Upon hearing that Alex Trebek had finally succumbed to stage four pancreatic cancer at age 80 this weekend, I thought not only about all the years I’d respected his work on “Jeopardy!” but also about the first time I saw him host a game show in person.
During my first-ever trip to Los Angeles in January, 1980, I went to Burbank to take the tour of NBC’s facility, which climaxed in a visit to the studio where Johnny Carson recorded “The Tonight Show.” We were there several hours before taping, so there wasn’t much to see (not even Ed or Doc), but it still felt special. On the way out, one of the NBC pages announced that they had free tickets to sit in the audience for the taping of a game show. It was “High Rollers,” which aired on NBC daytime on and off from 1974 through 1980, when it vanished from the network schedule to make room for David Letterman’s doomed morning show. It was one of about a dozen game shows Trebek hosted in the decade before he landed the gig on “Jeopardy!”
I jumped at the opportunity and was ushered with a couple hundred other tourists into the studio where “High Rollers” was set to go. The show’s concept was pretty dumb, with Trebek asking contestants trivia questions, and co-host Ruta Lee rolling dice onto a craps table with a blank felt. The set also included two walls full of giant numbers, a theme song with a disco beat, and the same standard prizes as other game shows of the era (a trip to Mexico, a new Chevy, a dinette set).
What caught my eye the most was Trebek’s demeanor. He’d been hosting the show for several years by then and looked like he couldn’t wait for it to be over. Oh, he was enough of a pro to still pull off his hosting duties and make the contestants feel welcome, but I sensed that he’d rather be anywhere else.
That was never true in the 36 years I watched him host “Jeopardy!” (which we still record every day). Trebek not only appeared happy to be doing the job, but got a big kick out of seeing contestants succeed. Although he was never allowed to interact with them outside the studio, he seemed to be friends with champions who ran up big win streaks (Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer, Julia Collins). He was clearly thrilled when they won big money or pulled really difficult “responses” out of some corner of their brains. But he also empathized with those who struggled because they were too slow on the “signaling device” or didn’t understand the game’s best strategies.
After a while, Trebek became America’s favorite quizmaster. He was asked to host events like the National Geography Bee. He was played by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was mocked mercilessly by Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery (who died just one week ago). Most importantly, his demeanor implied that facts (even trivia and minutiae) and knowledge are important. Unlike other game shows (“The Price Is Right,” “Let’s Make A Deal”), you didn’t have to have a big, flashy personality to succeed on “Jeopardy!” You only had to know stuff to potentially win life-changing sums of money.
The most famous of those, of course, was Ken Jennings, whose “Jeopardy!” success allowed him to leave behind his life as a software engineer and begin his own series of trivia enterprises, including books, websites, and more. After winning the show’s “Greatest Of All Time” tournament last year, he even signed on with “Jeopardy!” this season as part of the Clue Crew, which nearly all of us outsiders considered to be his stepping stone to eventually replacing Alex.
That may be complicated by the recent announcement by ABC that it is reviving “The Chase,” with Jennings and two other “Jeopardy!” champions (Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer) signed to play the role of The Chaser. Does that contract permit Jennings to appear on a weekly primetime network show and host a nightly syndicated show? I sure hope so, because Ken has proven that, aside from his proven abilities while playing the game, he also has the right on-camera demeanor to fill Trebek’s shoes.
The producers of “Jeopardy!” haven’t made any announcement about who will succeed Trebek. With enough episodes recorded to run through the end of the year, they can afford to observe an appropriate mourning period for the man whose face became synonymous with the game. But I bet we’ll hear some news in that regard before December 1st, when the show will have to go back into production for episodes to air in January and beyond.
And now, this…