Alex Trebek, RIP

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.

Trebek
The great Alex Trebek and a somewhat above-average contestant.

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.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

13 thoughts on “Alex Trebek, RIP

  • November 9, 2020 at 10:59 am
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    Start writing your own obit, you censorious hypocrite. Advocating here and on facebook for just “getting on with it” and “back to normality” and film viewings while the nation–especially anti-lockdown-Texas– dies. You’re living through a prolonged outbreak that you, Neal Pollack, helped enable with your daring support of herd immunity and re-opening an unwell nation. I’m sure you’ll trashcan this comment as too, you being the most thin-skinned “comedian” I’ve ever seen.

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    • November 9, 2020 at 11:28 am
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      Very nice to put this on the Alex Trebek obit instead of on a piece about reopening movie theaters, of which I’ve published several. You cannot trace one case of COVID-19 to moviegoing, anywhere in the world. And you certainly cannot trace one case of it to opinions on social media, which I am free to express. And I didn’t bounce you off Facebook because I disagree with your opinions, I bounced you because you are a jerk, a record that you are certainly maintaining here.

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      • November 9, 2020 at 11:54 am
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        Have you read any of Neal’s books? Nevermind The Pollacks is genius and hilarious work (for me anyway). Definitely a comedian, just not a “stand-up” (though maybe he’s done stand-up?).

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    • November 9, 2020 at 11:37 am
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      What an absolute fucking dipshit you are. Here Neal offers a thoughtful eulogy to a man loved by so many and you pop on to sprayhose it down with your grade-school level viciousness.

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    • November 9, 2020 at 12:14 pm
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      James Pappas: You are an abuser and you are engaging in harassing behaviour.

      Delete this comment immediately. Next, reflect on where you went wrong with your life, and how you might develop healthy, respectful connections with others.

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    • November 9, 2020 at 12:28 pm
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      I enjoy Neal’s writing and often agree with and appreciate his taste in entertainment, but I can’t imagine the world you think we live in where wearing a mask, going to a theater, and reviewing a movie is equated somehow with being a mass influencer to march towards certain COVID death. He’s a writer, this is America, typically such people have very little public opinion influence in matters of science and pandemic response. I feel like this is a really out of whack response to a tribute to somebody we all have taken comfort in watching on a game show.

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    • November 9, 2020 at 2:22 pm
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      James, I like your take on the Westboro Baptist Church’s program of protesting military funerals because they hate gays. You attack Alex Trebek’s obit because you are mad about the author’s views on C19 policy. It is a demonstration about how amazing America is that we give freedom of speech to even the most complete morons.

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    • November 9, 2020 at 10:25 pm
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      There is nothing more tasteless and disgusting than you, Pappas, spreading your vitriol on this wonderful obituary. Most of us value the toilet paper we wipe our butts with more than we value your opinion.

      Reply
  • November 9, 2020 at 11:42 am
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    Great appreciation of Trebek — you may have several Jeopardy alum compatriots in the trivia world, but for those of us who’ve just watched onscreen, it’s a lovely tribute from someone who rubbed elbows with the man himself.

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  • November 9, 2020 at 12:11 pm
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    Neal,

    It’s easy to tell how much Trebeck meant to you. It’s unfortunate to see someone like Mr. Pappad trying to capitalize on this sad event to direct the conversation to HIS desire. It’s actually more than unfortunate, it’s pathetic.

    Reply
  • November 9, 2020 at 2:54 pm
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    When I first saw this, I had completely forgotten about your personal connection to Trebek. Thank you for this thoughtful and heartfelt reflection; I am sure that it carries with it the thoughts and feelings of thousands of others with experiences like yours.

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  • November 10, 2020 at 10:54 am
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    In the movie Heathers, Winona Ryder says, “If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn’t be a person, you’d be a game show host.”

    Alex Trebek obviously was a person, and a charming, witty, relatable one at that, and this loss has left many of us very saddened.

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  • November 12, 2020 at 10:36 pm
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    I truly enjoyed this story..I remember the man he mentioned who learned English sitting on his Grandfather’s lap & that it was due to Jeopardy that he has perfect English diction..I watched that episode, as I did most of them. I don’t understand the negative comments, but they will be erased by remembering all the fun conversations Alex had with the contestants about important events in their lives..Alex is a legend, a classy man & a hero to me!

    Reply

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