A new book by Ringer journalist Claire McNear lays out how the Canadian “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek became an American icon.
When “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek married Jean Currivan in 1990, his marriage vows ended with the phrase “The answer is … yes.”
Trebek, who died of pancreatic cancer on Sunday at 80 years old, hosted “Jeopardy!” for 36 years. He became a beloved figure for his steady, reassuring and sometimes biting reactions to contestants seeking to show their smarts on the most challenging game show in the nation.
The new book “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to ‘Jeopardy!’ ” (Twelve), by Ringer journalist Claire McNear, lays out how the Canadian host became an American icon.
“Jeopardy!” was conceived by Julann Griffin, wife of Merv Griffin, who produced the trivia show, in response to a late-1950s scandal that made rigging a game show a federal crime. Since giving answers to contestants was illegal, she thought to subvert the genre by giving them the answers first, then having them figure out the question.
The first version of “Jeopardy!” debuted in 1964. Hosted by Art Fleming and announced by Don Pardo, later of “Saturday Night Live” voiceover fame, the show was a daytime hit for 11 years.Alex Trebek on "Jeopardy!" circa 1984
©ABC/Courtesy Everett CollectionAlex Trebek on "Jeopardy!" circa 2002
©ABC/Courtesy Everett CollectionAlex Trebek on "High Rollers"
Courtesy Everett Collection(From left) Bea Arthur, David Leisure, "Jeopardy!" creator Merv Griffin, Betty White and Alex Trebek on a 1992 episode of "The Golden Girls," in which Trebek hosts a game show called "Questions and Answers."
©Touchstone Television/Courtesy Everett CollectionAlex Trebek on "Double Dare"
Courtesy Everett CollectionAlex Trebek and contestant Julia Collins on "Jeopardy!" circa 2014
©Sony Pictures/Everett CollectionAlex Trebek on "Jeopardy!" circa 2005
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett CollectionAlex Trebek on "Classic Concentration"
©NBC/Courtesy Everett CollectionAlex Trebek on "Double Dare"
Courtesy Everett CollectionAlex Trebek in 2018
Everett CollectionAlex Trebek and Jean Currivan Trebek in 2019
Getty Images for AFIAlex Trebek won the Outstanding Game Show Host award at the Emmys in 2019.
Patrick McMullan via Getty Images"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek in 2018
Getty Images"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek in 2016
Getty ImagesAlex Trebek and contestant Ken Jennings on "Jeopardy!" in 2004
Getty ImagesAlex Trebek circa 1997
Getty ImagesAlex Trebek circa 1990
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Trebek had been a newscaster and TV host in Canada and the US for two decades before “Jeopardy!” returned. One of his early Canadian shows featured performances by fellow Canadian Alan Thicke, father of Robin Thicke and later star of “Growing Pains.” When Thicke signed on to produce a game show for NBC in 1973 called “The Wizard of Odds,” he suggested Trebek as the host.
“His thick brown mustache and 1970s halo of maybe-perm had apparently sealed the deal,” writes McNear. “He was, he says, the first game-show host with a mustache since Groucho Marx.”
Trebek moved to LA and hosted a number of game shows in the years to come, including “High Rollers,” “Battlestars” and “Double Dare” (not the Nickelodeon show).
When a nighttime syndicated version of “Wheel of Fortune” hit big, Merv Griffin decided to revive “Jeopardy!” similarly. Trebek had impressed Griffin while guest-hosting several episodes of “Wheel of Fortune,” and was hired for “Jeopardy!”
His success on the show, though, was far from assured.
“The 1983 Trebek pilot was a flop,” writes McNear. “It went unaired, and, as Griffin remembered, ‘the research came back lousy, indicating that viewers weren’t interested in “Jeopardy!” returning to television.’ ”
But the producer plodded on, and the new “Jeopardy!” premiered in September 1984. The show received a boost from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s hit “I Lost on Jeopardy” from June of that year, which helped revive interest.
Contrary to projections, “Jeopardy!” was an immediate hit, becoming one of the Top 5 syndicated shows nationwide. But, while hard to imagine today, some critics thought the show was too fluffy compared to its predecessor.
“Viewers complained that the new show was easier, its questions too simple; a Los Angeles Times critic declared the new host ‘unctuous,’ the show ‘a shadow of what [viewers] once knew,’ ” writes McNear.
As for Trebek, he was perceived by some as more beefcake than brain power.
“Trebek was 44 when the ‘Jeopardy!’ revival debuted, and he wasn’t not meant as eye candy,” writes McNear.
‘He wasn’t not meant as eye candy.’
