Alex Trebek is Your Condescending Uncle… and We Love Him for It
How is it possible that a man who by definition has all the answers, and can come off as smug while imparting that knowledge, can be so universally loved? What Alex Trebek does as the host of Jeopardy! should be impossible; nobody should have all the answers in life, and if they do, we should hate them for it. Yet, instead of us hating Trebek for coming off as the most knowledgable and condescending man in the game show business, we love him for it. His perfect accent when dropping the names of non-American titles and authors (his Canadian heritage making his French accent the most highfalutin of all his accents), the way he smugly drops the name of chemical compounds, even the way he talks to the contestants in the first-round introductions should make the viewer want to change the channel. But we cannot change the channel. We want to watch Alex Trebek. Now with the announcement that he has Stage-4 Pancreatic cancer, we know that more than ever.
So why do we continue to watch? What about Alex Trebek makes viewers return every single night to N.B.C at either 7 or 7:30 p.m.? Sure, many viewers love the show because it is one of the few places on broadcast television where the questions are hard. Nor do you need to be a specialist in any one area to be good at Jeopardy!. In fact, the opposite is true; the more well-rounded you are in your studies or knowledge in general, the more likely you are to be good at the show. An auto mechanic has just as much luck winning a show as an aerospace engineer. Probably more so if that particular episode involves sports questions.
Maybe that is why people love Jeopardy! and Trebek so much. For as insufferable as he can be as the man with all the answers (technically all the questions), he constantly reminds us, he is just a guy. Even if he is the guy that has all the answers. This is most noticeable when the questions revolve around sports. All of these contestants, so well-read in the likes of Plato, 1800s European Warfare, and Japanese artistry, cannot tell you what team Mean Joe Greene played for. Instead of letting them off the hook because they are so “intellectually smart” and therefore should not be chastised for their lack of common knowledge, there is Trebek with a perfectly delivered quick-strike barb. While day-in and day-out you will come across people that are either smarter or dumber than you are, in the presence of Alex Trebek, we are all troglodytes.
This should make us hate him, but we cannot. Alex Trebek is the great unifier; nobody will ever know as much as Trebek during the filming of a Jeopardy! episode (except maybe Ken Jennings). However, even though he is by definition placed on a pedestal of knowledge, the host of Jeopardy! disseminates the answers with a beautiful amount of grace tinged with humor. For all the reasons we could hate on the man, he constantly reminds us, he is just like us. When he talks to contestants during the cross-over, he knows it is your least favorite part of the show, so he flips it on its head by revealing, “yes, I too know this contestant is a crazy person (seriously, who has a pet goat… in COLLEGE?!?!).” Or sometimes it is palpable just how much he hates small talk. Do you know who hates small talk? EVERYBODY!
For three-and-a-half decades we have all sat and watched as Alex Trebek guided us through 30 minutes of mental gymnastics. We love him for it. It is an all-encompassing show. You can watch Jeopardy! with your family and those 30 minutes can be a blissful half-hour of bonding. Or can you watch it by yourself when you are feeling down and Trebek’s charisma can make you feel like you have a well-meaning and jovial uncle right there in the room with you. It is all the more impressive because he accomplishes this every night while undergoing a near-impossible task; make viewers enjoy a show that honestly should make them feel dumb. Not only does he succeed, but he makes you love him for it. His uber-intelligent everyman demeanor is oxymoronic at its core, yet he pulls it off.
It is why the manner of his announcement that he has Stage-4 Pancreatic cancer was so unsurprisingly, yet astoundingly, perfect. The man who nightly, for 35 years, has pulled off the impossible, outdid himself at his most vulnerable moment. Instead of supplying us with information that could have ruined countless nights and caused some to cower in fear, Alex Trebek was resolute in the face of a cancer diagnosis and delivered the answer to the question that plagues all of mankind; how do you react when death comes knocking? For Trebek, the answer was clear; with humanity and humor…. because of course he even had the answer to that question.