Why America Loves Alex Trebek


Why America Loves Alex Trebek

Katie Couric, Cher, Stephen A. Smith and former contestants expressed support and hope for the ‘Jeopardy’ host after he revealed his cancer diagnosis this week.

Alex Trebek, photographed at home in Los Angeles in 1988.CreditAlan Greth/Associated Press

When Alex Trebek announced this week that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the outpouring of shock and support started immediately.

Katie Couric, a longtime fan of the show who has turned down multiple invitations to participate in Celebrity Jeopardy for fear that “I’m going to choke and embarrass myself,” offered to introduce Mr. Trebek to a specialist in pancreatic cancer.

Ms. Couric said that she had long found Mr. Trebek to be a reassuring presence, since she first started watching with her husband Jay Monahan, who was diagnosed with colon cancer and died in 1998.

“He always crushed it on ‘Jeopardy,’” Ms. Couric said of her husband. “It was one of the many reasons I loved him. He could’ve kicked Ken Jennings’ butt.” (Mr. Jennings won 74 consecutive games.)

Others who sent their best wishes to Mr. Trebek also said they strongly associated the show he has hosted for 35 years with a family member. That includes the sports commentator Stephen A. Smith, who tweeted that “Jeopardy” had been his mom’s favorite show.

“Over the years, anytime I went home at 7 p.m. in New York City, she was laying in the bed watching ‘Jeopardy.’ I had to sit there and watch ‘Jeopardy’ with her if I was going to spend time with her,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith’s mother died in 2017. “My heart goes out to him,” he said of Mr. Trebek, “because every time I see him, I see my mom.”

Mr. Trebek, who will turn 79 in July, took over “Jeopardy” in 1984, when the show was revived by its creator Merv Griffin. (It had previously been canceled several times.) With Mr. Trebek at the helm, the quiz-show game sped up and its viewership increased, cementing its place as an evening ritual for families in the United States.

Originally from Canada, Mr. Trebek became an American institution — and, then, in 1997, a U.S. citizen. He and the show both seemed so impervious to age that viewers reacted with shock to any mild change, such as when Mr. Trebek shaved his mustache.

And larger modifications, such as when the show revoked a work-week-long limit on how many times a winner could return to compete in the next day’s contest, proved contentious.

“I call it term limits,” said Richard Cordray, a five-time champion in the 1980s who went on to become the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “We always were annoyed. All of us who won five times thought we would go on forever.”

That small gripe aside, Mr. Cordray spoke admiringly of Mr. Trebek’s star quality, remarking on the way it propelled the show for so long: “Obviously he’s someone that people have really liked having in their living room for the last 35 years. It’s true of certain newscasters, it’s true of a few others — it’s a difficult quality to put your finger on but when somebody has it, it’s very apparent and he has it.”

Fans expected Mr. Trebek to go on forever as well, though Mr. Trebek has suffered several health scares in the past dozen years, including two heart attacks and a fall in 2017 that required him to undergo brain surgery.

“He just seems sort of immortal,” the journalist Jeffrey Toobin said in an interview. “I don’t think of him as having aged much.”

“I’ve always found that when you arrive in a hotel room where you have no real sense of where you are, turning ‘Jeopardy’ on is always kind of a grounding experience,” Mr. Toobin said. “It was serenely the same at all times. Yet always interesting to watch.”

Ms. Couric echoed that thought. “His omnipresence is very reassuring,” she said.

“Jeopardy” contestants who had met Mr. Trebek recently were as taken aback by the announcement as anyone else. Kristin Philips, who works at the University of Washington and whose “Jeopardy” episode aired Thursday night, said that there had been nothing to indicate that anything had been affecting Mr. Trebek when she filmed with him in January.

“I was literally aghast,” she said of the news. “I had no idea.”

Sara Callori, a physics professor in Redlands, Calif., who appeared on the show two years ago said that she was surprised, but that she admired Mr. Trebek’s stoicism in the video in which he made the illness public.


Alex Trebek, the long-time “Jeopardy!” host, announced on Wednesday that he has pancreatic cancer. Mr. Trebek acknowledged that the disease has a low survival rate but said he plans to beat it.CreditCreditEthan Miller/Getty Images

Ms. Callori has taken to watching the show while she feeds her 10-month-old.

“We watch it when he eats breakfast in the morning,” she said. “I was hoping that he would grow up watching Alex Trebek host ‘Jeopardy’ the way I did. I still hope that’s true and that can continue.”

Since Mr. Trebek’s announcement, the community of “Jeopardy” alumni has sprung into action, organizing events on his behalf. Chelsea Cohen, a contestant from 2019, is one of several who is setting up a play-along contest to benefit those afflicted with pancreatic cancer.

Though home viewers may occasionally detect an edge of condescension in Mr. Trebek’s tone, contestants on the show described him as warm and gracious, putting effort into making them feel special, even though he had done the same for thousands of others.

Claire Sattler, the high schooler who won the 2018 Teen Tournament, recalled Mr. Trebek telling her and her peers that it was his favorite of the competitions featured on “Jeopardy.” She assumed he said similar things to everyone. She was moved, later, she said, when in a speech to the competitors’ parents, Mr. Trebek started to tear up when he talked about how proud they should be of their kids.

Asked what she would say to Mr. Trebek now, Ms. Sattler thought for a moment.

“I hope he knows that he does have the whole support of every person who’s been on ‘Jeopardy,’ every ‘Jeopardy’ fan, along with his family and friends,” she said. “Whether he’s around for 20 more years or whether he’s not, he’s made such an amazing mark on so many individuals. And I just want him to know that as proud as he was of all of my friends in the teen tournament, we’re just as proud of him.”

“I’m gonna fight this and I’m gonna keep working,” Mr. Trebek said in his announcement.

Jonah Bromwich is based in New York. He writes for the Style section. @jonesieman


Published at Fri, 08 Mar 2019 16:03:47 +0000