Legendary Jeopardy! quiz host dead at age 80. To the show’s contestants, he meant the world.
Alex Trebek has died, and a nation mourns. Two nations, given that Trebek is Canada’s most famous export. No figure in popular culture was more beloved than Trebek. He spent his entire career in service of intelligence, as the host of Jeopardy!, the greatest game-show of all time, and possibly the greatest TV show, period. Because of Trebek, it was cool to know things, and people who know things got to be cool under his all-knowing eye, at least temporarily.
I won three games of Jeopardy! in 2013, my proudest accomplishment. This doesn’t mean I really “knew” Trebek. I’ve exchanged more total words with my mailman in my life than I have with the host of the show that provided the down payment on my house. He kept his distance, even before COVID. Unless you’re Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, or a few others, no Jeopardy! contestant got to spend any real time with him. But because he presided over my moment in the trivia sun, those few words that I did exchange with him were really important to me.
But despite what basically amounted to a long lunch spent in his company, Trebek gave me so much, just by hosting the show. Some people who appear on Jeopardy! do their bit and then disappear with dignity. Not me. The show, and its aftermath, became the center of my social life, a major part of my identity. I formed a trivia team in Austin, and to play, you had to have appeared on Jeopardy!
Then, as we started competing in national and online tournaments, we expanded membership to non-Austin people who’ve been on the show. At this point, the majority of my close friends are former game-show contestants, as fun and diverse a group of weirdoes as I’ve ever known. And I’m not the only one. The community of former Jeopardy! contestants shares something special, beyond just a knowledge of James Buchanan trivia and song lyrics. Trebek made it all possible.
The messages starting coming in from my trivia team just before 11 AM my time Sunday: Trebek was dead at age 80. The pancreatic cancer finally got him. Within 15 minutes, half the profile pictures on my Instagram feed were of people standing next to Alex Trebek. Tributes flooded Twitter, written by people I know, and people I don’t. People were posting legendary Trebek burns of loser contestants and the Saturday Night Live Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches where he, played by Will Ferrell, butted heads with Sean Connery.
Like pretty much every other Jeopardy! contestant did today, I changed my Facebook profile picture to the photo of me standing next to Trebek. People wrote me, saying “I’m sorry for your loss” and “I’m thinking of you.” But while I was sad, I didn’t take it personally. Other than those few hours I stood at the contestant’s lectern, he was just someone I watched on TV. Alex connected hundreds of trivia dorks, if not thousands. But he probably wasn’t aware of how deep those connections had traveled in the age of social media. By merely allowing us to feel smart for a half-hour or so, he helped create a whole world.
We can mourn his loss, but also celebrate his life, and what he gave us. We’ve changed our trivia team’s name from Post-Trebek Stress Disorder, which no longer seems appropriate, to Post-Trivia Stress Disorder. Trebek never really stressed anyone out anyway. The questions made us sweat, not the host.
He meant the world to those who knew him briefly, and also to those who just watched him every day. On Friday, a contestant who’d immigrated from India said that he’d learned English while watching Jeopardy!, and Alex was the reason he had perfect diction. Trebek thanked him for the flattery, and said, drily, “I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap and he taught me how to swear.”
Jeopardy! tapes in advance, so we’ll get to see Trebek host new episodes until Christmas. We should savor every moment, every answer in the form of a question. We’ll never forget him, and we owe him everything, except the money we earned. That’s ours to keep, along with our memories of being on Jeopardy!, sweaty nerds in the adult equivalent of our B’Nai Mitzvah clothes, standing next to a giant of television.
Alex Trebek, RIP.