Alex Trebek, who passed away this weekend at the age of 80, was a beloved game show host and TV icon. He was also a great comedic straight man when given the opportunity.
Trebek was candid and frank about the stage 4 pancreatic cancer which eventually claimed his life, but it is still tough for those who have watched Jeopardy for literally their entire lives to handle his passing. There have been many major and minor trials for the average person in 2020, between the tense (but mercifully, hopefully over) election, to the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic, and even the plethora of weird-ass news stories ranging from murder hornets to the Tik-Tok Teens, but the loss of Alex Trebek hits just a little harder, as he was a generational presence who was trusted and respected by a wide array of people in increasingly fractious times. Trebek was also known for having a sense of humor, which cracked through his borderline pompous facade, and humanized him as someone other than “the man with all the answers”.
Jeopardy was already a known quantity when the modern syndicated version premiered in 1984. The original show, which first ran from 1964 to 1975 with a brief revival in 1978, was synonymous with its creator, legendary talk show host Merv Griffin, its original host, Art Fleming, and announcer Don Pardo, who would later be known as the voice of Saturday Night Live. There are few episodes of the original run left, victim to the rampant tape erasure most networks employed to save money at the time, but even so, the Jeopardy of the 1960s and 1970s seems quaint in 2020, with questions worth as little as $10, and such strategies as “The Forrest Bounce” not really coming into play.
Even before his days as the face of Jeopardy, Trebek was well known in the United States and especially his native Canada for his on-screen work, hosting a wide array of short-lived game shows in the 1970s while donning a trademark Afro and mustache. Eugene Levy did the first notable parody of Alex on SCTV, making fun of the Trebek-hosted academic bowl Reach For The Top in such sketches as Hi-Q, Night School Hi-Q, and HALF WITS under the name Alex Trebel. Levy’s turn as the straight man is great, though John Candy’s belief that Truman Capote wrote Huckleberry Finn, combined with Catherine O’Hara’s turn as the prone-to-tears Margaret Meehan, really make the skit.
As Trebek’s celebrity grew in North America, so did his presence on national television, with appearances on such classic shows as The Golden Girls, Cheers, The X-Files, and The Simpsons. “What Is… Cliff Clavin?” is the only episode of Cheers I seek out to rewatch, largely due to Cliff Clavin’s hubris in Final Jeopardy, but also because of how Trebek (no pun intended) cheers Clavin up when accidentally encountering him at the bar afterwards. Having know-it-alls suffer comeuppance at the hands of Alex Trebek was a common theme, like in the Golden Girls episode where Dorothy Zbornak dreams of losing to Rose in Final Jeopardy, only for Merv Griffin to appear and uphold the ruling that Cary Grant was buried in Grant’s Tomb. Bea Arthur’s groveling to Griffin, to the point where she calls him “the anti-Trump”, feels especially noteworthy today.
Celebrity Jeopardy has been a bit of a joke since its debut in 1992, with easier questions geared to its famous contestants, and such contestants as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not even realizing when a question is referring to them in a certain way. The Saturday Night Live parody, featuring Will Ferrell as Trebek, was a chance to let such “contestants” as Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery and Norm Macdonald’s Burt Reynolds/Turd Ferguson go wild as Ferrell tries to rein them in. While it hews close to what Eugene Levy did with his Trebek impersonation 15-20 years before, it raises the stakes by lowering the bar to such a point where schoolyard humor was par for the course, and Final Jeopardy featured such brainbusters as “pick a number.” Trebek’s appearance on Ferrell’s final episode as a regular cast member in 2002 was a seal of approval from the host, but even in what would turn out to be the midpoint of Trebek’s Jeopardy career, we kind of already knew he was in on the joke.
Trebek wasn’t just funny outside of Jeopardy, though. He could mercilessly, hilariously zing contestants, as in this infamous clip. Such impeccable timing, such perfect delivery.
Alex Trebek had a well-calculated persona, showing just enough to appear candid while remaining more or less the same person we see on screen. In his 2020 memoir, The Answer Is…, Trebek shows us his upbringing in Sudbury, Ontario, his career highlights and struggles, and, um, an incident in the 1970s where he “accidentally” ate an entire plate of pot brownies at a party, and stayed at the host’s house for several days in an enhanced state. In a way, we’ve been mourning Alex Trebek since March 2019, when he first announced his cancer diagnosis, but even then, and up until his death, he kept his humor, to the point of saying he was going to continue with the show because he was contractually obligated for the next three years. He only got halfway to his goal, but through chemotherapy, hairpieces, and sheer will, Trebek did as well as anyone could while facing his grim prognosis, and only further cemented his reputation as the greatest game show host of all time.
Tom Keiser is a freelance writer for hire. He’s on Twitter @thomasdkeiser.