardy. There was, though, and that world was called “the 1970s.” But even then, Trebek just hosted different game shows: The Wizard of Odds, High Rollers, etc. The man has done nothing but host various game shows for almost 50 years. He’s a lifer in the business. No one on Earth is more qualified than Alex Trebek to do the thing Alex Trebek is doing. He’s one of one. That’s worth noting every now and then, not even tied to any real reason. It’s just special. It’s good to recognize special things.
(A brief aside about Trebek and the 1970s: Right now, as I type this, the entire collection of the show Celebrity Bowling is available on Amazon Prime. One of those episodes features a young Alex Trebek bowling against a less-young Scatman Cruthers. Trebek has a jet black mustache and a mop of curly black hair piled on top of his head and he’s wearing, I promise, a purple bowling shirt that has “ALEX TREBEK, WHAT THE HECK!” written on the back in white and gold lettering. Television is pretty cool now, with all of our options and various on-demand streaming options, but it will never be better than that episode of Celebrity Bowling.)
In fact, that’s the lens through which I choose to view the Greatest of All-Time tournament, as a way to celebrate Trebek and his legacy. It was a perfect tribute, too, because it was mostly a celebration of the game and the game’s best players. That’s probably how Alex preferred it. I say this with no first-hand knowledge, just as a person who has seen Alex get very uncomfortable and surprisingly awkward when contestants attempt to say something nice about him. It’s happening more lately, these various Final Jeopardy responses like “We love you, Alex” and “You’re the greatest,” which almost invariably make him look like he wants to somehow disappear inside himself for a second. No, this was better. He did the thing he was best at with the best contestants on a highly-rated primetime spectacle. That’s a bigger honor and a cooler tribute than, like, getting a trophy. Although he does have trophies, too. A lot of trophies.
The uncomfortable part in all of this is the underlying knowledge that the party is almost over. Trebek has had notable health issues recently, with a scary cancer diagnosis in the last year leading the way. He’s also 79 years old. He’s not going to do this forever, even if it’s kind of always seemed like he might. The end of his run as the show’s host could come at any time in the next few years. I do mean “any time,” too, as he’s said he doesn’t even plan to tell the producers until whatever show he decides is his last. That’s… that’s cool. No farewell tour, no tear-filled goodbyes, just a wave as he speeds off in a convertible. He has a history of this kind of impulsive decision-making, too. Please allow me to direct your attention to this quote from an in-depth and illuminating profile of Trebek from The New Republic in 2014, a quote I have posted on this website no fewer than a half dozen times, including as recently as Friday, because it is my favorite quote about anything, ever.
Fact: When Trebek shaved off his moustache in 2001, he did it in the middle of the day, himself, without warning the “Jeopardy!” producers. Renee was alarmed to come in and find him mid-shearing. He just felt like it, he says now. “And it got so much press, I couldn’t believe it. The wars with Iraq or whatever at that time, and people are all in a stew over my moustache. I have one response: Get a life.”
Buzz in with all the correct responses you want, make gutsy wagers, destroy a sea of worthy competitors. It doesn’t matter. Alex Trebek will always be the Jeopardy! GOAT.