Alex Trebek Dead at 80

The longtime host of Jeopardy! is gone.

NYT (“Alex Trebek, Longtime Host of ‘Jeopardy!,’ Dies at 80“):

At a restaurant several years ago, a stranger went up to Alex Trebek, the longtime host of “Jeopardy!” and as strangers often did, tried to stump him.

“The American flag flies here 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” the stranger said, using the quiz show host’s particular locution, in which questions are delivered as answers.

Mr. Trebek sensed that the stranger was looking for something more clever than a list of which buildings, like the White House, had been authorized to fly the flag through the night. And without missing a beat he answered in the form of a question: “What is the moon?”

The quick-witted Mr. Trebek, who died on Sunday at age 80 after a battle with cancer that drew legions of fans to rally around him, hosted “Jeopardy!” for a record-setting 37 years. He was an authoritative and unflappable fixture for millions of Americans who organized their weeknights around the program, shouting out the questions as Mr. Trebek read the answers with his impeccable diction.

One major appeal of the show, apart from its intellectual challenge, was its consistency. Over the years its format stayed reliably familiar, as did Mr. Trebek, though he trimmed back his bushy head of hair, grew grayer and occasionally sported a mustache, beard or goatee. Otherwise he was the model of a steady and predictable host — a no-nonsense presence, efficient in his role and comforting in his orderliness.

Mr. Trebek’s death was confirmed by the show’s producers. They said that episodes of the show he hosted would air through Dec. 25 and that they had not made plans for a replacement.

Mr. Trebek had announced in a video on March 6, 2019, that he had received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer that week. He said that like many others with the disease, he had no symptoms until it had spread throughout his body. He delivered the news from the show’s set, wearing, as usual, a bandbox-fresh suit and tie as he spoke straight to the camera without sentiment or histrionics.

When he commanded a game, he might occasionally raise an eyebrow and say “Oooh, noooo, sorry” or repeat a clue with a whiff of condescension; he told New York magazine that when contestants missed obvious answers, he deliberately struck a tone that was meant to convey: “How can you not get this? This is not rocket science.”

Game shows were a staple of my youth and I was particularly a fan of quiz shows. Growing up in the 1970s, I’m old enough to remember the tail end of the Art Fleming era of Jeopardy! Still, even though Trebek didn’t debut as show host until my first semester in college, he’s the man I associate with the show. And even though he was clean-shaven and gray for a long time, this is how I still think of him:

While there are all variety of television stars, there’s a special intimacy between viewers and game- and talk-show hosts; home-team baseball announcers are the only ones I can think of in remotely the same category. They’re in your living- or bedroom several days a week, seemingly as themselves. When they become fixtures in a way that Trebek did, it seems like you’ve known them forever.

And Trebek was, by all accounts, a genuinely decent guy. I was listening to a podcast just last week featuring Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy! champion, and he was absolutely effusive about Trebek.

The man lived to be 80 and had a great life. But it’s hard not to think he’s gone too soon.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Fuck cancer.

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  2. Mikey says:

    ABC did a nice hour-long tribute to him last night. A couple things I learned: his actual first name was George, and he spoke fluent French (a result of growing up in Sudbury, Ontario).

    Also, he was taping Jeopardy! episodes until October 29, only 10 days before he died. The ABC tribute showed his incredible work ethic and professionalism, but I didn’t realize he had continued work for so long.

    Certainly anyone should be more than happy with 80 years of a life like his, but you’re right, it still feels like he’s gone too soon.

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  3. CSK says:

    Donald Trump, another game show host, could have take a lesson or twenty from Alex Trebek’s book.

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  4. Kathy says:

    Mr. Trebek was one of those people who’ve been so long in the public eye, like John McCain, Queen Elizabeth, Sean Connery, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that it was easy to assume they’d be there forever, like the Sun or the Moon.

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  5. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    This reminds me of something Jacqueline Kennedy was supposed to have said on learning of the death of Marilyn Monroe: “She will go on eternally.” Actually, I thought the same of Jackie just before she died; I thought she’d always be around.

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  6. J. Foobar says:

    @Mikey:

    and he spoke fluent French

    I didn’t actually know this but I had always assumed it (French fluency being pretty common among eastern Canadians). Whenever an answer was a French word or term, Alex always pronounced it like a French speaker would, often correcting the contestant’s Americanized pronunciation. My wife and I would always chuckle about it (she is also fluent in French).

    My wife and I both watch too much TV but almost never watch the same shows (I have almost no interest in episodic shows other than the occasional limited series and she does). Jeopardy is the one show that we always watch together, usually as a 5 episode marathon on the weekend. While the news of his passing was an inevitability, it was still a pretty big downer on what was otherwise a pretty jubilant weekend in our home.

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  7. EddieInCA says:

    You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but he was not a nice man to his crew. Just sayin’.

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  8. CSK says:

    @EddieInCA:
    Sorry to hear this. I learned a very valuable lesson from my father: Always be nice to the people who work for you, although with him it was part of his personal make-up, and not something he did so they’d like him.

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  9. Mu Yixiao says:

    @EddieInCA:

    That’s disappointing to hear.

    In all my years doing theatre, I only encountered 4 people that stuck out as assholes (and one of those didn’t affect me because it was about letching on the women in the crew (college students)).

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  10. Kylopod says:

    Trebek was unusual among game-show hosts (at least in the modern era) in not having background as an actor; he began his career as a broadcaster before moving into game shows (I believe this is also true of Pat Sajak). I think one of the things people found appealing about him is that he didn’t have an actorly manner as host, he was professional and never made it about himself. There are pros and cons to this approach, as some may have found him too detached, not entertaining enough, but it set the tone for the show and allowed the focus to fall on the game itself.

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  11. Joe says:

    like John McCain, Queen Elizabeth, Sean Connery, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg,

    Me: checks Twitter feed.

    Kathy, what are you saying about QE?

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  12. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Joe:

    Kathy, what are you saying about QE?

    Don’t you read the tabloids? She’s died a couple times in the past year. They just get another lizard person to wear the skin suit.

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  13. Kathy says:

    @Joe:

    That it seems she should be around forever, but won’t be.

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