Alex Trebek, who died over the weekend at 80, hosted Jeopardy! for 36 years, 8,000 shows, 39 Daytime Emmys and one prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in 2011 for excellence in broadcasting and “encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge.” It’s cool to be smart.
I’ve always been a Jeopardy! fan, from when I’d get home from school to watch it at 3:30 pm to now, when I’m convinced that Jeopardy! is harder and financially more rewarding than the SATs. I scored big on the SATs, at least the English part, where’d it get me? Meanwhile Jeopardy! champ Brad Rutter has become a multimillionaire on Jeopardy!, the all-time game show winner.
While Trebek’s life is celebrated today, if you could jump in Mr. Peabody’s (the cartoon dog, not George Foster Peabody) Wayback Machine to 1984, when Trebek took over host duties on Jeopardy!, he wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the show's community. Fans of the answers-first, questions-later show were concerned, to put it mildly, that Trebek’s arrival would mean Jeopardy! would be dumbed down.
After all, before Jeopardy!, Trebek hosted a silly game show called High Rollers, where contestants won washer-dryers by rolling dice and losers left with a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat.
Jeopardy! fans worried needlessly. Under Trebek’s tenure, the game show flourished, became a national phenomenon and, most important, became an even tougher test of contestants’ “little grey cells,” as detective Hercule Poirot called brains.
Other than a glitzy new stage, more video clues, bigger money values, and Trebek shaving his trademark mustache in 2001, Jeopardy! hasn’t changed much.
While game shows in prime time are the rage now, with Match Game, To Tell the Truth, Supermarket Sweep, and Press Your Luck dotting networks’ schedule — in each case they’re gimmicky, mindless versions of the old classics, featuring amped up hosts or “celebrities” you’ve never heard of.
On Broadway in Manhattan, there was a famous restaurant called the Carnegie Deli, as much a New York institution as the Statue of Liberty with a much better snack bar. The Carnegie’s walls were lined with photos of celebrities who ate there. Woody Allen filmed much of Broadway Danny Rose at the Carnegie. You sat where waiters told you, no splitting dishes, and no talking back.
I once shared a table with Bob Seger at 2 am.
The Carnegie was famous for its ridiculous, skyscraper sandwiches almost as high as the deli’s prices. Way before the Internet, customers would whip out their cameras (real cameras, not cell phones) to photograph their combo corned beef and pastrami sandwiches. There was a pound of meat between those slices of crusty rye bread.
In 1976, new owners took over the Carnegie. New Yorkers were frightened that would be the end of those huge sandwiches, you know how new owners look for ways of cutting costs. So the new owners called a press conference to announce that, from now on, the sandwiches would be even bigger! A city rejoiced.
That’s what Jeopardy! should have done to quell fans’ worry. It today remains unchallenged as the greatest game show — it’s actually insulting to call it a game show — better than ever. New episodes with Trebek will continue to air until Christmas.
Of course, Jeopardy! will go on. Greatness is eternal. As Jimmy Buffett sang, a legend never dies. Among the candidates to replace Trebek, his choices actually, are Good Morning America anchor George Stephanopoulas, all-time Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings, CNN’s Laura Coates, Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, and Los Angeles Kings announcer Alex Faust.
Jeopardy! won’t be the same with Trebek, respect, but it and its fans will endure.
A couple of fun facts before we break for commercial: The Top 10 most repeated Jeopardy! categories are Before & After, Literature, Science, Word Origins, American history, State Capitals. World History, Business & Industry, Potpourri and World Geography.
And the No. 1 question is, “What is Australia?” That question would have earned you money 208 times.