For decades, I’ve tuned into the trivia game show “Jeopardy!” for the facts. On Sunday, the show lost its judicious leader, Alex Trebek, who died at age 80 after a battle with cancer.
Trebek had hosted “Jeopardy!” for my entire life. He began in 1984 and hosted every episode since — save for April Fool’s Day in 1997 when he and Pat Sajak of “Wheel of Fortune” swapped places — more than 8,000 half-hour shows in all. For many, watching Trebek was ritualistic — the way a day ends and a night begins. It was also a way to get real facts, a brief respite from the “alternative facts” so prevalent over the past few years.
Trebek and the show — the two difficult now to divorce — were a beacon of democratic ideals, flattening the world for all to consume. High and low, popular and obscure, new and old, holy and profane, Trebek put all of them on equal terms. Look no further than the episode of “Jeopardy!” that aired this past Friday, for example. It featured clues about Rihanna, Madonna and Katy Perry, and clues about the city of Vaduz, the Russian navy and the German chancellor. All were on the same game board — though Gene Wilder and the Cook Strait were worth more money than any of them.
“Jeopardy!” and Trebek have been a haven for facts as monuments of truth have crumbled in the public sphere. The holder of the country’s highest office now baselessly disputes legitimate election results, espousers of baseless and dangerous conspiracy theories are elected to Congress, and fact-checking is a booming industry.
Trebek’s performance hasn’t changed to combat the untruths of the last few years, in part because it already was a kind of totem to the value of fact. Since 1984, he has stood each weekday in a suit behind a podium with a sheet of notes and delivered more than 400,000 clues, each a minor daily inoculation against the creep of lies — or whatever you want to call them.
“Alex was so much more than a host,” tweeted James Holzhauer, who set a series of unreal records on “Jeopardy!” last spring. “He was an impartial arbiter of truth and facts in a world that needs exactly that.”
The show’s eclectic and unpredictable subject matter is the result of an unassuming, wide-angle lens cast upon a large and complicated world. We call the material Trebek delivered “trivia,” but few things are less trivial than turning a generous eye toward the world — in all its strange and diverse splendor — and calling things by their right name.
The headline on a great 2014 profile of Trebek in the New Republic declared him the “Last King of the American Middlebrow.” This is true not in a pejorative sense but in a statistical one, as in the average between high and low. Trebek’s essential demeanor — and therefore “Jeopardy!” itself — is stripped of pretension and pretext.
The show’s archive showcases its diverse interests, each of which was presented on the show’s giant board simply and equally in the iconic all-caps white text on a blue square. Knowledge of the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is worth the same as that of “The Office” actor Steve Carrell, as that of the toy Mr. Potato Head. The playwright Shakespeare is equal to the running back Walter Payton. The element helium is as valuable as the airport Heathrow.
Trebek’s performance as host emphasized this egalitarianism. His affect was steady and his pronunciation — of French, most famously — was impeccable, and he took pre-show notes with diacritical marks to ensure that he’d get it right. And at the same time he was, among other things, an underrated rapper, as Holzhauer joked, enthusiastically engaging with the repertoires of Lil Wayne, Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
“I’m not too good at it, but I was getting into it,” Trebek said after delivering the verses, and I believed him.
Moreover, Trebek’s performance didn’t just lack pretension, it was anti-pretentious. He once famously lightly chastised three contestants, who had correctly answered clues about Molière and Thor Heyerdahl, for not knowing enough about football. “I have to talk to them,” Trebek said disapprovingly before going to commercial. The democratic nature of trivia had been thrown off-kilter, and Trebek had to correct it.
By all accounts, Trebek embodied these trivia ideals while also being a genuine and gracious human.
“Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did,” tweeted Ken Jennings, the show’s most famous contestant, who won a record 74 consecutive times. “He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him.”
It was with this same ethos of decency and calm that Trebek announced, in March 2019, that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He said he “wanted to prevent you from reading or hearing some overblown or inaccurate reports regarding my health.” The rest of the short statement was filled with facts, and he vowed to fight the cancer and continue working. “Truth told, I have to,” he said, with a characteristic pinch of humor. “Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host ‘Jeopardy!’ for three more years.”
I wish he were able to do so. The show may go on, but it’s hard to imagine anyone personifying its ideals as well as Alex Trebek did. Of course, the contestants on “Jeopardy!” just ask the questions. It was Trebek who had all the answers.