I spent only about 2½ hours in Alex Trebek’s presence, back in 2006. But I feel as if I’ve known him for decades, and the news last week that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer hit me hard.
I wasn’t alone. “Jeopardy!” fans and celebrities flooded social media with good wishes. Former contestants started organizing fundraisers. The video of his announcement was liked more than 673,000 times on Twitter and drew more than 28,000 encouraging replies — many of them phrased in the form of a question, of course.
That video encapsulates everything viewers admire about Alex. As always, he is impeccably dressed, his gaze and his voice steady under circumstances that would wreck most people. He explains his diagnosis and acknowledges the grim statistics.
And then, also true to form, he throws in a bit of humor.
“I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease. Truth told, I have to! Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host ‘Jeopardy!’ for three more years! So help me. Keep the faith and we’ll win.”
On Thursday, he posted another video, graciously thanking fans for the "hundreds of thousands of people who have sent in tweets, texts, emails, cards and letters" — even Watson, the computer champion — and that "I do read everything I receive."
He concluded, "I'm a lucky guy."
It’s all vintage Alex. While viewers love to test their knowledge against the contestants and yell about “easy” clues that go unanswered, much of the show’s appeal rests with its host. He's silky smooth, quick on his feet, drily funny, doesn't take himself too seriously (see the famous "Cheers" episode), and is not above a little jab (a clip of him gently poking a contestant with the term “loser” was making the rounds on Twitter last week).
“Jeopardy!” fans are a devoted bunch, and that love runs three generations deep in my family. My grandfather first got hooked on the Art Fleming version and my grandmother bought him the board game, which I played as a kid. The revival with Alex premiered in 1984, when I was in high school, and immediately became appointment viewing for me and my parents.
In those days before trivia competitions became a bar staple, “Jeopardy!” was a refuge for nerds like me. I was bullied at school and mostly avoided by the opposite sex for being a “know-it-all,” but I could watch people rattling off answers on the show and being praised and rewarded. I ended up going into the news business, where broad knowledge is an asset and the daily flood of information further expanded my mental database.
People told me for years “You should try out for ‘Jeopardy!’,” and I finally took the leap in 2006, scoring an invitation to a live audition after taking the online test. I was chosen for a taping that September, and I came home with one win, $23,301, a daunting California nonresident tax form, and a tale to tell for the rest of my life. (You can read more about my experience at bit.ly/2TadIQq and bit.ly/2Jfl99p.)
Whenever someone finds out I was on the show, the second-most asked question, after “How much did you win?” was “What’s Alex really like?” I can’t say I got to know him well, because the only time I saw him was during taping. Contestants don’t hang out with him in the green room, due to compliance laws intended to keep the game fair; the producers don’t want anyone claiming “Alex was friendly with that other contestant backstage, so that’s why I lost!”
What you see on TV is the majority of the contact we contestants had with him. You hone a couple of those little personal stories with the coordinators before taping begins, and Alex is given index cards from which he can pick a tale to talk to you about — or occasionally go off-script.
But you do get a bit more of a glimpse of his off-camera persona during commercial breaks. The coordinators take that time to touch up players’ makeup, give them advice on working the buzzer, remind them to smile. And Alex will leave his podium and come to chat with the crowd.
Contestants who haven’t yet gone on stage watch the action from their own section of the audience. “Jeopardy!” tapes five shows per day, and my name wasn’t drawn until the fourth game, so I got to enjoy his interactions with fans for the first three. He’s like an urbane, well-traveled uncle with a quick wit and a lot of real knowledge absorbed from 35 years of presiding over the game. He’ll take questions, tell jokes and stories, maybe do an impression or a couple of soft-shoe steps.
And at the very end of each episode, when the audience is clapping, the theme song is playing and the players are lined up at the front of the stage, he really is engaging them in conversation. After one of my episodes, prompted by a clue we’d all missed about the movie “A Place in the Sun,” he was going on and on about how beautiful Liz Taylor was and re-enacting Raymond Burr’s showy courtroom moves.
My other center-stage moment with Alex was a highlight of an already incredible day. I’d just won the game on a Final Jeopardy question about “My Fair Lady,” and I told him, “It’s my favorite musical!” He responded by launching into snippets of songs from the show, including the utterly appropriate “You Did It,” and I joined in for an impromptu duet. It’s a testament to him that he’s had thousands of these encounters, yet he managed to make mine feel special.
Sadly, my grandfather did not live to see me on the show. Neither did my grandmother or my dad, who had enjoyed matching wits with me (he was an engineer, and could kick my butt in math categories I dreaded).
When I got the call, my family was so excited, five of them traveled to California for the taping: my husband, mom, brother, aunt and uncle. A great-aunt who lived in the Los Angeles area met us there. They took up an entire row of seats, and everyone still talks about how glad they were Alex was even more charming in real life than he is on screen.
Nine years after my appearance, my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. During the month she spent at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the last memories we made was me driving up to see her every night after work so we could watch “Jeopardy!” together.
It’s an often-repeated cliche that audiences feel they know TV personalities like news anchors and game show hosts because they “come into your living room every night.” The prospect of not having Alex there anymore is not just about him or the show. For me, and I’m sure for many fans, it’s also about the memories and connections he represents.
I wish Alex all the best, and I hope he beats cancer and goes on to host the show for many more years. Because every time I sit down and try to run the board, it almost feels as if my family is all still here, cheering me on.
Features editor Lynne Sherwin can be reached at 330-996-3856 or email@example.com.