Alex Trebek, the long-time host of Jeopardy!, passed away at 80 after a long fight against pancreatic cancer.
Trebek seemed to have the perfect attitude for a high-brow quiz trivia show that was also hugely popular with audiences: one of almost passive-aggressive superiority, a certain smugness that was just elusive enough a viewer couldn’t accuse him of it based on a transcript of what was said. Trebek routinely mocked—but can it really be called mocking?—guests who flubbed questions he believed to be easy. But he also possessed a Canadian niceness that made him easy-going, albeit curt, with contestants.
None of that is meant to speak ill of Alex Trebek, or to make light of his passing. Everyone reading this post knows exactly what I’m talking about—Trebek’s ability to get in a subtle jab at a player $1000 in the red, while then glad-handing with them after the return from the commercial break. Saturday Night Live picked up on it in its playful Celebrity Jeopardy! send-ups, which featured the hyper-masculine (and also recently deceased) Sean Connery goading on a flustered Trebek.
I’ve been hosting and moderating quiz bowl tournaments for most of my adult career, and the Trebek type is quite common, though obviously muted among high school and middle school players. There is that sense that contestants are engaged in something beyond mere trivia—that stuff of Tuesday night bar-and-grills—and are instead testing their ability to retain information about the best of Western civilization. Shakespeare and Supreme Court justices still get their due in quiz bowl.
And they did on Jeopardy!. I’m not sure who will take Trebek’s place, but I doubt they’ll find anyone with quite the same affably stiff politeness and know-it-all smugness. It’s a magical combination that only Trebek could bring.
Rest in Peace.
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