LTE: Who is Alex Trebek?

Beni Keown and Jack Izzo

To be a Jeopardy! contestant is to permanently shift what trivia questions you answer. Sure, people will still ask you random trivia, but upon finding out that you were on Jeopardy!, they will inevitably ask some variation of two questions — “How’d you do?” and “What’s Alex Trebek like?” As the most recent Northwestern students to appear on the show, we figured we should pay tribute to Alex by answering that second question.

In contrast to other famous game show hosts, Alex Trebek adds no gimmicks to Jeopardy!, unless you count his patented Canadian “Oh, sorry” or French pronunciation of “genre” as gimmicks. He rarely editorializes or pokes fun. He makes zero effort to be the star of the show, content to let the three contestants split the limelight. As the host, Alex was always there, a constant, but each contestant only has one guaranteed show. Alex gave each their own fifteen minutes of fame, going out of his way to ensure he pronounces each contestant’s name correctly and showing genuine interest in whatever odd thing they chat about after the first commercial break. He insists on being introduced as “the host” of Jeopardy!, as opposed to “the star” or some other title that puts the focus on him.

Each of us spent the better part of two days watching Alex in person. Not once did he try to direct attention onto himself. In an industry full of big egos and swollen heads, it was clear that Alex’s was planted firmly on his shoulders. The Alex we’ve all seen on TV is not a façade. The adage “never meet your heroes” doesn’t apply to him — in a way, by watching him you’ve already met him.

It’s said that you can best know a man’s character by what he does in the times when nobody is watching. As the camera backs away after each show’s winner is determined, Alex makes his way over to the contestants’ podia and has a brief chat with them. There’s no emphasis put on this moment during the final broadcast — it’s the footage they play behind the credits. But it’s hard to underscore how much this meant to the three contestants. In those moments, Alex offered congratulations to the winner and consolation to the runners-up. He’d offer commentary on wagers or mention a tough question, making sure each contestant knows they played a good game. It’s not part of the show, it’s just Alex being Alex.

After the final games of our tournaments, Alex came out to speak to us. Jack said Alex teared up as he spoke to them. He told our parents they should be proud of us and that he was proud of us. He told us that our future was bright and he looked forward to seeing what we did.

Even the audience gets to see Alex being himself, unscripted. During commercial breaks, Alex answers questions from the audience, ranging from the simple “How are you today?” to the absurd “Do crabs on the ocean floor think fish are flying?” He might crack a joke at a question like the latter, but he’ll answer it honestly. Alex Trebek is, simply put, one of the most genuine people we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. It’s things like these that made Alex Trebek who he was.

It says something that we each have so much to say after only knowing him for two days apiece. He leaves a lasting impression, in part because Jeopardy! is a formative moment in every contestant’s life, but also because Alex is so human. That’s what stuck with us the most, how comfortable he was with showing his humanity. Sure, he was incredibly polished during tapings, rarely messing up a pronunciation or stumbling over a word, but especially during Beni’s tournament, when he was openly battling cancer, you got the sense that Alex was very mortal. Not in the sense that he had some fatal flaw that would make one think less of him, but in the way that everyone is mortal. We’re all going to die eventually, and Alex was able to be vulnerable and share that side with us, complete strangers. That’s strength. He didn’t hide his condition. He didn’t embellish it and use it for attention. He acknowledged it and seemed to be at peace.

Knowing all of this, it’s safe to say that when the producers of Jeopardy! announced Alex Trebek had passed last Sunday, the hearts of every former contestant, of every audience member, of everyone who had met him personally and heck, of everyone who ever watched the show, broke. For the show’s last 37 seasons, Alex Trebek served as the unofficial ambassador of trivia for the masses and of knowledge for the sake of knowing. It’s impossible to ignore that a giant has fallen. Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings wrote in the New York Times last year that Alex was the “last Cronkite,” the final holdover from a generation of television long gone, a time when you invited the same friendly faces into your house each night to inform, to joke, to entertain. Ken is right. Jeopardy! with Alex Trebek is an institution to us the same way the evening news with Cronkite was to our parents — to have grown up with Alex Trebek on Jeopardy! is simply to have grown up in America in the last 40 years.

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