Otago Daily Times
Quickwitted, charming ‘Jeopardy’ host an enduring hit with audiences
Game show host
IN the dazzling constellation of television game shows — word puzzles, lifelines, briefcases filled with cash — the format for Jeopardy! was so stodgy, so relentlessly academic, that the show had been chucked on to the ash pile of failed network programming long before Alex Trebek arrived in Hollywood.
But with his quick wit, easy smile and myfavouriteprofessor demeanour, Trebek drove the game show back up the ratings charts and for decades remained a comfortable television host in the living rooms of America.
Trebek became such an institution that he was parodied by Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live, played himself on dozens of television shows and was used as a narrative device on television hits such as Seinfeld.
Never far from the studio where he ruled as TV’s master of trivia, Trebek died on November 8 at his home in Los Angeles after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
Born on July 22, 1940, George Alexander Trebek grew up in Sudbury, northern Ontario, Canada, where he dreamed of becoming a hockey player. Studious as a child, Trebek graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy and became a regional authority on the controversial separatist movement in Quebec while working as a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. His ability to speak French gave him an advantage over his colleagues.
And then, on nothing more than a whim, he tumbled into the world of television game shows.
Telegenic and thoughtful, Trebek was put to work on regional shows including the longrunning Canadian quiz show Reach for the Top.
His material caught the attention of the daytime programming czar at NBC, who was in the process of cleaning out daytime personalities such as Dinah Shore and Art Fleming and any show that fell into the dreaded 50something demographic. Jeopardy!, then hosted by Fleming, was among the casualties.
Trebek’s first assignment was to host The Wizard of Odds, a game that revolved around statistical questions. When that failed to gain traction, it was shelved and Trebek was asked to host High Rollers, a gamblingstyle game. The show was a quick hit and spawned an evening version, also hosted by Trebek.
But the life of a television game show is a fickle one — much like the fate of the contestants — and in yet another sudden housecleaning move, NBC cancelled High Rollers as audiences moved on to more frenetic screamfests such as Family Feud, The Newlywed Game and The Gong
In 1984, Merv Griffin decided to revive Jeopardy! and pair it with Wheel of Fortune in an early evening time slot. He asked Trebek to be the host. And on the advice of Griffin’s wife, the format of the show came with a twist — give the contestants the answer, and let them puzzle out the question.
As the quiz show rolled through the decades, Trebek remained a comfortable fit with audiences — fatherly, dependable, the keeper of all questions.
Trebek said he enjoyed hosting the show because he liked being in the company of smart people.
When fellow game show host Steve Harvey questioned whether Trebek was as smart as viewers seemed to think he was, Trebek challenged Harvey to a trivia showdown. Harvey never brought the matter up again.
Trebek is survived by his wife, Jean Currivan, and three children. —