Alex Trebek spent 36 years trucking in trivia, but his impact on popular culture and millions of lives is anything but trivial.
I have never watched a game show with the regularity I did Jeopardy! For several decades it was served up at dinner time in my home. Alex Trebek was the welcomed, gracious, erudite dinner guest who always had a place at my table.
For so many, the loss of Alex Trebek feels so personal. And it should. For 36 years. this easy-going well-mannered man was in our homes like clockwork every single evening for 5 days a week. With his warm and steady demeanor, his was a presence that bonded generations. Jeopardy! was a family affair, and we were all contestants in our kitchens, bedrooms, and family rooms.
Trebek celebrated a brand of mental aptitude rarely found on television. In the smartphone era when information is a google click away, it is more impressive than ever to watch someone conjure answers without relying on a device.
No Alternative Facts
Jeopardy! is a world of verifiable facts.
In a Trumpian world of fake news Jeopardy! was reliable. It was 30 minutes out of the day where you could count on confirmable, non-contested information. The truth.
More than ever it was satisfying to turn on the TV and find a place where facts were still provable, and contestants from various walks of life and of all political persuasions could still agree if an answer was true or false even though big money is at stake,
In an uncertain world, Alex Trebek offered certitude and reliability. He commanded complete trust.
There was no place for alternative facts for either Alex Trebek or Jeopardy!.
Trebek’s calming, intelligent presence in this time of partisan rancor had been essential. His decency, warmth, and devotion to accuracy was the perfect antidote to the daily diet of lies from Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders that we were ingesting.
It first aired in 1964. What is Jeopardy?
From the start there was an intimacy with the show for me.
Dressed in pajamas, laying in bed, a glass of Canada Dry ginger ale at the ready, I first began watching this venerable game show on sick days home from grade school. Beginning in 1964 it ran at 11:30 in the morning and was a startling change from reruns of My Little Margie and Pete and Gladys.
Being a Jeopardy! contestant meant you had a freakish talent for recalling bits of useless knowledge at will. For someone like me who even at 9 years old had a habit of collecting what might seem to be meaningless information, it was a treat. Even with a sore throat.
Art Fleming was the congenial host. His oddly familiar voice as the first announcer to deliver the slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” always subliminally conjured up happy couples smoking. Although described as the host of the program, announcer Don Pardo in his famous voice introduced him “and here’s the star of Jeopardy!, Art Fleming!”
A fast-talking movie actor of the old school, Fleming could rattle off dozens of clues every half hour with ease. Jeopardy! transformed the quiz show of the 1950s from staged drama into a competitive sport. and was the first post-scandal quiz show to succeed.
In the great American tradition of entertainment, executives at NBC wanted to make the show less demanding, but Merv Griffin who developed Jeapardy! refused. He wanted the show to stay smart, as a competition for adults.
Eventually, though, the public’s tastes changed and viewers gravitated to sillier games — The Price Is Right, Let’s Make a Deal, The Newlywed Game, and Match Game, in which host Gene Rayburn played Mad Libs with a celebrity panel. That trend sounded the death knell for Jeopardy! and it ended its run in 1975.
The revival of Jeopardy! began in 1984, just when “Trivial Pursuit” captured the nation’s attention. A new host replaced Fleming, a mustached Alex Trebek.
Convincing station managers that a smart game show deserved premium air time was initially a challenge. When the show returned in 1984 it was relegated to the 2 am time slot in N.Y. a ratings wasteland! Like Griffin, Trebeck was pressured to dumb down the program and make cues easier so viewers wouldn’t feel left out but he refused.
The trivia boom convinced TV stations that a revival would work in evening syndication. In that time period the audience would be larger and so would the prizes. The show would tape in Hollywood and the set not be as cheap-looking as its New York predecessor. It was glossier, flashier with a new high-tech game board with video monitors instead of paper cards, and the suspenseful theme song re-recorded with synthesizers.
And a design flaw in the earlier version was fixed by Alex.
He Made you stretch your Mind and Think. Who is Alex Trebeck?
Unlike earlier versions of the show where contestants could ring in before the host finished giving the answers, Trebek suggested viewers could be drawn in if they felt more like contestants. The show prevented players from hitting the buzzer until Trebek finished reading so home audiences could shout out their answers too.
Airing every early evening Jeopardy! was a hit. They struck gold becoming a permanent fixture on the dial and in our hearts. Its’ rituals, the pervasive theme music, phrasing answers in the form of questions became a cultural touchstone.
If Jeopardy made you realize you knew a lot more than you think you did, Alex Trebek was a brilliant educator who made you feel smart and want to learn.