Jeopardy Lives On Without Alex Trebek
Jeopardy is not coming to an end with the passing of long-time, iconic host Alex Trebek, but it will be different. Alex was at the helm from 1984 until 2020, a span of thirty-seven years. During that time Jeopardy became part of the popular culture of the nation. But it had a twist. Jeopardy made it okay to be smart. People with a command of factoids from a broad selection of topics who also had lightning hand-eye coordination would become heroes, like Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer. Living room contestants with a winning record became legends within the friends and family circle.
The final shows with Alex as host aired the week of January 4th in 2021. It’s hard to believe that Alex recorded his last Jeopardy show just ten days before his death on November 8th. I’ve read that on the first show of that week, Alex makes a short farewell speech that is prototypical Trebek and leaves no eye dry on the set.
Whoever takes over the Trebek podium will have to win the confidence of a viewing congregation that has grown accustomed to his once mustachioed mien, carefully chosen, unobtrusive clothing, his modulated unaccented voice, and his disarming, often self-deprecating humor. Not to mention his almost always flawless recitation of the prompts. I would not want to follow Alex as host in the same vein as the vaudevillians who hated to follow a kid or animal act.
The impact of Jeopardy on our popular culture is seen clearly with the Saturday Night Live sketches of Celebrity Jeopardy. Will Farrell plays Alex and various members of the SNL cast play celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Burt Reynolds. Most memorable is the portrayal of a clueless and disrespectful of Alex, Sean Connery played brilliantly by Darrell Hammond. If you have not done so recently, go to YouTube and revisit some of those segments, especially the segment where Sean reads the Jeopardy category of “Therapists” as “The Rapists.”
Groundhog Day is an excellent movie with a tour de force performance by Bill Murray. One of my favorite scenes is set in the living room of the B&B where Murray’s Phil Connors character is staying day after identical day. They are watching television and Jeopardy is on. Phil answers every cue with the correct question. The one that gets the others to look at him incredulously is his question “What is Lake Titicaca?” At the end of the show, the other guests give Phil a round of applause. It is obvious that the director of the movie knows that anyone in America watching the movie will recognize Jeopardy immediately.
My experience with Jeopardy goes back to the earliest days of the program in 1964. I was an undergraduate at Duke University. It became standard behavior for members of my fraternity to gather at noon in our Chapter Room to watch Jeopardy. Most of us had an open hour around noon. Art Fleming was the host. At every show he would enter the set waving his hands and thanking Don Pardo, his announcer who was with the show until 1975. Don Pardo went on to greater fame as the announcer on Saturday Night Live from 1975 until 2008. He was also a mainstay on NPR. The technology in those days was primitive by comparison to the 2000s. I believe they had a person who pulled the cards for the Jeopardy categories. Somewhat like the person who set the pins by hand at the local bowling alleys. I remember that I got an “OOH” from my fraternity brothers when I got one of the answers correct. It was “Who was Nefertiti?”
I met Art Fleming at the University of Miami in 1984. I was the coach of the Tulane University College Bowl Team. Our team won the regional championship at Rice University and represented the region on a special edition of the classic question and answer television program, G.E. College Bowl, made famous with Allen Ludden as host in the 1960s. Art Fleming was just as friendly and forthcoming in person as he was when he stepped on the Jeopardy set waving to Don Pardo. We did not win the College Bowl championship, but it was a great experience. The Tulane University team was outstanding and represented the university well.
I had another close encounter with Jeopardy in the 90s I was living in the Los Angeles area and decided to try out for a spot as a contestant on Jeopardy. I went to a gathering at the studios where the program was recorded in LA. There was a crowd in the auditorium with the Jeopardy set on the stage. The staff wheeled out TV monitors and explained that Alex would recite questions and we were to write the answers on sheets of paper provided to us in the audience. I estimated about two hundred people were there to try out.
Alex came on the screens and introduced himself and said something like, “Good luck with the test. The top nine respondents will be selected for another step in the selection process after the test.” Alex read the questions. I think there might have been twenty, on various topics. I thought I did alright. They collected the sheets and in about twenty minutes came back and read the names. I was on the list. They took the nine of us on stage, separated us into groups of three and gave us bells to ring in as they asked questions. On the first or second prompt I knew the response and rang in before the reading of the prompt was complete. That was a major blunder because the staff collected the bell from me and said goodbye. I tried out again a year or two later and did not make the cut with the written test.
Farewell to Alex Trebek and to Art Fleming
It grieves me to say farewell to Alex and welcome a new era in the Jeopardy saga. The fact that the show has been in existence since 1964 speaks to the resonance of the format and the talent generated for decades to millions of dedicated daily followers. We went so far in our family as to purchase the home game and compete at home holiday get-togethers when all of us four brothers were present. I usually did well, but the brothers were always competitive. Even now I play Jeopardy on my phone every day. The Jeopardy game has Alex avatars peppered throughout.
It is interesting to note that both Alex and Art died of pancreatic cancer. Art Fleming died in 1995 at the age of 70. Alex was 80 at the time of his death. These two men gave the show the humanity and continuity that appealed to a broad swath of the American public. Long may Jeopardy remain on our screens, embodying the memory of the men who made it happen show after show.
December 31, 2020