I’ve always liked game shows. It’s an interesting phenomenon, when you think about it: watching a game that you hope someone else will win (or lose). And of course you play along at home, but you don’t really play. And you get to know the host that you don’t really know. And of all of them that we don’t really know, I feel like there’s none that we know better than Alex Trebek.
When I was a child I recall his ‘80s style moustache and watching him host a show based on the game of Concentration. But it has always been Jeopardy! that he has been destined to be remembered for.
Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex. pic.twitter.com/Yk2a90CHIM
— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) November 8, 2020
As a man of 40 years, it feels to me as though Trebek has been hosting Jeopardy! for my entire life. Never mind if that’s not quite right, and never mind if there were versions of the program that pre-dated him. At this point it is almost impossible to imagine Jeopardy! continuing without this man, which is really something when you consider that the job is primarily reading questions (answers) and enforcing the game’s rules.
But Trebek has long been an exemplar when it comes to what academics call parasocial interaction. If you start looking into this, it’s easy to get caught up on the unhinged folks who write letters to soap opera characters as though they were real people, but when you think about the game show, and a figure like Alex Trebek, you should be able to see the extent to which we are all susceptible to such influences. That is, unless you are somehow some kind of weirdo who’s never watched Jeopardy!
For a good stretch of time, I did every day. I moved in with my grandmother and her second husband (I always just called him Bob) when I was around 11 years old, and they had something of a nightly ritual of watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! between seven and eight o’clock, just after dinner usually.
I didn’t care all that much if I missed Wheel, and honestly, I don’t know that I cared all that much if I missed Jeopardy! once I was a teenager, but beyond the fact that I liked the show more (given that Wheel of Fortune is basically Hangman with a wheel involved, while Jeopardy! is rather more difficult), I always felt the allure of Alex Trebek.
He had a kind of quiet pretension about him, with the way, for example, that he would insist on pronouncing foreign words “correctly.” And when he enforced the rules of the game, as when a contestant didn’t earn money because they failed to form their response as a question, he did so with a certain grace even as the content of his utterance was a bit pedantic.
Further, Trebek always felt like a lover of knowledge. He seemed to truly find the anecdotes of contestants to be interesting, to take joy in a bit of obscure trivia that he had the chance to convey in reference to one of the answers and to show real empathy when someone got close to being correct but went astray.
“I can see why you were thinking that,” it’s as if he’d say, “but unfortunately it’s incorrect.” This is a contest but not a fight. There are rules to the game that must hold in the sake of fairness, but it’s not up to me.
This ethos that Trebek embodied is one that I’ve always aspired to live up to. In my virtual office there is an imaginary plaque that reads Caesar non est supra grammaticos—there is no authority that can trump grammar. We are not in control of language or meaning the way that Humpty Dumpty claimed to be. But this is not—or should not be—a matter of condescension. It is, on the contrary, a certain kind of humility in the face of forces and truths beyond one’s control.
I do not know of anyone who has ever lambasted Alex Trebek as an elitist looking down his nose at ordinary people. It’s possible that I am just unaware of some screed against him, but I hazard to wager that it’s not out there, because he never came across that way.
Trebek threaded the needle of upholding the rules of the game and a commitment to truth without demeaning those who failed to abide. In our times of division and fracture, this seems like an increasingly rare thing—someone we could all look to as not only intelligent and honest, but as a friend.
So perhaps it is only fitting that as 2020 continues to pummel us with hardship, we’d lose him. Jupiter and Saturn align and the world is shifting. We do not know where we are headed, globally, or what is on the other side of COVID-19 culturally or politically. So as we mourn Alex Trebek, who’s been with us for decades (whether or not his moustache was), through various shifts in the game of Jeopardy! itself, we perhaps cannot help but also mourn that lost world where we’d sit down every night to see him host this game.
There was a comfort in that, and now it’s gone. Jeopardy! may continue. We could speculate about who could become the next host. But that feels inappropriate now. It feels more like the show should not go on, so that it stands for all time as a monument to this man who defined it across generations.
My grandmother continued to watch Alex every night, well into her 90s, before she passed away last year. And that’s how she’d talk about it. It wasn’t the trivia questions (answers) that we tuned in for each night, so much as the comfort of his voice, his face, his demeanor…it was the comfort of a routine and the feeling of familiarity.
It was the comfort that, no matter what was going on in the world, be it a war in the Middle East, or in Kosovo, a President being impeached for getting oral sex from an intern, or the rise of a very different kind of TV show host to the office, Trebek was there. Jeopardy! was there. And everything would be alright.
Now it’s gone. That comfort is gone. And we’re off to face the future alone.
Good night, sweet prince. May angels sing you to your rest. I wish you were here to tell me I got that quote wrong.