Trebek’s Original Miscellany

ABC’s “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time”

What is “inessential”? Pieces of trivia are, by nature, tidbits and factoids that at best connect two seemingly disparate ideas to each other but, perhaps at their most quintessential, elicit nothing more than a “Huh, didn’t know that” from someone. There’s a reason trivia is (usually) a popular way for bars to kill time and fill people up with Miller Lite on non-sports nights; take that concept, turn the answers into questions[1], and voila: you’ve got a long-running syndicated game show.

Answer: this television figure, who died on Sunday at 80, hosted the longest-running iteration of Jeopardy! for 36 years. Who is Alex Trebek? Well, to many, he is so much more than the game show with which the rest of us will forever associate him.

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know who Art Fleming was – although, you’d lose out on points. Fleming was the host of the original Jeopardy!, which aired in various iterations between 1964 and 1979. By 1984 – and following, in a particularly stupendous bit of trivia, the inadvertent intervention of one “Weird Al” YankovicJeopardy! would return once more, this time to stay.

One has to figure its endurance this time around has been largely due to the choice of host, an Ontario native who had bounced between gigs working horse racing, Canadian musical theatre and curling and who eventually found his way south, to the hospitable environs of NBC. Alex Trebek had already lived a thousand lives as a national broadcaster by the time he began at Jeopardy!

“For longer than I’ve been alive,” as well as its related phrases, is something I have read quite a bit in the wake of Trebek’s death. National powers have fallen, wars ended and begun, planets recategorized and excised from our solar system in the time that Trebek has been host of that show. If it hooked you, he was probably a big part of why, and you can see why Sony Entertainment was interested in keeping him around for as long as possible[2].

But then, well – for longer than I’ve been alive, Trebek has been the host of Jeopardy! My family made a habit of watching the show every night around dinner time, and, mustachioed or not, there Alex Trebek would be, guiding us through increasingly difficult lessons on Qing dynasty literature, Austro-Hungarian geography and the basketball nomenclature. When you watch us interact with each other, its influence is apparent; watch any of us slip up factually, and you get a full-blown, if much less cordial, Final Jeopardy, complete with self-corrections and the occasional shrug.

I don’t necessarily regard trivia and fun facts as the same thing, although in their essence they mostly are: small pieces of information, presumably factual, that serve no great function than to move a conversation along. So here’s a fun fact I begrudgingly used when necessary for a brief time in high school: I progressed to the second-round audition portion of Teen Jeopardy! when I was in the ninth grade. I did not progress[3], but it was a two-day period I spent in New York City that, in a roundabout way, informed my going to college there four years later.

Funnily enough, I began going to my alma mater a year after one Matt Trebek, whom I would end up coming to know in a very transient way through my on-campus job one semester, started there[4]. Even though I missed out on shaking his father’s hand on live television, I did have the opportunity to meet him once, when Trebek the senior gave a talk in an auditorium. Predictably, it was one of the more entertaining on-campus events I ever attended as a student; even more predictably, Alex Trebek was a lovely (and, by personal and, apparently, financial standards, a generous) man[5].

I don’t know how many times I’ve recited any of the exchanges that Will Ferrell incited while impersonating Trebek on Celebrity Jeopardy!, although there would seem to be some cosmic justice in his and Sean Connery’s deaths being only a week apart. I don’t know how often I’ve watched Jeopardy! and been incensed at how poorly I would’ve done, only to find redemption in some off-the-wall Final Jeopardy category.

I do know that I always found comfort in Jeopardy! in exactly the inverse way of most of my athletic pursuits. Call that intellectual elitism, but also, fuck you if you don’t enjoy the idea of passively learning, especially at a time when we could all bother to do a little more in that realm. You didn’t even have to do anything: Alex Trebek would take care of it.

Jeopardy! has a strong enough pull for it to survive, if not eventually overshadow, Trebek’s death. The music remains, as does Johnny Gilbert, going strong into his next century of television announcing.

Though his job description ultimately entailed lightly prodding people about their biographical details before correcting them on minutiae, it was so much more than that, and he was essential in a way his subject matter rarely could be. The world of winning money on television is a little closer to the rest of the world without Alex Trebek in either of them. Goodnight, and we hope to see you tomorrow.


[1] Novel, I guess-!

[2] To that end – he recorded his final episodes, which will air through Christmas Day of this year, ten days before his death.

[3] Not that you asked, but: I was a freshman going against two seniors in the live buzzer simulation portion of the audition. To my recollection, I answered two of nine questions correctly but completely whiffed a category on The Grapes of Wrath, a book I would not read until the following summer. The seniors, of course, breezed through it, and no, I did not date much in high school.

[4] Matt now owns a few restaurants in and around my neighborhood. Answer: they’re all good.

[5] Multiple people told me that I was the person they thought about when they heard about Trebek’s death; as much as I wanted to be slightly offended at such a strong association with useless knowledge, Trebek seemed to revel in it, so how could I be mad?

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