An ode to Alex Trebek, a titan of old-school TV charm

Alex Trebek
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When Alex Trebek was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March, I was devastated at the thought that the snowy-haired, oft-mustachioed staple of gameshow television might no longer grace the screen to host Jeopardy! every weeknight at 7p.m. Eastern Standard Time. It’s a gig he’s had since 1984. (The show aired its 35th anniversary episode on September 10th.) 35 years of being announced by Johnny Gilbert, suavely reading clues, and poking fun at contestants. Trebek’s presence seems so immutable, it’s easy to take it for granted.

I grew up with Trebek on TV. I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw him, he was just always there. The comfort of Jeopardy! — and Trebek’s semi-condescending, sassy and straightforward demeanor; his calm, assured voice as he reads those clues, and scolds contestants for not answering in the form of a question — is deep. So deep that my parents DVR every single episode so we can binge-watch together when I’m at their house. If I’m sad, Jeopardy! never fails to make me feel better. Jeopardy! is home.

Over the years, Trebek and Jeopardy! have become increasingly enmeshed in the zeitgeist — it's probably because the show is one of the few things left in this hellscape of a world that can bring us together. And because Jeopardy! is often funny, like a dad joke. When Trebek read the clues for a rap category, the internet was gleeful. (“Alex Trebek drops bars!”) A memorable 2012 TMZ video exclaimed, “Alex Trebek curses on TV!” because Trebek said “shit.” The show’s most recent record breaker, James Holzhauer, told a high school paper that Trebek has a “potty mouth” when cameras aren’t rolling. Last week, former contestant Alex Jacob made a supercut of Trebek saying the word “genre,” and it is inexplicably hilarious.

Trebek is lovably a smidge out of touch, but pretty self-aware for a boomer. Since I was a kid, it seems he's only continued to grow and ease into himself. Though he is certainly not perfect. He’s gotten flack for being the kind of sarcastic that can come off as cruel; he’s a little old fashioned when it comes to men in drag; in that epic Marchese interview, he cops to being fiscally conservative and makes a cringey comment about young boys being dumb, in regards to sexual assault; he also once called a contestant a loser to her face after she explained nerdcore, and there’s the time he told a music journalist she wanted to be a groupie, which was a little much. Though Trebek’s been known to cross the line, Jeopardy!’s rudeness is part of its charm. Who’d think that, while watching a wholesome trivia game show, you might see its host turn to the camera to tease a contestant for answering “threesome” instead of “love triangle.” (“Kara has had much more experience than I,” he says, with an eyebrow), or say to Ken Jennings after he incorrectly responds “hoe” and not “rake,” “They teach you that in school in Utah, huh?”

What Trebek has given us in the way of entertainment is worth so much more than his flaws. He’s like your favorite goofy high school history teacher, the one who says dumb stuff sometimes but you ultimately love — only more mythic than that. In the season finale of The Colbert Report in 2014, Trebek appears on a sleigh along with Santa Claus, and Colbert calls him “The One With All The Answers.” You can’t imagine him not being around.

The show has a huge and passionate fan base; its Reddit sub, for instance, has over 40,000 members who obsess over contestants, trade studying tips, and document Trebek’s changes in facial hair. Recently, they’ve been coming together to discuss his stage 4 diagnosis. “My mother was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer a couple weeks ago. Alex is helping me understand what my mother is going through or will,” one user wrote. Trebek has been incredibly open about his health, what it’s like to go through chemotherapy; the “excruciating pain,” the fatigue, the sadness. On Good Morning America in May, he spoke about the bouts of depression he’s been experiencing: “Chemo affects people in different ways and people have to understand that,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Hey, I’m really depressed today and I have no idea why. Why am I crying today?’ When it happened early on, I was down on myself. I didn't realize how fallible each of us is in his or her own way...I talk to the audience sometimes and I get teary-eyed for no reason. I don't even bother to explain it anymore, I just experience it. I know it's a part of who I am and I just keep going." Not only is Trebek helping to spread knowledge about cancer, he’s also helping to normalize talking about depression.

Trebek has a contract to host the show until 2022, and in classic Trebek style, he cracked a joke when announcing his diagnosis: "I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years! So help me. Keep the faith and we'll win. We'll get it done." On August 29, Trebek announced he was done with chemotherapy and on to immunotherapy, and on September 9, he greeted Episode 1 of Season 36 with, “I’m happy to report, I’m still here.” But the immunotherapy didn’t go so well, he reported just a week later, and he will be returning to treatment. “Cancer is mysterious in more ways than one,” he explained, from the Jeopardy! set, a backdrop he seems inextricable from. “This past summer, because I was making such good progress, we thought I was finished with chemo. That was a bit premature and certainly over-optimistic...Hey, it worked well the first time, so we are expecting good results again.”

Trebek seemed spry and in good spirits at the Daytime Emmys, where he won for Outstanding Game Show Host (for which he’s been nominated 28 times, more than any other host) and joked about having gotten the sympathy vote. We don’t know yet what will happen for the 37th season, but the annual, much-awaited Tournament of Champions has already been taped. James Holzhauer told GMA recently about seeing Trebek on set again, saying, “He’s such a consummate professional. It’s like nothing’s ever changed.” The other day, he tweeted: “SPOILER ALERT: Alex Trebek is an unstoppable machine of game show hosting. Not this time, cancer.”