How Alex Trebek Made a Mundane Game Show Brilliant

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It’s strange to think that a show like Jeopardy became so popular; after all, watching Jeopardy is just watching people answer questions. Although small winning streaks might form, and close calls in the “Final Jeopardy” segment might add some flair, most of the regular season can seem, I dare say, boring. But since the show received a makeover in 1984, it has always transcended its humble premise thanks to the steady hand of its charismatic host, Alex Trebek.

Trebek was Jeopardy’s anchor for 37 years before he died Sunday after a long battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. His death hit me and millions of other fans hard, even though we all knew it was coming. Throughout his time on the Jeopardy stage, Trebek made a mundane game magnificent, and the people who played it stars. He coaxed personal stories from the quietest contestants and revealed unexpected dimensions to the most factoid-obsessed players behind the podiums. These players shone because they were sharing the spotlight with a host they respected, while playing a game they loved—and that glow inevitably reached audiences sitting on their living-room couches. Trebek managed the trickiest of feats: He made trivia nerds look cool.

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Trebek made me feel cool, when it was a Friday night and I was sitting at home, catching up on a week’s worth of Jeopardy episodes instead of going out with friends. Whenever I convinced someone to watch the show with me, I’d play along, calling out the answers. Every time Trebek smoothly confirmed that I was correct, the person next to me would ask, dumbfounded, “How did you know that?” I felt like I had just revealed a secret superpower.

For Trebek, hosting Jeopardy meant navigating dozens of personalities; he’d act as a kind of mediator for the seemingly difficult players, who’d go on to become folk heroes of sorts. One of my favorite contestants was Matt Jackson, an overeager paralegal who enjoyed a 13-episode winning streak five years ago. His blank stare at the beginning of each episode and intense style of game play made him seem formidable. He had a habit of answering hastily and interrupting Trebek. But Trebek would have none of that. During his first game, Jackson accidentally cut the host off from introducing a commercial break. “Hang on, hang on,” Trebek said. “You came up with a correct response and you want to keep going, and I understand that, but we have to pause.”

But the little jibes that Trebek made about Jackson’s manner made the contestant more likable. Jackson was aware that he came across as extreme, and played into that image throughout his run, smiling only when the camera zoomed in on his face at the end of a game. Jackson’s endless enthusiasm for the game was infectious, and the depth of his knowledge envy-inducing. If only I knew so much, I’d think, I could be just like him, joking around with Trebek on TV.

Jackson was eventually defeated by Alex Jacob, a professional poker player who won six regular-season games and the Tournament of Champions through a series of risky bets. A quiet contestant who looked almost bored at times, Jacob came alive during the brief interviews that Trebek held with contestants right before “Double Jeopardy.” The host gave Jacob the space to share charming anecdotes, such as how, when he was a kindergartner, he declared that he wanted to be a game-show contestant when he grew up.

These short exchanges between Trebek and the players were filled with such stories—small snapshots from the contestants’ lives that gave viewers another way to relate to people who might have otherwise seemed like robots spitting out memorized minutiae. Because contestants were always the show’s biggest fans, it was easy for devotees at home to see themselves on-screen, alongside Trebek. His confident manner rubbed off on nervous contestants, in turn making them seem more self-assured and impressive.

Clips of Trebek’s exchanges with contestants often went viral—awkward “Final Jeopardy” answers, creative introductions, and Trebek’s off-color remarks. Some nonviewers assumed that Trebek was, at times, intentionally rude or dismissive, but Ken Jennings, the holder of the longest-ever Jeopardy streak, explained that was never the case. “Not everyone likes that a big part of the Jeopardy! host’s job is to correct wrong answers—er, questions—no matter how gently Alex offers his traditional ‘ooh, noooo, sorry,’” Jennings wrote in 2019.

Trebek understood, in the end, that he was hosting a game show in which knowledge matters, and he wanted to convey disappointment when contestants missed obvious answers. But the pedantic tone Trebek took toward wrong responses made the right answers feel even more special. If a contestant was good enough to impress Trebek, the viewer knew they must be extraordinary.

Simply by hosting a quiz show, Trebek changed lives. Some of my favorite episodes were the annual Tournament of Champions because they highlighted the familial bond Trebek had built with contestants throughout the regular season. Returning players, now a little more comfortable on camera, greeted one another like old friends who’d completed a rite of passage together. During the pre–“Double Jeopardy” interviews, they’d tell Trebek about their newfound fame. Alan Lin, a software engineer and a six-time regular-season winner, told Trebek that thanks to the money he won from the show, he was finally pursuing his dream of becoming a science-fiction writer. “Good for you!” Trebek replied, smacking his card on the edge of the podium for emphasis.

Even when Trebek was undergoing cancer treatment, he continued to host Jeopardy. In 37 years, Trebek missed only one show for April Fools’ Day—when he and Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak switched hosting duties. Though Trebek’s diagnosis lingered in the background, and though he started shuffling a bit more slowly to his podium, his connection to contestants never wavered. Throughout James Holzhauer’s now-famous 32-game winning streak, Trebek’s awe of the player’s risky bets was infectious; it made me sad to think this would be Trebek’s last time witnessing such a brilliant contestant. Just like with Jackson, Trebek’s mimicry of Holzhauer and commentary about the player’s subtle “all in” gesture helped make him iconic.

Trebek never set out to be a star—in fact, he hated being called a star. He wanted viewers to focus on the material itself and on the show’s inherent stakes, how a person could become a winner with one right move, or a loser with a wrong one. He loved Jeopardy for the people who played it and for the competition. But Trebek’s efforts to deflect the affection of contestants and viewers were in vain.

Dhruv Gaur, the 2019 winner of Jeopardy’s college tournament, ended his time on the show by writing, “We ♥ you, Alex!” as his response to “Final Jeopardy.” Trebek, who usually read answers without hesitation, stopped in his tracks after seeing Gaur’s response and, in a quiet voice that sounded nothing like the one I had grown accustomed to, said, “That’s very kind, thank you.” He had tears in his eyes, as if he’d just been reminded of why he was there.