Nerd Factor: 24,000 Stories for Alex Trebek

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Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     Alex Trebek was the game show host’s game show host. Since 1984, the Jeopardy! host has been welcome in living rooms across the country five nights a week. When Trebek passed away due to pancreatic cancer this weekend, we lost a familiar friend.

     Even before Jeopardy!, Trebek’s career as a quiz master was remarkable. He hosted his first game show in 1966, the Canadian high school academic competition Reach for the Top. For every year after that, Trebek hosted at least one game show, an impressive accomplishment in the notoriously fickle business of television. Overall, he worked every year for 54 years. 

     Of course, Jeopardy! is what Trebek will always be remembered for. His gift was a real talent for keeping the show smart. According to Jeopardy!’s official website, Trebek hosted over 8,000 programs. Watching that all back to back would take just over 166 days of your life. Throughout all that time, Trebek had to manage a certain expectation for challenging trivia knowledge. Never a smart aleck, Trebek could still sometimes be withering with a certain “you should have known that” air whenever all three contestants on the show could not come up with a correct answer. 

     Trebek had enough hard work just keeping the show going. There are 61 answers in a game of Jeopardy!, 30 in each round plus the final answer. Contestants do not always clear the boards, but if we assume that, say, three answers are dropped in each round, that still leaves Trebek with an impressive 440,000 answers read in his career. Mistakes probably happened, but he was astonishingly effective at keeping that show moving. 

     In that same way, Trebek kept the show cool. I can imagine that the contestants on Jeopardy! feel a lot of competitive pressure. When I was in high school, I was a member of our It’s Academic team for two years. For the unfamiliar, It’s Academic is a game show that is produced out of Baltimore and out of Washington, D.C. The program has a big local following. Three teams of three students each played in a number of rounds featuring challenging questions. In some rounds, our team answered questions asked just of us, but other rounds were highly competitive. I remember that being very intense. There is nothing quite so frustrating as knowing the answer to a question but discovering that someone else was faster on hitting that damned button. At least I had my teammates up there with me. It was a shared stress. On Jeopardy!, contestants play alone. I suspect that it is very easy to lose one’s cool behind those podiums. Trebek’s even-keeled persona greatly diffused those pressures. Many Jeopardy! contestants appeared to be having fun. 

     One final unsung quality of Trebek’s was his ability to listen kindly. Americans tend to stereotype Canadians as genial people and Canadians are at least stereotypical enough not to argue back with us. Perhaps Trebek had some cultural advantage in that regard, but such patience must have been truly tested. Every game of Jeopardy! features a brief segment in which each contestant shares something that they believe is interesting about themselves. 

     The trouble is, the stories are not always great. Back in the days when Joel McHale still hosted The Soup, the show had a semi-regular bit called “Great Story Jeopardy! Contestant” which focused on the truly awkward examples. That has become a regular phrase my family uses when we watch. In a recent example, one contestant spoke of the novelty of her “pizza book club,” which was not a club about pizza books, but rather a book club where they also had pizza. I am still trying to figure that one out. Seems to me that is just going to get sauce and cheese all over the books. 

     Alex Trebek had to listen to 24,000 of those stories. He had to at least feign interest and try to be a bit engaged, perhaps finding the humor in the situation that the guest could not. If each guest exchange took about a minute, then Alex spent 16 days of his life hearing about pizza book clubs. 

     That alone earns Trebek the right to be canonized as a game show saint. 

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