'Jeopardy!' Host Alex Trebek: A Remembrance : Pop Culture Happy Hour The game show host Alex Trebek died Sunday following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Trebek hosted Jeopardy! for 36 years — his last episode airs on Christmas Day. Trebek hosted a number of game shows dating back to the early '70s. But he'll be forever known for his work on Jeopardy! — both for his steady demeanor and for moments when he couldn't bring himself to suffer fools gladly.
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Remembering 'Jeopardy!' Host Alex Trebek

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Remembering 'Jeopardy!' Host Alex Trebek

Remembering 'Jeopardy!' Host Alex Trebek

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

JOHNNY GILBERT: This is "Jeopardy!"

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

The game show host Alex Trebek died Sunday following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Trebek hosted "Jeopardy!" for 36 years. His last episode airs on Christmas Day.

GLENN WELDON, HOST:

Trebek hosted a number of game shows dating back to the early '70s, but he'll be forever known for his work on "Jeopardy!", both for his steady demeanor and for moments when he couldn't bring himself to suffer fools gladly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

ALEX TREBEK: This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker. Ken.

KEN JENNINGS: What's a hoe?

TREBEK: No.

(LAUGHTER)

TREBEK: Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. They teach you that in school in Utah?

WELDON: I'm Glenn Weldon.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are remembering the life and career of Alex Trebek on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF "JEOPARDY!" THEME)

THOMPSON: Welcome back. I don't think it's going to come as a surprise that Glenn and I both love Alex Trebek and "Jeopardy!" or that we're feeling his loss today. In fact, in a time of such deep polarization, I feel like he's one of those folks who's basically got a 100% approval rating. He's on every television set in America and who doesn't love Alex Trebek? We did a POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR episode about "Jeopardy!" back in July of 2018. It's a really fun talk. One thing we could all agree on was that Alex Trebek was a magnificent game show host - erudite and knowledgeable, quick on his feet with just the right glint of slow-burning frustration when contestants tried to bend the rules or biffed easy questions. Glenn, talk to me about Alex Trebek.

WELDON: I mean, this is a very sad day. I mean, he was beloved by so many, certainly, but even those who didn't watch "Jeopardy!" I mean, he's just a part of our collective lives. He was a fixture. He was an institution. But as you mentioned, Stephen, the thing to remember about Alex Trebek is how consummately good he was at what is, at the end of the day, a very weird, a very specific job. I mean, what is the skill set we're talking about here? It requires switching from being the kind of kindly, remonstrative schoolteacher - no, I think you'll find that's Nicaragua - to being essentially a hype man, right? You're pulling for these people or as close as a Canadian can come to being a hype man. But, like, the role that it most closely resembles for me is dungeon master, where you are taking your players through a very treacherous territory, but always you want them to succeed.

THOMPSON: When you think about how different the job of hosting "Jeopardy!" is from the job of hosting "Supermarket Sweep," the host of "Jeopardy!" is not a comedian. The host of "Jeopardy!" is a kindly librarian who still has to react in real time, sometimes with jokes, sometimes with commentary, sometimes with exasperation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

UNIDENTIFIED CONTESTANT: Football, 400.

TREBEK: I can tell you guys are big football fans.

(LAUGHTER)

TREBEK: Tom Landry perfected the shotgun formation with this team.

(LAUGHTER)

TREBEK: Dallas Cowboys. Do you think we should go to commercial?

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: The evenness with which Alex Trebek did that job was truly remarkable.

WELDON: Right. I mean, his role is to be the guy who knows all the answers. That's his whole vibe.

THOMPSON: Right.

WELDON: Which can easily lend itself to condescension. And he was dinged for that a couple of times over the years by comedians. But his whole vibe in "Jeopardy!" was confident but sympathetic and, more than anything else, concerned. But he wasn't always that way. I mean, I don't know how many listeners are going to remember, but back in the day, in the '70s, as you mentioned, when he hosted shows like "High Rollers" and he had these - you can see this on YouTube - these big-ass lapels and these blue crushed velvet suits and a knot in his tie the size of a basketball and that wooly caterpillar mustache, he would grow impatient with people who made stupid decisions or most specifically with people who did not let him finish reading the question. And he became so known for this little tic that the Canadian comedy series "SCTV" parodied him. They had Eugene Levy slapping on that trademark mustache and going for him but in that kind, Canadian way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCTV")

EUGENE LEVY: (As Alex Trebel) What famous...

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

LEVY: (As Alex Trebel) Margaret Meehan, Parkdale.

