So just when the presidential election had finally been called for Joe Biden and I thought I might go an entire day without getting weepy and emotional, I saw the headline I’d been dreading for more than a year: Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek finally lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.
2020 has been a tough year for the fixtures of my ‘80s teenhood. Eddie Van Halen’s loss was a terrible shock. And yet Alex Trebek’s death, expected though it was, hit me even harder.
My parents were glued to the Jeopardy reboot from the very first airing in 1984. Back in high school, I wasn’t ever considered terribly smart, but it turned out I had a good brain for trivia and so I’d follow along with the show. And my family took this seriously. We didn’t just watch; we’d sit in the living room with pads of paper and pencils and award ourselves any clues we answered correctly. My dad always won Living Room Jeopardy, although he was duly impressed whenever I got a clue he didn’t.
And even though Jeopardy’s seen a few changes over the years—the increased dollar values, the end of the “five wins and out” era, the resulting rise of superchampions like Ken Jennings and Jeopardy James Holzhauer, and ever-changing sets and intros—the core of the show has never deviated much from what it was when I watched every night with my parents.
And Alex Trebek grew to be a stable, reassuring presence as the years passed. My dad died when I was a freshman in college. We left my childhood home after I graduated. I moved around aimlessly between a few jobs and a few social scenes in my early 20s, trying to find a place for myself. But if I happened to turn on WJLA at 7:30 on a weeknight, Alex would always be there, always reminding everyone to answer in the form of a question.
And I’m proud and grateful that I got to play a tiny part in this pop culture phenomenon when I appeared on the show in 2011. After reading Ken Jennings’s Brainiac (a book I highly recommend), I was inspired to take the online test. I made it to two in-person auditions and got The Call after the second one.
At the taping, I didn’t get to see Alex much more than what you see of him on TV; he didn’t emerge on stage until Johnny Gilbert announced him, and after each episode he’d disappear back into his dressing room until the next taping. Jeopardy tapes a week’s worth of shows in one day, so any contestants not called for an episode sat in the audience until it was our turn to go.
Something you don’t see on TV is the prep Alex did as the tapings started. He reviewed the clues before each game and even flagged a couple of incorrect answers. He wasn’t particularly demonstrative or outgoing like the friendly, huggy Californians on the staff, but he was polite and professional. He maintained easy banter during audience Q&A sessions and remained unruffled even when one of the contestants fainted right before Final Jeopardy.
And it’s worth mentioning that the summer before my episode taped, he’d chased a burglar out of his hotel room (at the age of 71), injured his foot, and had achilles tendon surgery. One of my opponents thought to ask him how his foot was doing during the post-game chit chat.
His recovery was taking a lot longer than it would have when he was younger, he said. He followed that up with “There’s nothing good about getting old.”
I wish I had a more inspiring Trebek line to share, but that’s what I got.
The one bit of solace I have today is that in the last year and a half since his diagnosis, I think Alex came to fully understand just how much he meant to so many people. I read in more than one article that his work on Jeopardy kept him going on days when he was feeling really terrible. I hope it did.
And while I’m sure Jeopardy will endure, I do not envy the person who’s taking over the host spot.
Rest well, Alex.