“What was Alex Trebek like?”
“Is Alex the same in person as he is on TV?”
“I can’t believe you got to see the mustache.”
Being on Jeopardy means answering a lot of questions about Alex Trebek. I was on Jeopardy — three times, and was a two-day champ in October 2014 — and since then I’ve talked a lot about Trebek. I’ve talked more about him than about the questions I answered or how much money I won. Because the thing is, most people aren’t regular viewers of the show. Many never watch it at all. But everyone knows who Alex Trebek is.
In some ways, Trebek has permeated more of pop culture than the game show he’s hosted for the past 35 years. He’s wise, avuncular, omniscient, and so beloved by Stephen Colbert that he played a key role in Colbert Report’s finale. Whenever something happens to him, whether it’s the terms of his hosting contract or serious health news, it feels he’s like more than just a TV personality. It’s a bright light of pop culture fading, dimming out a culture of no-frills, no-drama televised trivia that’s become increasingly hard to find.
People always ask me about meeting Alex Trebek
The number of questions I get about Trebek is far disproportionate to the amount of time I actually got to spend with him. Aside from the interview portion, contestants chat with him for maybe two minutes after the show ends, and that’s it. My interactions with him are a bit of a blur — nerves are a hell of a drug — but I do remember him graciously answering a variety of questions from the audience and waving to my family when I pointed them out.
But that limited exposure provides an outsized, lasting impression of the man. Among the 2,000+ members of the private Jeopardy Contestants Facebook group I’m in, many shared with me warm memories of him that are still vivid years — even decades — after they happened. Josh Woo, who competed during Kids Week in 2003, only had glowing things to say about Trebek’s rapport with the 12-and-under crowd. “He was great with the kids, messing with us during picture time. One girl pretended to backhand him when he put bunny ears on her — Alex proceeded to limp back to his podium, clutching his chest in mock pain, groaning, ‘Aye, that was brutal — she gave me a whack!’”
His affability is equally strong with the adult crowd. “I felt that he took a genuine interest in my personal story about taking a trip to Poland with my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, to visit his hometown,” Jordan Nussbaum, who appeared on two episodes in 2018, remembers. “He spent an extra few seconds talking to me. That moment of a genuine connection, from a man who speaks to hundreds of contestants a year, was very nice.”
The show’s taping schedule can be grueling — they film five shows a day, three before lunch and two after. That’s a lot of kibitzing. It’s no surprise that the extra care and attention Trebek shows in those brief shared moments cements into lasting memories. Nothing notable happened during my three episodes, but I’ll never forget the calm that washed over me as I heard Johnny Gilbert announce, “And here is the host of Jeopardy, Alex Trebek!”
His even delivery and “Ooh, sorry”s were comforting sounds in my childhood, ones that were the only TV noise allowed during dinnertime. I’m not the only one who feels like his consistency over the decades has been something of a security blanket. When I applied to go on the show, I didn’t think about winning money. I was a lifelong trivia nerd who just wanted to challenge myself, and do it before Trebek retired.
Jeopardy made it okay to be knowledgeable
Sure, he can be condescending, like when he called a contestant and her friends losers. But he’s nothing compared to Anne Robinson, the eviscerating host of the long-gone Weakest Link. And come on, he acts like he knows everything. But ... that’s his job. A know-it-all is the perfect host for the format.
“Jeopardy and Trebek make it not only okay to be educated and knowledgeable, they make it something to be desired, and remunerative,” Lynn Babcock Laniewski, a four-time champion from 2000, said. “It’s kind of an island in a sea of what seems sometimes to be willful ignorance.” Adam Francois Watkins, a one-day champ from 2018, agrees. “Recently, I think he’s become an avatar of the importance (and even existence) of truth in a so-called post-truth world.”
Perhaps this is because Trebek cares most about letting the contestants and the information shine in equal amounts. Aside from a bizarre attempt at moderating a gubernatorial debate in 2018, he stays out of the fray, making his controversies mostly show-related. “He doesn’t try to overshadow the stars of the show, who are, in reality, the contestants,” Nussbaum said. “It’s notable that on Wheel of Fortune, when Pat Sajak and Vanna White are introduced, they’re called the stars of the show. When Alex Trebek is introduced, he is referred to simply as the host.” Perhaps it’s this humility that has allowed him to naturally rise to the top, ironically becoming bigger than the show he hosts.
And thank god for that. In preparing for the show, the only things you really need to worry about are knowing your facts, having a grasp on wagering strategy, and having a few fun stories to tell. As a final testament to the power of Trebek, consider this: Producer Maggie Speak said to the greenroom of caffeine- and nerve-riddled contestants on my tape day that most people are more nervous about talking to Trebek during the interview portion than they are to, you know, answer trivia questions. Because you’ll probably forget all of the answers you got right. But you’ll never forget meeting the most prominent man in trivia.
Terri Pous is a writer and editor based in New York City whose writing has been featured on BuzzFeed, Time, and The Week, among others. She’s a two-time Jeopardy champ and can be found sharing random facts and trivia on Twitter at @tepous.