Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Alex Trebek during a Jeopardy! Power Players Week tournament in 2012

Alex Trebek was unflappable to the end

Alex Trebek during a Jeopardy! Power Players Week tournament in 2012
Photo: Kris Connor (Getty Images)

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, in the final episode of Jeopardy! hosted by Alex Trebek to indicate that it would be his last. I watched and rewatched it, pausing on various moments to see if maybe—just maybe—there was a glimmer of the pain or discomfort he was reportedly enduring from his lengthy bout with pancreatic cancer. (Trebek would die just 10 days after filming his final batch of episodes.) But as usual, the longtime quiz show icon was imperturbable—plowing through the clues at a stately but steady pace, offering some light color commentary on the performances, and smiling politely during the brief interviews with contestants as they discussed the usual array of idiosyncratic interests (in this case, topics included calligraphy and “Tsundoku”—the Japanese term for accumulating lots of books without reading them). And when he congratulated newly minted champion Jim, defeating the previous two days’ winner Yoshie, he signed off with a simple, “We’ll see you again next week.”

That he wouldn’t be back to see us again the following week—that this was his final appearance, even if he didn’t know it—is both tragic and utterly in keeping with the host’s commitment to professionalism above all else. The show is fond of airing brief looks at Trebek in more playful circumstances: During one of the new season’s opening title sequences, for example, we got a glimpse of the host some years back, dressed in theatrical Roman soldier garb, complete with a sword hoisted above his head. And the playfully affectionate compilation tribute clip Jeopardy! aired immediately following this final installment was almost nothing but moments of light-hearted silliness, from a brief Groucho Marx impression to the time he emerged pantsless as an outtake during the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament Of Champions.

What’s so noteworthy about such moments, however, is that they are very much the exceptions that prove the rule. As any longtime viewer of the show can attest, freewheeling joviality was never Trebek’s strong suit, nor even his default setting; at most, it was a rare sighting, like catching Tom Morello without a hat, or Mitch McConnell without babies’ blood dribbling from the sides of his mouth. Trebek was straightforward if nothing else—terse, even, during much of his tenure. Of course, eventually the internet did what the internet does, and helped spread clips depicting what many saw and enjoyed about the game show host when, say, faced with an especially bad response to a clue or an uninspired panel of contestants: Namely, that he could be a witheringly frank insult comic. More often than not, if a spark of personality emerged from behind his crisp, no-nonsense demeanor during game play, it was to subtly (or not-so-subtly) dunk on what he saw as a missed opportunity, or something not worth his time, or both. (As writer and podcaster Olivia Craighead lovingly noted on Twitter, he was, “proof that you can be a kind person who also bullies nerds, 100% legend.”)

There’s plenty of testimony and evidence of what a good guy Trebek was off-camera, and anyone who’s heard him in interviews—especially longform ones, like Nerdist’s deep dive—quickly picks up on the easygoing Canadian charm that seemed to flow from the TV personality. He gave of his time and his money freely, including copious efforts with nonprofits and causes like endangered species conservation, the USO, World Vision, and more, as we noted when reading through his recent memoir. Of course, lots of charity work is no guarantee someone isn’t a jerk, but in Trebek’s case it really seems to reinforce what people said about him as a man: That he was a genuinely good guy who just happened to be the Guinness World Record holder for longest-running game show host.

But good people often have wicked senses of humor. As Bob Harris put it in his account of his time on Jeopardy!, Prisoner Of Trebekistan, Trebek in person was committed to professionalism and courtesy, “just like on TV”—but in that minor addendum lies the heart of his appeal. Trebek came across less like one of the modern era’s relentlessly upbeat TV personas and more like a sardonic wit observing his own place in the scrum of popular culture, appreciative that he was linked to a project that celebrated intellect even as he acknowledged its minor place in the grander scheme of things.

