In March 2019, when Alex Trebek shared his diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer, it seemed the entire world buzzed in with messages of hope and love. As the host of Jeopardy! for 36 seasons, Trebek, who turns 80 today, has become a television icon and unlikely throwback snack. So how did this French Canadian son of a Ukrainian immigrant become the authoritative voice of American knowledge? Trebek’s charming memoir, The Answer Is… Reflections On My Life, offers these answers, phrased, of course, in the form of a question.
You know that voice. Canadian without being too oot and aboot. Professorial but not stern. Sensual yet not sexy. Trebek won a public speaking contest in the third grade. Scored a job his junior year of college as a radio announcer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, reading local news, weather, and stockyard reports. He transferred to the CBC headquarters in Toronto and shifted to television, hosting the high school quiz show Reach For The Top, where he could showcase his dual French-English language skills, and the teenybopper dance program Music Hop, where he interviewed pop stars while in costume as an aptly named mystery musician named Mr. Voice.
Trebek moved to Los Angeles in 1973, after NBC picked up the pilot on the short-lived The Wizard Of Odds. More fleeting game shows followed, among them High Rollers, The $128,000 Question, Double Dare, Pitfall, and Battlestars, a Hollywood Squares retread featuring a young Jerry Seinfeld. He tried to play the role of the Hollywood insider. He drove a Bentley convertible, bought a house on Mulholland Drive, married a fellow TV host, and coached his kids’ ball games (alongside Bryan Cranston!). But he didn’t partake in the other customary vices. Trebek doesn’t drink (besides the occasional glass of Chardonnay). He didn’t do drugs (except for that time he accidentally ate a handful of hash brownies). So he took up cursing. That’s right, the iconic game board is not the only Jeopardy! component working blue. And in The Answer Is… Trebek lets the profanities fly. “My memory is fading,” he writes in the opening chapter, “and I feel I’m in the same boat as Mark Twain, who in his seventies said he remembered only things that never happened. If that occurs here, tough shit.”
When the first syndicated episode of the revamped Jeopardy! with Trebek at its helm aired on September 10, 1984, success was not guaranteed. Creator Merv Griffin much preferred the vapid Wheel Of Fortune. Local television stations picked their own time slots—primetime in some major markets, past midnight in others. The Jeopardy! studio computer screens were difficult to discern. Just check out the responses to the first-ever Final Jeopardy!, which all three contestants answered correctly.
Trebek earns a reported $10 million annually. Taping two days a week, five shows per day, 46 days of the year, that amounts to a little over $43,000 per episode. So what does he do with his daily winnings? He’s entertained troops with the USO, and is a longtime contributor to the evangelical humanitarian organization World Vision, which has sent him on over a dozen international aid trips, mostly to Africa. He’s “adopted” the Zambian village of Kabaleka, providing its residents clean drinking water and a new school and medical facility. And he donates to saving one of his favorite animals: the musk ox.
“Being parodied means you’ve arrived,” Trebek writes. And though Will Ferrell’s two-decades-long Celebrity Jeopardy! impersonation might be the most famous, Trebek’s favorite impression came courtesy of Eugene Levy, who aped the quiz show host numerous times on the Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV. Blessed with Trebekian curls and a paste-on mustache, Levy’s character, the irascible host of Half Wits, went by Alex Trebel before going the full Trebek.
Trebek rhapsodizes on his favorite contestants in his memoir. Ken Jennings, he of the longest Jeopardy! winning streak, makes an appearance, of course. As do buzzer superstars like Brad Rutter, James Holzhauer, Eddie Timanus, and Cindy Stowell. But Trebek’s all-time favorite interview is Dana Venator, a high school junior out of Decatur, Georgia, who made the finals of the inaugural Teen Tournament back in 1987. Endearingly goofy, Venator shared stories about bagpiping and bad poetry. Trebek writes, “That might have been the hardest I’ve ever laughed on the show.”