CATHERINE O'HARA: (As Margaret Meehan) Victor Hugo.

LEVY: (As Alex Trebel) Oh, I'm sorry, Margaret. If you just let me finish the question first, see how it works. OK, what famous humorist...

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

LEVY: (As Alex Trebel) Margaret Meehan, Parkdale.

O'HARA: (As Margaret Meehan) Jerry Lewis.

LEVY: (As Alex Trebel) Margaret, I'll have to ask you to please let me finish the question before answering because that answer was extremely wrong.

WELDON: You'll notice in that sketch he's not wrong in getting angry, right? He's fully vindicated. These people are idiots and he's the one who's fully in the right. This is also what "SNL" latched to in all these sketches where Will Ferrell squares off against Darrell Hammond's Sean Connery.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

WILL FERRELL: (As Alex Trebek) Sean Connery, it's still your board.

DARRELL HAMMOND: (As Sean Connery) I'll take swords for 400.

FERRELL: (As Alex Trebek) It's actually not swords, sir, swords. These are words that begin with S.

WELDON: So, yeah, you have squaring him off against Darrell Hammond's Sean Connery, who we also lost this week. But I got to say, the moment when you see how incredibly suited he was to this job is when he has to leave the podium in the middle of the episode and go over and talk to these introverted nerds with no social skills who have memorized every two-letter Scrabble word like I have. We're not interesting, people like us. Like, we're not. And his job was to make us seem interesting. Or worse - and this happens a lot on "Jeopardy!" actually - you have introverted nerds with no social skills who have somehow convinced themselves that they have social skills. So they just kind of jump right into it. (Imitating contestant) Oh, Alex, I think you will find this a rather amusing anecdote. And then they just go off.

THOMPSON: I think it's really telling that Alex Trebek was a game show host for 36 years, was not a funny man, was not explosively genial, and yet was so deeply loved. And, you know, he was diagnosed with cancer and continued to host the show. And just - we've experienced this collective outpouring of love for Alex Trebek on and off the show for the past bunch of months. As recently as two days ago, you had this gorgeous clip with a contestant named Burt Thakur who had just won, like, north of $20,000 and kind of broke down telling Alex Trebek that he had learned to speak English watching Alex Trebek host "Jeopardy!"

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: And he family members back home cheering you on?

BURT THAKUR: You know, here's a true story. And I grew up - I learned English because of you. And so my grandfather who raised me - I'm going to get tears right now - he - I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day. So it's a pretty special moment for me, man. Thank you very much.

THOMPSON: Man, everybody just loved that guy.

WELDON: Yeah. And I know I was kind of digging nerds (imitating contestant) with amusing anecdotes, but, Stephen, I have a rather amusing anecdote about meeting Alex Trebek.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Please do.

WELDON: OK, this was 1988. I was a college student on the South Fork of Long Island. And I had realized that you could stay out in the Hamptons over the summer and terrible rich humans would pay you very, very well for the privilege of mistreating you. And Alex Trebek was not one of those people. He was the opposite. I worked at a very terrible winery, and he came in one fine Sunday morning with his mother. And that endeared me to him right away. I took him through the wine tasting, and I did the thing where you do where you kind of throw out different words and different references to gauge their knowledge level. He, I will say this, knew his stuff. He recognized that our stuff was crap. And he was - and I will always remember this, Stephen - he was so kind. He was so polite. He was so reserved. He was so I guess the word is Canadian about it that he didn't want to make me feel bad about how bad our stuff was. And he left without buying a single bottle because of course he did. And that has endeared me to him and made me a little bit more sad, I think, than maybe some other people are today who never met him. But just that exchange was so purely Alex Trebek to me.

THOMPSON: I mean, the guy set a Guinness World Record for most episodes of a game show hosted back in 2014. At the time, it was, like, 6,800 episodes. He's since hosted more than 8,200 episodes of "Jeopardy!" You know, we will not see his like again soon. I mean, the question now that is raised, of course, is who's going to host "Jeopardy!" going forward? I think it's obviously far too soon to speculate too deeply. I mean, I think Ken Jennings, the "Jeopardy!" champion, who's an extremely witty guy, makes a lot of sense. Having a "Jeopardy!" expert hosting "Jeopardy!" makes a ton of sense. I love Ken Jennings. But, man, this one really hurts.

WELDON: It really does.

THOMPSON: Well, we, of course, would love to hear your thoughts on Alex Trebek and "Jeopardy!" Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much for being here, Glenn.

WELDON: Thanks, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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