in memoriam

We Could Always Look to Alex Trebek for the Right Answers

The greatest of all time, indeed. Photo: ABC via Getty Images

The death of Alex Trebek, who passed away this morning at the age of 80 due to stage 4 pancreatic cancer, is very sad, but it did not come as a surprise. The Jeopardy! host announced his diagnosis in March of 2019, a year before the pandemic started, and was candid about the prognosis for the disease — it’s usually not great — while also remaining hopeful that he could beat the odds. Which he did, for a while. He continued living for well over a year after his initial diagnosis, long enough to keep hosting Jeopardy!, even when the quiz show resumed production under COVID protocols. That is more life than a lot of people with advanced pancreatic cancer get.

Trebek, a Canadian who became America’s most admired game-show host (and, in 1997, a naturalized U.S. citizen), wasn’t the first host of Jeopardy! Art Fleming had the gig first, but when the contest reemerged in syndication in 1984, it was Trebek who stood, besuited, in the position of authority, stating various pieces of information and waiting for contestants to spit back the right answers in the form of a question. He held the job for 36 years and right up to the end; according to the New York Times’ obituary of Trebek, new episodes with him as host will continue to air until Christmas.

As that long, long run in the same role attests, Trebek was a symbol of reliability, not only because he stayed on Jeopardy! for as long as he did, but because of the nature of the work. Trebek literally had all the answers at his fingertips. The people who compete on Jeopardy! are almost unfailingly knowledgeable, intelligent individuals, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But when Alex Trebek said that the response one of them offered was wrong, you knew it was incontestably wrong. There was, and still is, comfort in that kind of unambiguous exchange, in which facts are facts and there are no alternatives. It’s the kind of comfort that some derive from religion. In fact, Trebek’s Jeopardy! was a religion of sorts to many, a trivia-contest form of grace that was said over countless dinners eaten in front of the television, alone or with family, while trying to guess how much someone would wager on Final Jeopardy.

Trebek was uniquely suited to preside over this week-nightly ritual rooted in a belief in knowledge and truth. He spoke in articulate and measured tones. He always dressed in a proper suit and tie. (There is no casual Friday on Jeopardy!) He was dignified and seemingly erudite, the personification of objective honesty, a quality whose supply has seemed to dwindle in American culture in recent years.

He also possessed a wry sense of humor and could toss a genial hand grenade of shade when he wanted to, as he did when a contestant from Bowie, Maryland, attempted to explain her obsession with nerdcore hip-hop. “It’s people who identify as nerdy, rapping about the things they love: video games, science fiction, having a hard time meeting romantic partners,” the young woman explained. “Losers, in other words,” Trebek responded.

Those occasional hints at a sense of superiority were what Will Ferrell seized upon in the impression of Trebek he did for years in Saturday Night Live’s Celebrity Jeopardy sketches, in which Trebek would become increasingly agitated by the stupidity of the famous people buzzing in with wrong answers. Sean Connery, played by Darrell Hammond, was his designated agitator-in-chief in those sketches, which is why it’s eerily coincidental that the two men died within a week of each other. If there is an afterlife in which famous people reenact SNL sketches about themselves, it’s fun to think that Connery and Trebek are there now, arguing about whether the category “S Words” is actually about swords.

But Trebek was a much warmer figure than Ferrell’s version suggested. If there was any lingering doubt that he was beloved, that was erased by the outpouring of affection that came in the wake of his diagnosis, something that elicited emotional reactions from a guy renowned for his poker face. He was beloved for all the reasons stated above: for his consistency, his professionalism, for the fact that he was someone you could literally look to for the right answer.

But that last quality was all the more valuable at a time when reality has felt increasingly manipulated. Trebek himself alluded to this in an interview for this magazine, conducted by David Marchese in 2018. “How would President Trump do on Jeopardy!?” Marchese asked. Trebek’s response: “He might not agree that any of the correct responses are correct.” Post-2016, it became clear that we had taken for granted the idea that we all share the same sense of the truth; when Trebek was diagnosed, that feeling was compounded.

In that same interview, Trebek spoke in more detail about his politics, and the ways in which they contrasted with America’s other famous longtime game-show host, Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, a climate-change denier. After noting that climate change is, in fact, real, Trebek told Marchese: “There was a report that came out once about Pat and me being ultraconservatives. I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Pat’s a Republican. I’m an independent.’ I’m not ultraconservative. I’m not ultraliberal either. I told Sean Hannity once: ‘I’m a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. I want to help people, but I’m not necessarily eager to pay for it.’ He [Hannity] got really pissed at me for that. It was as if I had said something that goes against everything he believes.”

Some of the principles that Trebek seemed to value most of all were a sense of curiosity and an interest in pursuing knowledge: “You never have to apologize for acquiring knowledge,” he said, “even if it’s not going to be of immediate benefit. Having knowledge makes you better able to understand the world in which we live.”

Trebek obviously had no control over the timing of his death. No human does. But it is nice to think that he held on long enough to see a call made in this fraught 2020 presidential election, which, like so much of the last four years, has been defined by a volley between fact and fiction, between science and wishful thinking. The man who told us night after night after night that the correct responses are correct has left us, yes, but only after we’ve been given a declarative answer.

We Could Always Look to Alex Trebek for the Right Answers