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Jeopardy host Alex Trebek has died after 36 years of hosting the show

The show made him a household name. Now it has to go on without him.

Trebek, in a gray suit and black tie, smiles in front of a row of blue TV screens reading “Jeopardy!”
Alex Trebek on the set of Jeopardy in 2012.
Kris Connor/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Alex Trebek — the longtime host of Jeopardy who was synonymous with the game to many fans — has died at age 80. The show announced his death in a tweet Sunday afternoon. Trebek announced in March 2019 that he had pancreatic cancer.

Trebek said he planned to step down from Jeopardy when his cancer, or the treatment for the disease, began to affect his ability to perform. (His contract was set to run until 2022, according to TVLine.) He never did so, although the year after his diagnosis served as sort of an extended farewell tour — culminating in the “Greatest of All Time” tournament in January 2020, which saw Jeopardy return to prime time for the first time in 30 years.

Trebek had planned a farewell message he never got to give, however: In December 2019, he told ABC News that he knew what he wanted to say during his last episode, whenever it came. He said he’d only need 30 seconds.

“It’ll be a significant moment for me,” he said in that interview. “But 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. And until we meet again, God bless you and goodbye.”

Alex Trebek is synonymous with the show that made him a household name

Over his 36 years at Jeopardy, Trebek hosted more than 8,000 episodes. While he stood at the lectern, crisply reading off categories like “State Capitals” and “Potent Potables” and hailing the Daily Double, six American presidents passed through the Oval Office (and one more was elected).

An unofficial archive of Jeopardy history lives on YouTube, where candidates through the years have uploaded their episodes, many preserving the ads and local-news teasers that bookended the show. And these time capsules are helpful in understanding the show’s lasting appeal. Everything looks different now. But the show has hardly changed at all.

Trebek congratulates Jeopardy’s “Greatest of All Time” winner Ken Jennings, alongside contestants Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer.
Eric McCandless/ABC/Getty Images

As far as fans are concerned, Trebek was Jeopardy. He had hosted other, mostly short-lived, game shows in the US, as well as in Canada, where he was born. (The AV Club’s Noel Murray, who outlined Trebek’s pre-Jeopardy career in 2009, points out that the pre-Jeopardy Trebek was “almost 180 degrees removed from the kind of host he is now.”) But during his time at the Jeopardy podium, giving questions in the form of answers and correcting answers in the form of questions, he made the show into a beloved cultural icon — while making himself into one as well.

He did this without ever really taking center stage. Trebek appeared on TVs in the United States and around the world, night after night, without ever talking much about himself or his own life. “You have to set your ego aside,” he told New York magazine in 2018. “The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself. That’s why I’ve always insisted that I be introduced as the host and not the star.”

Still, millions, maybe billions, of people felt they knew him all the same. In 2013, Trebek ranked above then-President Barack Obama on a Readers’ Digest poll of Americans’ most trusted people. But perhaps no recent moment better sums up Jeopardy’s impact — and its longevity — than the conversation Trebek had with a winning contestant, Burt Thakur, on Thursday.

Trebek asked Thakur, who had won just over $20,000, if he had family members rooting for him. In response, Thakur told Trebek about watching the show from his grandfather’s lap.

“I learned English because of you,” Thakur told the host.

It’s not yet clear who will replace Trebek at the helm of Jeopardy. Episodes he taped will continue airing through Christmas 2020. Trebek’s go-to line was that comedian Betty White (age 98) should replace him because, he said, the network would want “somebody younger, somebody funnier.”

But replacing a man who is synonymous with the timeless show he hosted will be a challenge — it will be only the second time the show has really changed (there was one host before Trebek, but that was more than three decades ago). It’s a difficulty illustrated by a 2019 poll from Morning Consult about game shows. The poll found Jeopardy was the most popular game show in America. And it found that 50 percent of respondents said they couldn’t imagine watching the show without Trebek at the helm.

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