Onscreen, it conveys an attitude about as far from a Jimmy Fallon-like puppy-dog enthusiasm as possible, instead offering up a calming, even conservative mindset that assures viewers maximum effort is being expended to keep things on predictable, familiar ground. The host never proffered so much as a disingenuous “Oh wow,” when engaged in the time-honored interview portion that occurs mid-Jeopardy! round, always sticking to more of a guarded, “Let’s see where this goes.” Turning fleeting chats with contestants into requisite airtime chunks is a skill in and of itself, and Trebek refused to hype anything he wasn’t interested in, often simply ending his seconds-long chat with a guest with a simple “Alright” before moving on. (Assessing the role of these interviews, The New Yorker opined, “When they don’t go off the rails, what they stage is the nail-biting feat of transforming a situation of extreme social pressure into forgettable television filler.”) He was a master of minimalist engagement, knowing that a slight amount of color helped invest viewers in the day’s episode, while all too aware that more than a trace would only be a distraction. Only long-running champs like Ken Jennings, Austin Rogers, or James Holzhauer, it seems, earned the right to break convention and present a more quirky and animated self, in Trebek’s eyes.

One thing he didn’t get to do during his final stint as host was end the program with the words on which he had intended to go out. In an interview with ABC for the primetime special What Is Jeopardy? in 2019, Trebek made clear that he wanted his last appearance to include a short but significant concluding statement, one he had already rehearsed, that he hoped would pass the torch to the next iteration of the program while still allowing a personal note from him:

I’ve kind of, in my mind, rehearsed it already, and what I would do on that day is tell the director, “Time the show down to leave me 30 seconds at the end. That’s all I want.” And I will say my goodbyes and I will tell people: “Don’t ask me who’s going to replace me because I have no say whatsoever. But I’m sure that if you give them the same love and attention and respect that you have shown me… then they will be a success and the show will continue being a success.”

We’ll never get to hear the full extent of those remarks. (Trebek continued by saying his final words on Jeopardy! would be, “And until we meet again, God bless you and goodbye.”) But in some ways, Friday’s program might be the perfect encapsulation of his presence: Calm, businesslike, friendly but not overly so, yet always hoping for big successes, big paydays, and a compelling installment of the show he spent 37 years hosting. To a degree, his guarded onscreen demeanor allowed us to project qualities onto him in a way that made him whatever we wanted him to be. Like the little jabs at bad contestants? He can be the snarky asshole you want to get a drink with. Prefer the welcoming and encouraging words he has at the beginning of every round? He’s the genial guy always rooting for us. And if you just admired his efficient, eloquent way around the sometimes tricky rhetorical maneuvers asked of a game show host, then he could simply be the patrician intellectual, guiding us through the byzantine labyrinth of oft-obscure trivia that remains the raison d’etre of the show.

But if you wanted some hint of what Trebek may have wanted to say, or how he hoped to leave viewers after nearly four decades on the job, that message came in an unexpectedly earnest form five days earlier, on Monday’s program. That was the beginning of his final workday, since a week’s worth of Jeopardy! is filmed in one afternoon, Monday-through-Friday installments, back to back. At the start of last week, Trebek kicked off what would be his last day of shooting with a deeply felt encomium to the value of people looking out for one another in times of trouble—specifically, the coronavirus pandemic: “Open up your hands, open up your hearts to those who are still suffering because of COVID-19, people who are suffering through no fault of their own. We’re trying to build a gentler, kinder society, and if we all pitch in just a little bit, we’re gonna get there.” It was lovely, and moving, and if it wasn’t his usual opening patter, it was very much in keeping with his character.

Ken Jennings assumed duties as interim host this week, with other guest hosts on the horizon while the show continues its search for a permanent replacement. Based on initial reports, Jennings makes for a fine Jeopardy! host, regardless of ill-considered online defenses of Bean Dads. Whoever winds up taking over the job, it won’t be the same Jeopardy! It’ll be a new iteration, with a new tone, new pacing, and hopefully geared toward the strengths of whoever Trebek’s replacement might be. But it’s hard to imagine another host getting away with calling his contestants “losers” and being adored all the more for it without tipping over into mean-spirited, Simon Cowell-esque rudeness. That nimble skill belonged to Alex Trebek alone. The game show landscape is dimmed with his passing—or in the form of a question, “What is a poignant loss for the world of television?”

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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