The Los Angeles Times noted that with his signature mustache, Trebek could be “an unusually handsome professor.” People magazine headlined a story about the then-single host, “Sorry, Girls, Mom Keeps House for ‘Jeopardy!’ host Alex Trebek,” a reference to his mother sharing his Hollywood Hills mansion.
The show took Trebek’s appeal and ran with it, even featuring him as a James Bond-like figure in ads, “rescuing various scantily clad damsels in distress.”
“‘We risked everything for these questions,’ gasped one just-liberated woman as a tuxedo-clad Trebek rushed her past her captors’ gunfire,” writes McNear. “‘That’s why we call it “Jeopardy!,” ’ the host replied.”
But Trebek was better aligned with the show’s brainy side than critics realized. Combined with his often-biting remarks toward contestants who bet too cautiously or blanked on answers, he fashioned it into an authoritative public persona.
“In his many cameos on other shows, he mostly played Disappointed Trebek, or Judgmental Trebek, or Insufferable Know-It-All Trebek,” writes McNear.
As a guest narrator on the sitcom “Hot in Cleveland,” he breaks character to correct someone who botched the name of a Stephen King novel.
“Ooh, sorry, that’s wrong. The response we wanted was ‘What is “Misery”?’” he says, before being “shooed away at gunpoint.”
On “The Weird Al Show” in 1997, he advertised the “Know-It-All Correspondence School” by asking, “Would you like to make more money? Impress your friends? Be like me and know everything in the world? Sure you would!”
Trebek’s cerebral persona worked because it wasn’t an act. In his first two decades with the show, the University of Ottawa philosophy graduate took the notoriously difficult “Jeopardy!” test — the one every potential contestant must take — once a year, and said if he ever failed it, he’d quit the show.
He understood that this aura of intelligence was the show’s main attraction. While most game shows introduced their host as “the star of the show,” Trebek insisted on being introduced as simply “the host.”
By any measure, hosting “Jeopardy!” was a cushy gig. Trebek worked just 46 days a year — the show taped five episodes each workday, two days a week, 23 weeks a year between July and April — and made around $10 million annually.
On taping days, he’d arrive at the studio at 6 a.m., settling in with a crossword puzzle and a breakfast of Diet Coke and a candy bar (which became a granola bar in his later years).
He received all the day’s clues by 7:30 and reviewed them for tricky pronunciations. Trebek was fluent in English and French, and said he could “fool around in” German, Italian, Spanish and Russian. Pronouncing foreign words correctly was important to him.
“Once, apparently determined to stump him, the writers delivered Trebek a game [with] a category called ‘When the Aztecs Spoke Welsh,’ ” writes McNear. “He set about mastering the clues — heavy on the L’s and X’s, light on consonants — before someone finally pointed out that it was April Fools’ Day.”
As the show became an institution, fueling lines or plot points in “Groundhog Day,” “Die Hard,” “Cheers,” “Golden Girls,” “Baywatch” and more, Trebek became a pop-culture icon. This was best illustrated by the “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketch on “SNL,” where Will Ferrell portrayed him as a frustrated host dealing with celebrity morons.
The sketch was conceived by cast member Norm Macdonald based on two old “SCTV” sketches written by Eugene Levy, who appeared as “Alex Trebel.” Levy gave Macdonald his blessing to take the concept to the American sketch institution.
(Oddly, Levy’s portrayal was pre-“Jeopardy!,” inspired instead by a high-school trivia show Trebek hosted in Canada. Trebek later said that while he enjoyed Ferrell’s take on him, even appearing on Ferrell’s last “SNL” episode as a cast member in 2002, he preferred Levy’s.)
Despite suffering two heart attacks and enduring a car wreck and brain surgery over the years, Trebek only ever missed one episode — and that was intentional: He and “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak switched shows once as a ratings stunt.
Still, as Trebek hit 70, the subject of who might replace him one day was often broached.
In 2014, an e-mail made public in the Sony hack revealed that CNN’s Anderson Cooper was a top contender, and was interested in the position. NBC’s Matt Lauer (pre-scandal) was also mentioned. Other candidates included previous “Jeopardy!” champions like Ken Jennings.
Trebek updated the list in 2018, mentioning LA Kings announcer Alex Faust and CNN legal analyst Laura Coates as contenders.
As the show is taped two months in advance, Trebek’s final episode will air on Christmas Day. There’s no word yet on what will come next.
The only thing we know for sure is that whoever replaces Trebek will have a tough time filling his shoes with the same clear-eyed intelligence and grace.
Even as he battled cancer, Trebek kept his legendary poise.
“When his hair began to fall out [due to chemotherapy], he challenged viewers to figure out when exactly he started wearing a hairpiece,” writes McNear.
“‘Truth told, I have to,’ he joked of carrying on in a video recorded to announce his illness. ‘Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host “Jeopardy!” for three more years.’ ”