For literally longer than I've been alive, Jeopardy! has been the trail mix of television: relatively healthy, filling, and easy to consume wherever you are. You can watch Jeopardy! on mute at a bar, or use it as white noise while you dick around on your phone after a hard day, or compete with your family to call out the correct answers. Unlike most game shows, it doesn't assume the viewers are morons or attempt to drag out every question for maximum drama. The premise is simple and sturdy enough that it has survived for decades and well over 7,000 episodes, all of which are basically the same. Here are some people who are good at trivia, let's ask them trivia questions—or give them answers, technically—and see how they do. There's no drawn-out introduction of the contestants' backstories or dramatic mood-setting, just efficient, rapid-fire exchanges between them and host Alex Trebek.
Trebek, who is 78 and just revealed that he has been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, is less the star of the show than the force that propels it along. His crisp, meticulous reading of the clues and his authoritative commands for contestants to pick clues or give their responses quickly leave no space for any extraneous business. With rare exceptions, contestants on Jeopardy! don't draw attention to themselves, and aren't given a chance to. In a behind-the-scenes video with Business Insider in 2017, Trebek called it a "material-driven program," meaning that the point is the game itself. Trebek serves as a minimally intrusive authority figure. He fades into the background, his dark sense of humor flashing only occasionally. (When he announced his cancer diagnosis, he cracked that he'd have to beat the disease since he had three more years left on his contract.)
But though Trebek is maybe the least obtrusive presence in show business, over the years he has become one of its most beloved icons, and maybe the only voice that all Americans trust implicitly. For 230 episodes a year, we believe every word he says.
His cancer announcement uncorked a gushing of grief and support that crossed all ideological lines, a rare moment of national unity at a time when people will argue publicly about nearly everything. Former Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings called him "the last Cronkite: authoritative, reassuring TV voice you hear every night, almost to the point of ritual." Everyone from View cohost Meghan McCain to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo praised Trebek, though Cuomo's comment that "in a time of shallow beliefs and rampant truth abuse in our politics and beyond, every night he makes facts first," came under fire from conservatives, more proof of how impossibly divided the country remains.
His job doesn't naturally lend itself to controversy, but even by the standards of game show hosts, Trebek is apolitical. Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak, the Yang to Trebek's Yin, is an outspoken conservative, as is Sajak's predecessor Chuck Woolery, who is not just right-wing but a raving loon on Twitter. And beyond politics, most hosts tend to ham it up, a la Steve Harvey on Family Feud or Regis Philbin on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? On many shows, the personality of the hosts, or the heartstring-tugging stories of the contestants, often crowd out the substance of the game being played—Jeopardy! doesn't have much competition in the category of material-driven programs.
America as a whole is suffering from a surplus of personality and a deficit of material. Everyone from the president on down spends an enormous amount of time performing in one way or another for whatever audience is available. If that old internet adage "information wants to be free" is true, it's also true that opinions want to be spoken aloud, personal milestones want to be documented, experiences want to be photographed, and everything needs to be shared, or at least shouted into the ether. Politicians are indistinguishable these days from cable news talking heads, and the distance between cable news talking head and random online shitposter is shorter than ever.
That might explain why Trebek has such a pull on the popular imagination: He's a man who very publicly does his job competently without making a fuss, the Robert Mueller of game shows. Where some people—most of us, probably—would eventually feel tempted to use the platform of TV fame to speak up about important causes, Trebek lives as anonymously as it is possible for an extremely famous person to do. He doesn't seem to use personal social media and rarely appears onscreen outside the Jeopardy! stage. The Canadian-born US citizen identifies as a political independent; the only politician he has donated directly to was the moderate Republican Senator Chuck Hagel. (The Daily Beast once reported that he was listed as the host for a conservative fundraiser in 2010, but Trebek's spokesperson said he didn't attend or host such an event.)
This doesn't mean that Trebek is some paragon of virtue, or even that he never says controversial things. In an interview with Vulture last year, he raised eyebrows when he said the #MeToo movement "has got to be a scary time for men"; when he moderated an October gubernatorial debate in Pennsylvania it went awry thanks to his long, rambling asides and weird jokes about the Catholic Church.
What makes Trebek special is that he generally understands the value of saying as little as possible in public, of doing the work and letting that work speak for itself, of not letting his personality leak all over our screens. This might be a common quality, but those who embody it are rarely famous because that sort of attitude lends itself to anonymity. Every successful institution depends on people silently and competently make things run, people who will do a job without making a big deal out of it. Americans instinctively love those people—that's why we adore Trebek—but they're often hidden behind figures who are better at amplifying themselves than actually working. Jeopardy! is a show that represents the way a lot of us wish the world should be run. It's a place with a minimum of shouting or drama or flashing lights, a place where knowledge and quickness is rewarded and success is earned, where a witty, urbane Canadian politely informs us when we're incorrect.
That's the fantasy of Trebek: Here is a man who can separate facts from falsehoods, who can tell you whether you're right or wrong, and does so without a flicker of judgement. He does not weigh in on the big questions of life because no one is asking him to. Instead he gives us the answers to thousands upon thousands of small questions. Isn't that enough?
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