Alex Trebek: The Man Who Kept America’s Knowledge

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A jaunty, orchestrated theme is playing; the live studio audience is cheering; a nattily dressed, mustachioed man takes his place at the podium, bringing the game-show proceedings to order. That man, a sprightly Canadian named Alex Trebek, thanks the audience and … introduces his co-host, a nasally voiced, crudely drawn cartoon character, of all things, beaming out from a television screen that looks like a discarded prop from a groovy 1970s television series.

This, obviously, was not “Jeopardy!,” the beloved, long-running quiz show that would make Trebek an icon of American pop culture. It was “Malcolm,” one of the several ill-fated game show experiments Trebek anchored before joining the series where he would not only find his calling, but define one of America’s most singular cultural formats and its intellectual character.

The DNA that “Jeopardy!” shares with preposterous curios such as “Malcolm”—small-“d” democratic, crowd-pleasing, inescapably gimmicky—is just as core to its success as the occasionally high-brow trivia at its heart. As the show’s host, Trebek, who died this year of pancreatic cancer at age 80, made erudite knowledge accessible and fun for people who might not otherwise have cared about the Mikado, or the length of the Zambesi River, or the Hollywood blacklist. He straddled high and low culture with a skill for which today’s politicians would pay a kingly consulting fee, and he adjudicated “right” or “wrong” answers (well, questions) with an authority that now seems far beyond our epistemological reach.

Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario, in 1940, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant and a native Ontarian. He began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company at just 21 and performed odd jobs and radio spots until 1966, when he landed his first gig hosting a game show, the high school quiz competition “Reach for the Top.” He would spend the rest of his life in the game show business.

After moving to the United States in the early 1970s, Trebek hosted a succession of goofy, short-lived series with names like “Battlestars,” the aforementioned “Malcolm” and “Pitfall,” an elaborate syndicated production for which he was infamously never paid. Fortuitously he happened to befriend Art Fleming, the classically dignified original host of “Jeopardy!,” which was already a hit with its reversed-polarity answer-and-question format, created in the mid-1960s as a response to a series of scandals famously depicted in Robert Redford’s film "Quiz Show."

Fleming, who by the 1980s had already begun to view “Jeopardy!” as debased after its move to Hollywood from its original filming location in New York, recommended Trebek as a successor. Trebek took the helm in 1984 and immediately became a cultural icon, appearing in cameos on the sitcom “Cheers,” Ron Shelton’s hit film White Men Can’t Jump and even “The X-Files.” He became a fixture in American households as much as any broadcast-era evening news anchor, hosting hours upon untold hours of daily television over the past 36 years. His final episode as the host of “Jeopardy!” is scheduled to air January 8.

From the dawn of their existence, quiz shows played a role in democratizing American intellectual life. Trebek was the perfect conduit for the leveling of access to the world’s trivia. He was a Canadian ex-pat and Francophone who drove a Dodge Ram and guzzled diet soda; he evangelized for the Home Depot while favoring East Yorkshire, the site of the Brontë family home, as a vacation spot. He was, above all else, a showman, working hard behind the scenes to make sure he nailed the pronunciation and diction of everything he announced to his guests, whether it was Tennyson or Kanye West.

He had come to America as an outsider, a man with a philosophy degree who aspired to become a Cronkite-style news broadcaster and ended up cajoled, if temporarily, into sharing hosting duties with a cartoon. But in a way that was markedly different from Cronkite, while still just as reliable, Trebek became the keeper of America’s knowledge. The subject matter of “Jeopardy!” spanned as wild and diverse as the country itself, giving any viewer, of any background, on any given night, a punter’s chance of providing the right question to Trebek’s answers—and feeling the thrill of beating the smarties to the punch.

Through his jocular, yet authoritative (and occasionally withering) screen presence, Trebek brought viewers into a world of knowledge without either condescending to them or seeming elitist. And he was famously compassionate behind the scenes as well, forming his own charitable foundation and spending a quarter-century hosting the National Geographic Bee for school-aged children. Decades of daily television appearances made him the most beloved and recognizable avatar for a quintessentially American art form. But his own generous, careful and earnest nature made him the perfect ambassador for a world of more democratic knowledge.

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