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Alex Trebek hosted this Q&A show for almost 40 years. What is ‘Jeopardy!’ without him?

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DECEMBER 03, 2020

George Alexander Trebek, better known by fans and friends alike as Alex, died Nov. 8 at the age of 80 of pancreatic cancer. The “Jeopardy!” host was a staple of television sets for almost 40 years, hosting the show since its 1984 revival.

To say that Trebek was core to the success of “Jeopardy!” is an understatement. Anyone with a passion for puzzles or trivia could recognize him just as quickly as they could recognize the quiz show’s iconic theme music. A commanding but understated presence, he gave off a constant aura of professionalism that gave “Jeopardy!” a more refined appearance than flashier contemporaries such as “Wheel of Fortune” and “Family Feud.” To Trebek, the game always seemed to be about the pursuit of knowledge, no matter how trivial that knowledge might be.

Trebek began hosting and announcing in his 20s, and he began work on game shows shortly thereafter. However, it wasn’t until his 40s that Trebek hosted the first episode of a revived “Jeopardy!” From that first episode, Trebek was on stage for the game and for the game alone. There were no brash, outward displays of personality: Trebek simply acted as a vehicle through which the game could be played. And yet, there was something about the enigmatic host that begged to be explored, a reassuring competency and confidence that are all too rare.

An even hand and a gentle tone. A consummate professional and a gracious host in every sense. A seven-time Emmy winner with a Hollywood star. He had a wry sense of humor, and brilliant slivers of his zeal and curiosity were often revealed during his chats with contestants. Trebek was a moderate moderator, and his exuberance for learning helped to establish “Jeopardy!” as a favorite of grandparents, librarians and bookworms. 

Trebek’s goal always seemed to be one of focus, of dedication to the game he hosted for nearly half of his life. He never wanted to be “Jeopardy!” — and yet, it’s hard to imagine the show without him. A series of interim hosts will take over temporarily until a new one is found, but a “Jeopardy!” without Trebek is almost unthinkable.

In 2018, Trebek mentioned the possibility of retiring from the show, citing age and ability as concerns. He appeared to seek to preserve himself as a balanced and scrupulous host and continued to do so after his cancer diagnosis in 2019. Trebek always seemed concerned about the possibility of damaging the show’s reputation, but he still maintained a firm commitment to putting out fantastic game show content week after week. 

It is sort of a paradoxical relationship. The show existed before Trebek and will exist after him. Even now, new “Jeopardy!” episodes with Trebek as host are airing nightly. But without Trebek’s steadiness, the fate of “Jeopardy!” is an uncertain one.

The show’s format is simple enough. In fact, it is that format that has engaged millions of viewers with insights about culture, history and the world. “Jeopardy!” is a chance for performative intelligence but also for discovery and learning. It’s an opportunity for new information from different arenas of knowledge, from ornithology to coins to the comically underwhelming sports questions, for which the show’s academic contestants are often woefully unequipped.

But this format isn’t what makes the show. Sure, it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate the bounds of one’s impractical knowledge to friends and family or a chance to discover something new every night. But a TV program is nothing without its presentation, and Trebek nailed presentation.

Throughout the show’s run, the format of “Jeopardy!” has hardly changed. Where other game shows are either bogged down with kitschy set design or ostentatious light displays, “Jeopardy!” has always managed to wrap itself in a simplistic, erudite blue. The format is largely unchanged, and many categories from the ’80s still appear today. Its reliability, however, is in doubt. Trebek never said he wanted the show to be about him. And yet, it was only by his presentation that the show became the clean, mannered institution it came to be.

“Jeopardy!” is a show that inherently brings people together, and the specificity of its answers means that any missed response can be happily waved away as too obscure — and that any correct guesses are made all the more rewarding. It is the optimal balance of informative and entertaining, and this is due in no small part to the calm charisma of its longtime host. 

Trebek will be remembered as a Canadian icon, a man determined to mine the edges of information for audiences around the world. He was devoted to his craft until the end, passionate about the show he had worked on for almost half of his life.

Contact Crew Bittner at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.

DECEMBER 02, 2020