Jeopardy! should be terrible. The premise for the show is incredibly stupid: The show supplies the answers, and contestants have to respond with the correct question. It does not really make sense. One clue last week was “Charge down the road in its Charger.” The correct response was “What is Dodge?” If someone asked you “What is Dodge?” and you responded with “Charge down the road in its Charger,” you might get punched in the face.
But Jeopardy! works. It is the best game show ever. The quiz show is a throwback to the early days of American television in the 1940s and ’50s, when there were 200 different quiz shows on TV. While I do think the show’s premise is quite silly, it doesn’t really matter. The clues are written in such a way that often viewers might be able to figure out the correct response from context, even if you don’t know the answer. It makes you think. You learn things from Jeopardy!
The show might be good with just anyone in charge of the game. But Alex Trebek was the perfect host. Trebek, who died today at the age of 80, was incredible at his job. He was quick with a quip. He came off as a genius, like he’d know the correct responses even if they weren’t given to him.
Most importantly, though, he had such a warming presence on the show for so long that he felt like a part of my life. I cannot remember a time when I did not watch Jeopardy! The show—a revival of the original hosted by Art Fleming—debuted in 1984, when I was about a year and a half old. My parents started watching it right away, having been fans of the previous versions; even though I couldn’t understand it yet, I like to think I started learning through osmosis. Was I good in school because my parents started me on Jeopardy! early? It couldn’t have hurt!
So Trebek has been the host of Jeopardy! basically my entire life. I grew up watching him. I watched as a kid, I watched in my college dorm, I watched as a single adult, and now I watch with my wife. Once at my parents’ house, she was flabbergasted as we shouted out answers while watching the game. Now she does it, too.
Sure, Trebek is just the host of this wonderful program. Ken Jennings, who spent more time with him as a contestant than anyone else, wrote that Trebek was “a lovely and deeply decent man.” Pretty much everyone who’s been on the show says similar things about him, and he came off that way on TV. He made you feel like part of the Jeopardy! family.
It was his final years on the show where he really shone. Trebek announced in March 2019 he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Can continuing to host a TV show with cancer be an act of bravery? Trebek made it seem that way. Just his presence on stage, in the face of the end of his life, was inspiring. He worked until Oct. 29, or 10 days before his death. Episodes featuring Trebek will air until the end of the year.
Brad Rutter, the show’s all-time winningest contestant, wrote that “there will never be another.” He’s right. RIP, Alex.