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Remembering Alex Trebek: My Jeopardy! Story

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BY November 17, 2020
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Alex Trebek died on Sunday, November 8. In some way, it feels strange to say that. Despite the fact that he’d been diagnosed with advanced cancer, it didn’t really feel like it would take him. Alex was an institution, seemingly as ingrained in American television as the NBC peacock. But now he’s gone. I had a bit of a different relationship with him and the show than most people, though, so join me in remembering Alex Trebek.

First of all, if you’d like to read a straight biography or obituary of Alex, then I’d suggest something like The New York Times. This isn’t going to be that. This is going to be something else.

Remembering Alex Trebek: This Is Jeopardy!

On the morning of March 12, 2019, a shuttle dropped off me and a group of folks at Sony studios in Culver City, California. We were there to film Jeopardy!, almost exactly a week after Alex had announced his diagnosis. Again, it was serious stuff–stage 4 pancreatic cancer–but it didn’t feel real. And if you’d seen him in the studio that day, then it really wouldn’t have seemed possible. We didn’t know yet about the lowest points of his treatment, but still. He appeared to be the same Alex Trebek, the one who had been a constant throughout my childhood. And I say “appeared” for a specific reason.

Ever since the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, they’ve run television game shows with the highest of standards. On Jeopardy!, for example, the categories (and their answers) are randomized, with a neutral third party selecting them for each game day. (By the way, those scandals directly led to the creation of Jeopardy!, a show where you have to come up with the questions, not the answers.) In keeping with these practices, there can be no appearance of bias. So what you see of contestant interaction with Alex during the show is everything. Outside of the cameras, he doesn’t speak to players. That may be disappointing for some people to hear, but it keeps the game honest.

So anyway, we got to the green room, where they introduced us to the returning champion. “This is James,” they said. “He’s won 32 games.” And somehow, I just knew–he wouldn’t win anymore.

They picked the players for the first game, Jay Sexton and Emma Boettcher. Emma was staying at the same hotel as me, so we’d been in the shuttle together from the beginning of the morning. (Other contestants stayed at another hotel, where we had to go pick them up.) And I liked her from the beginning. In spite of the stories hardcore James enthusiasts would tell themselves later, she won fair and square. She’s bright and pleasant and she’s good at Jeopardy! I should know, because I played her.

It Says Here Your New Coworker Arrived at Work to Find You Standing Outside, Holding a Bird

(Yes, that happened just this week.) Although opinions may vary, the most difficult part of being on Jeopardy! for me was not the gameplay. It wasn’t being on TV, either. I thought we played enough practice games that it became easy to forget the cameras. No, for me, the biggest challenge was coming up with interview anecdotes. As I explained on the shuttle, I have a lot of interesting stories…and about 2 that are appropriate for daytime TV. I labored to come up with a handful that weren’t all about the many times animals have attacked me. (In the words of the great Omar Little, “Enough, though, not to take it personal.”) I also didn’t want social media to roast me for telling a dumb or boring story.

In the end, I did come up with the three required stories and I marked one as my preferred. However, it’s Alex’s prerogative to pick which anecdote to discuss, so I could have been on there talking about my travel guide to Germany for children. Instead, though, he picked the same one I had. I told the story about how my grandfather would pay me a quarter for each Jeopardy! answer I got correct.

My grandparents lived in a liminal space, where they picked up TV stations from two major markets. So I figured out that Jeopardy! came on earlier on a different station. I would watch the earlier broadcast, memorize the answers, and then scare my grandparents when we watched the later broadcast together.

remembering alex trebek At least he didn’t mock my favorite music GENRE, image via Jeopardy! Productions

Alex could have reacted to this in a number of ways. What he did was yell “Woman begone!” at me and point offstage. As interview segments go, it went pretty well, I thought. And in the future, when I’m remembering Alex Trebek, this is the moment I’ll think of first.

Cue the Weird Al, ‘Cause I Lost on Jeopardy!

I answered 19 clues during my Jeopardy! game. I missed none of them. Unfortunately, though, “none of them” is also the answer for “How many of them were Daily Doubles?” Because I didn’t get those, I didn’t really have the opportunity to stack my money.

Still, going into Final Jeopardy, I felt competitive. The category was American Music Legends. I did a few quick calculations, but then I was like, “What are you doing? You’re gon’ know this.” And I did.

Steinbeck called him “just a voice and a guitar” but said his songs embodied “the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression.”

Not only did I spend years traveling with an American Music Legend’s jam band, but I also once took a class called American Literature of the Open Road. We spent many sessions listening to Woody Guthrie. So I got it right. But so did Brendan, and he had more money than me. That’s just the way it goes, sometimes.

A Brief Note on Being a Lady on the Talking Box

By the time your episode airs, it’s easy to feel divorced from the experience. In the time since we had filmed, the James episodes had aired. He became a TV phenomenon and Jeopardy! once again became whatever is the 21st century equivalent of water cooler conversation. And when he lost, the people he had drawn to Jeopardy! were upset.

I was already wary of how people would react to me, and seeing the nasty things these wet quilts said about Emma didn’t help. But maybe that’s exactly what helped me. I am small and look preternaturally young for my age (156 years). Strangers tend to treat me like a child, being protective and condescending in turn. There’s just something about me that reads that way to people, even though my actual personality is closer to cartoon angry fairy.

remembering alex trebek me IRL, image via Disney

So when I appeared on the same episode as the gal who took down their fave, perhaps that’s why they weren’t as harsh to me. Don’t get me wrong–I still got an inbox full of overly forward messages, along with a staggering number of friend requests. But it could have been worse.

Remembering Alex Trebek: Coda

If there’s another moment I’ll think of when remembering Alex Trebek, then it’s this one. Right after the game ends, you see Alex come to the contestants. I don’t know what he says to everyone, but to me, he said, “I really thought you would win.” I smiled and nodded, a little dazed after the whole day. At that point, I just wanted to stop being TV-ready, take my boots off, and revert back to my default feral state. But I would come back to that moment from time to time, including Sunday, when I woke to the news. He had had faith in me, but I had had faith in him, too. Despite the odds, despite the progression, I really thought he would win. Why wouldn’t I? I’ve hardly known TV without him.

But it was more than just his steady presence on TV or his role as a counterweight against the idea that facts don’t matter. It was also his perseverance in life. He would later describe, for instance, the agonizing pain that gripped him sometimes even while he was in between filming episodes. It’s hard to talk about the dark times, the pull towards the abyss. (And on that note, I’m so grateful to Buzzy Cohen for having the courage to do just that.) He could have let the abyss take him. But still Alex went on, because his family loved him. And they weren’t the only ones.

A Reader’s Digest poll found him at number 8 on the list of the 100 Most Trusted People in America. And while I have my doubts about some others on that list (y’all trust Meryl Streep more–really?), I don’t doubt him. I didn’t know him as well as some people might have assumed. But I also knew him as everyone knew him, as reliable and authoritative and encouraging. Now he’s gone, and with him, the world is a little less balanced. We will go on, as Alex did. And there might be a new Jeopardy! host, but no one will ever truly replace Alex Trebek. But at least we had him that long. At least we had this game.

Share your memories of Alex Trebek with us in the comments or on social media.

featured image via Jeopardy! Productions

Pop CultureTV ShowsAlex TrebekJeopardy!

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at salome@comicyears.com.

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