By the time Alex Trebek walked onstage at the Daytime Emmys on Sunday, the awards ceremony was already a full-on lovefest. Over and over, daytime TV stars paused their acceptance speeches to heap praise on the Jeopardy! host, who was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When Trebek himself won for Outstanding Game Show Host — his first win in the category since 2008 — he was met with an extended standing ovation. The ceremony celebrated the longevity of a few luminaries, of course — Amy Poehler showed up to present Judge Judy with a Lifetime Achievement Award, Kathie Lee Gifford won for Outstanding Informative Talk Show Host a month after she retired from the Today show, and Sesame Street celebrated its 50th anniversary — but Trebek held a special cache for everyone in attendance.
Shortly after the show began, Trebek presented the award for Outstanding Younger Actress in a Drama Series. While every presenter typically gets polite applause, the whole room stood up and cheered for Trebek. For 30 seconds, he couldn’t get a word out about the category amid the applause, yelling, and whistling.
That category’s winner, General Hospital star Hayley Erin, wasn’t ready to let the moment go. “Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Alex Trebek,” she said. (And if you follow her on Twitter, you’ll know it’s true.)
Back in the press room, Erin continued lauding Trebek, adding that she watches Jeopardy! daily. Trebek also stopped in the press room after presenting the award — one of few presenters to do so — where he genially waved and received the rare applause of the assembled reporters.
When the time finally came for the Outstanding Game Show Host category, all eyes in the press room left General Hospital’s Max Gail, giving interviews after a deserved win, and turned to the monitor. Reading his name, presenter Anita Gillette couldn’t hold in her excitement, and before moving on to the next category she went off-script, fanning herself, “He’s been my hero a long time.”
In his speech, Trebek voiced a “concern” that he’d won a sympathy vote, and could hardly get through it for all the cheering. “Let me finish,” he said, raising his hand to settle the crowd. “I’m not a big fan of sympathy votes.” It’s not unreasonable to suggest that his recent cancer diagnosis boosted his votes a bit, but it was clearly coming from people who genuinely love the work he does. As Trebek put it, adapting Sally Field’s famous line, “You guys like me … you value my work. If that’s the case, I can live with that.”
After Trebek collected his trophy, the Outstanding Game Show Award was presented to Family Feud for the first time since 1977, but even that didn’t pull focus away from the night’s star. As Feud executive producer Gaby Johnston shouted out onstage, “We love Alex Trebek. I worked with him for seven years on Classic Concentration. He’s dear to my heart.”
Back in the press room, Trebek gamely posed for goofy photos and gave thoughtful answers to a few questions, describing a conversation he’d just had with Dr. Oz about the improved outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients today compared to a decade ago. It’s been “special,” he said, “to discover how loved I am all across America.” Asked about James Holzhauer’s current run on the show, Trebek casually tossed off some stats about how well Holzhauer’s doing, and added pointedly, “You’ll get to enjoy James and Alex for a while longer.”
As Trebek wrapped it up and exited, so did much of the press. The show wasn’t over — there were, among others, the Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Awards yet to be declared — but that wasn’t the point. People had come to see Alex Trebek, and true to form, he did not disappoint.