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I Was a ‘Jeopardy!’ Contestant, and I Saw How Alex Trebek Embodied the Pursuit of Knowledge

The late host became far more than a familiar face on TV, serving as a model of poise and dependability for anyone curious about the world around them.

JEOPARDY!, Alex Trebek, 1995, ©Columbia TriStar Television/courtesy Everett Collection

Alex Trebek

Columbia Tristar/Courtesy Everett Collection

If you’ve ever been to a taping of “Jeopardy!” you know that Alex Trebek wasn’t always perfect. Unlikely as it may seem, at various points throughout a taping day, Trebek would have to re-record some of the clues he gave to the contestants. Whether he stumbled over a tricky wording or didn’t feel quite right about a pronunciation of some piece of Icelandic geography, there were times when the room would fall silent and he would get his second or third try at accuracy.

To some, this process may have seemed like vanity. But for anyone who got the chance to peek at his handwritten notes on the copy of the game board he kept at his podium, that need for perfection as the host of the trivia game show was a desire for accuracy that came without narcissism. Yes, it may have been easy to be an arbiter of knowledge with answers and questions there in front of him. It took just as much humility to go back over and admit when he was wrong. There’s something really admirable about that precision, the kind that rarely happens in other places, particularly on a national stage.

At the beginning of last March, when Trebek announced that he was in the middle of a battle with pancreatic cancer, it was the perfect manifestation of poise and grace that had come to mark his 35 years as “Jeopardy!” host. All the same Trebekisms were there. The gestures, the intonation, even a light dusting of humor at the end when he said he wasn’t allowed to die because his contract wasn’t up yet. This was a man whose direct gaze from the opposite end of the “Jeopardy!” studio could bring the sharpest minds to doubt their own brains. Here he was, making sure that the response to his eventual passing wouldn’t be a process that would leave people speechless. He was giving people the same chance that he had so many times before, to think about how they would react and make sure that they could come across as polished and precise as he so clearly valued in his own work.

There’s the time-tested way of describing the act of watching TV as letting people into your home. Trebek’s interaction with the home audience was a unique compact, an expectation that he and he alone would guide an adoring public through night after night, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. He’d be there if you scheduled your night around it and he’d be there if you happened to catch him on a TV at the bar or the gym. And it wasn’t just his personality that endeared him to so many. It was the way he embodied a certain kind of vindication for trivia lovers, the idea that every weekend afternoon spent flipping through the pages of an almanac was already worth it, even more so if it meant some day you got the chance to shake his hand.

Another hallmark of “Jeopardy!” tapings was Trebek‘s Q&As in between commercial breaks. As judges looked over potential alternate answers, contestant coordinators came out and gave people a chance to test their buzzers and calm their nerves, Trebek would walk over unfazed to the small gathered studio audience and field questions like it was the world’s most stately press conference. Inevitably, Trebek would be asked about impressions and facial hair. He always had an answer at the ready, but he would deliver it with the same measured response that would make the audience feel like he was saying it for the first time, even when they knew that was impossible. He would speak fondly about childhood memories in Canada, talk glowingly about his children, and would deliver graceful deflection to anyone asking who he thought should eventually replace him.

There’s an assumption that contestants on “Jeopardy!” got to meet him backstage and hang out before a taping as if he were a newfound pal. In fact, it was the opposite. Whether hardened by tens of thousands of episodes of those small 30-second, post-commercial break meet-and-greets on camera or (almost certainly) a desire to preserve the impartiality of a game show where thousands of dollars had the potential to change hands, Trebek was at a bit of a remove from the people who were playing the game. Yet, with those tiny interactions that did come after the final tally, he had such a presence and a charisma that all it took was a few sentences of back-and-forth for you to feel like you had walked away with something substantial, something significant.

Anyone who’s been on “Jeopardy!” knows that there’s a good chance that might be the first line of their own pop culture obituary, the thing that all distant relatives and friends at reunions will ask about for decades to come. I can only imagine what it was like being the man at the helm on screen and how much that would consume every interaction you ever have. Much like everyone’s first “Jeopardy!” question is: “What is Alex Trebek like?” the inverse must have been true — even with a career’s worth of accomplishments before 1984.

There was something about the way the Trebek said “Sorry” that imbued years of meaning into a single word. Not just because the way he said it had a trademark hint of his homeland, but that his manner was a potent mixture of empathy, authority, disappointment, and finality. Every person on that show dreaded the thought of being on the receiving end of it, especially when the category was late and the dollar value consequences were high. Even so, with a single word, he cultivated a trademark act of intellectual authority that also doubled as a kind of knowing comfort. There were always winners and losers on “Jeopardy!,” but he had a way of giving the second and third place finishers their own dignity in defeat.

For a while, part of your parting package as a contestant was the “Jeopardy!” picture frame. There’s nothing inherent to a trivia game show that translates to photography. They weren’t designed for you to frame an in-game action shot or your favorite clue from your episode. The sole reason they gave those out was that they knew that 95% of the people who walked through that green room as a contestant saw a picture with Trebek as worth more than anything they took home as prize money. Mine sits on the shelf right next to my front door. Regardless of whether I see it as I leave my apartment, it’s one of the last things there before I go out in the day. It’s not shoved in a corner, it’s in a place of prominence. It’s a reminder that I was somehow, for two blissful days in October 2010, a part of something bigger. And it would not exist without the man who served as the face of it for longer than anyone has and for longer than anyone will.

Masterful to the end, he was a true TV titan. Not even a global health epidemic kept him from working right through the end of his life — although it feels wrong to say his life is over. Every episode that airs in syndication; every anecdote shared between those lucky enough to walk on a “Jeopardy!” stage in Culver City; every story told in halls on college campuses around the country; every kid who sits on a family member’s lap looking at a bunch of white text in blue boxes and starts to grow more and more curious about knowing the world around them — that’s how Alex Trebek will stay with us.

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