Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, 80, reflects on life

Quiz-show host Alex Trebek (above) with a copy of his new memoir, The Answer Is...: Reflections On My Life.
Quiz-show host Alex Trebek (above) with a copy of his new memoir, The Answer Is...: Reflections On My Life. PHOTO: JEOPARDY/ FACEBOOK

UNITED STATES • One morning a few weeks ago, Alex Trebek woke up in agony, struggling to move.

He had barely slept during the night, but he dragged himself out of bed and got dressed for work.

A small production crew had set up a studio in his Los Angeles home so he could tape introductions to old episodes of Jeopardy!, the quiz show he has hosted for more than three decades. He had not recorded a new show since the pandemic halted production in March.

Normally, Trebek hosts five episodes a day, two days a week, from July to April - so there was new material to air through the first three months of the shutdown. Now that the stockpile had run out, producers decided to resurrect popular episodes from years past.

As he climbed the stairs, he had to stop to rest. Then he got in front of the camera and something shifted.

"Oddly enough, when we started taping, I suddenly started to regain my strength," he said in a telephone interview a couple of days later. "It's the strangest thing. It is some kind of an elixir."

For the next hour and a half, Trebek narrated introductions for 20 episodes, including the first game of Jeopardy! he hosted, from 1984.

He also taped promotional videos and recorded a health update for fans who have been following his struggle with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Trebek, who turns 80 this month, has never been one to ignore hard facts. He plans to keep making the show for as long as he can, but he worries that his performance is declining, that he is slurring his words and messing up clues.

"It's a quality programme and I think I do a good job hosting it, and when I start slipping, I'll stop hosting," he said.

In an entertainment and media ecosystem that often feels ephemeral, vapid and divorced from reality, Trebek represents something timeless.

With his cerebral bearing and aura of quiet, impartial authority, he embodies ideals that feel endangered: the pursuit of knowledge and the inherent value of facts.

He is a game-show host and a smooth-talking, quick-witted entertainer, but he is also, in a way, an arbiter of truth.

"It's not a show about good and evil, but it's a show about right and wrong, and the bracing certainty that he expresses is so rare in our muddled lives," said New Yorker staff writer and CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin, a long-time Jeopardy! fan and a five-time clue on the show.

It bothers Trebek that facts no longer provide common ground; that a shared narrative about current events has fractured into ideological media bubbles, in which information has given way to hyperbole and reflexive opinion.

"There's a certain comfort that comes from knowing a fact," he said. "The sun is up in the sky. There's nothing you can say that's going to change that. You can't say, 'The sun's not up there, there's no sky.' There is reality, and there's nothing wrong with accepting reality. It's when you try to distort reality, to manoeuvre it into accommodating your particular point of view, your particular bigotry, your particular whatever - that's when you run into problems."

Since March, he has been quarantined with his wife, Jean. He has occupied himself with projects around the house, sewing a new seat cover for an outdoor swing and fixing the mechanical cover on their swimming pool.

He has also kept busy by writing his memoir, The Answer Is...: Reflections On My Life, which Simon & Schuster released on Tuesday, a day before his birthday.

There are no shocking revelations in his memoir, but there are a few surprises. Trebek swears, a lot. He was so unruly as a boy that he almost got expelled from boarding school. He has a half-brother he did not know about until he was in his 40s. His favourite animal is the musk ox. His favourite drink is low-fat milk or, if he is feeling frisky, chardonnay.

Even in today's fragmented media landscape, Jeopardy! continues to have broad appeal, pulling in an average weekly audience of 24 million viewers.

Over the course of his career, Trebek has survived a car crash, two heart attacks and brain surgery for blood clots. But the show's producers and writers were stunned when he told them he had pancreatic cancer.

"It was a gut punch," said Mr Harry Friedman, who began producing Jeopardy! around 20 years ago and retired this year. "He had really not been feeling great, but in typical Alex fashion, he wasn't complaining about it."

One morning last year, early in the course of his treatment, Trebek felt so sick that he lay down on the floor of his dressing room, sobbing from the pain.

Producers suggested cancelling the rest of the day's tapings, but he insisted on hosting all five episodes.

When he walked onto the stage and greeted the audience, he felt focused, like himself.

"Once I introduce him on that stage, he is Alex Trebek," said longtime Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert. "You can tell that's what he's living for."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2020, with the headline 'Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, 80, reflects on life'. Subscribe