Culture, Entertainment, Memoir, Obituary, Top Stories

Farewell, Alex Trebek

On Friday, November 6th, between 1 and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time, I participated in an audition for the TV game-show Jeopardy!. Normally auditions are conducted in person at various regional locations around the US. As a Northern Californian, I should have been attending a live audition in San Francisco. But COVID and the quarantine have played havoc with everything this year, and the King of American Game-Shows is no exception. And so, along with eight other hopefuls, I was auditioned via a Zoom call from Southern California by John Barra, the show’s contestant producer. He informed us that, since the onset of the pandemic, roughly 237,000 people had applied online to be Jeopardy! contestants. The show selects about 400 contestants each year.

This was in fact the second Zoom conference call in which I had participated with the producers of Jeopardy!. On September 2nd, I participated in a sort of pre-audition meet-and-greet with seven other potential contestants and a different producer, whose name I’ve forgotten. By the end of the November 6th audition, the nine of us were all informed that we had been selected to compete on the show. We would be given a 30-day advance notice of the day of our Jeopardy! appearance and it would be up to us to organise our own travel arrangements to Los Angeles. Barra couldn’t tell us exactly when we might receive our 30-day notice—it could arrive in a few weeks or a few months. It might even take a year or longer if COVID continued to wreak havoc with American lives. But we could all relax. We had passed the audition and at some point we’d be on Jeopardy! formulating the questions to answers provided by Alex Trebek, the show’s legendary host for the past 37 years.

The other eight contestants had pretty impressive resumés. Three of them were attorneys. One was a medical student. One young woman was a chemistry researcher who participated from the laboratory where she works (Barra noted that he has several friends who are medical researchers and few of them have had much time off since the advent of the pandemic; this contestant was no exception). One woman occupied an important position in the government of the state of New York. Another woman was in charge of video production for an important website. None of these people seemed like celebrity-besotted pop-culture junkies. But whenever Barra mentioned that we’d soon be meeting Alex Trebek on the set of Jeopardy!, these highly educated professionals began to glow with excitement. Alex Trebek was more than just a game show host. Alex Trebek was an American institution. We were all eager to say, “I appeared on Jeopardy! with Alex Trebek.” Alas, two days later, on November 8th, Alex Trebek succumbed to the pancreatic cancer he had been fighting for a year. He was 80.

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I love Jeopardy!, and have been watching it since the 1970s when it was hosted by Art Fleming, a man who exuded competence but lacked the easy charisma that made Alex Trebek a staple on American television for roughly four decades. Nevertheless, I probably don’t qualify as a superfan. My mother, a housewife, was a daytime TV fan, and I remember watching plenty of game-shows with her back in the 1970s. Her favorite was Name That Tune, a game-show for which she actually attended a live audition in San Francisco. But she also loved Jeopardy!. I have watched hundreds of episodes over the years, but I’m not one of those diehards who never misses an episode. And I probably never would have found myself auditioning for the show if not for the persistence of two friends who truly are superfans. Jack and Celine, a married couple, were both born in Taiwan back in the 1970s and immigrated to America with their families when they were six (Jack) and 16 (Celine). I met Celine in 2005 when we were both enrolled in evening classes in the French language at the local branch of the Alliance Française. First we became study partners, then we became friends, and soon we began going to movies and restaurants and street fairs together in the company of our spouses. The four of us became fast friends and eventually formed two-thirds of a six-person pub trivia team called “The League of Mediocre Gentlemen” that competed every Tuesday evening at the Fox & Goose pub in Sacramento.

The League of Mediocre Gentlemen at the Fox & Goose, L–R: My wife Julie, Jack, Celine, me.

For years, Jack and Celine would come to the pub and just sit at a separate table and watch and listen while my wife, Julie, and I competed on a team with two other members. We always asked them to join us, but they demurred. They didn’t feel that they would be able to contribute enough to the effort. We won the quiz about a quarter of the time. Because our team was strong and I was one of its best contributors, Jack and Celine decided I was some sort of polymath. In fact, I am simply an aging boomer who has watched a ton of television, viewed thousands of Hollywood films, and (especially) gorged on American popular fiction for the last 50 years or so. This left a lot of useless information in my head, so the Fox & Goose trivia quiz, which leans heavily into American popular culture of the baby boomer and Gen X eras, played to my strengths. I know the first name of Lieutenant Columbo, even though it was never mentioned on the show (Frank). I know which Victorian novel was the inspiration for the 1943 Val Lewton-produced horror film I Walked With a Zombie (Jane Eyre). And I know which bestselling author of the 1970s co-wrote the script for the Beatles’ 1968 film Yellow Submarine (Erich Segal), just as I know what Academy Award-winning actor co-wrote the script for the Monkees’ film Head, released the same year (Jack Nicholson).

I know these things, not because I am smart, but because I am an elderly pop-culture junkie. If I happen to know that the name of Australia’s largest airline is an acronym of Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, it isn’t because I am a world traveler who has visited Australia often (I’m not and haven’t), it’s because I learned it from Australian journalist Maxwell Grant’s 1981 popular novel Inherit the Sun (long out of print and remembered by almost no one). If I know the year the English ship Mayflower arrived in America, it is not because I am a student of American history but because I read William Martin’s 1991 historical thriller Cape Cod. So I tried to convince Jack and Celine that they shouldn’t be afraid to join the team. A vast knowledge of useless trivia isn’t anything to be terribly proud of, and ignorance of such trivia isn’t anything to be ashamed of. For 10 years, however, they resisted my offers and simply came to the pub to watch and listen and learn.

But about five years ago, Jack and Celine finally decided to join our team. What changed their minds? Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek. For 10 years, they watched the show almost every weekday evening. Alex made them feel comfortable with trivia. He never criticized a contestant for getting an answer wrong. He was an encouraging and soothing presence on the air, and he made the show seem welcoming and enjoyable, not grueling contests like The Apprentice intended to humiliate the losers. So they became valuable contributors to many of our victories. Often, when they knew an answer they said it was because they had heard it on Jeopardy!. And after watching me come up with the name of some totally obscure 1970s pop music duo (like Brewer & Shipley or Zager & Evans) or the name of the spaceship that carried the Robinson family to another planet in Lost in Space (Jupiter 2), they would beg me to try out for Jeopardy!. I am a very introverted person who has trouble speaking up even at family gatherings. I had no desire to appear on television in front of millions of strangers.

But Jack and Celine refused to relent. A couple of years ago they emailed me a link to the Jeopardy! homepage. They told me the website would soon be accepting applications from wannabe contestants for a week or two, something that happens just a couple of times a year. As the open-application date approached, Jack and Celine kept reminding me to sign up. And so I did. And I scheduled a date for an online test that consisted of about 50 questions and lasted about 15 minutes. I was not openly competing with other people. The questions appeared onscreen and I had eight seconds to type in an answer. When it was over, I was not informed of my score nor that I would be selected to appear on the show. I was told that if I didn’t hear anything back from Jeopardy! within six months, I should feel free to apply again. When I didn’t hear back, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had been spared possible humiliation on national television.

Alas, Jack and Celine wouldn’t let me give up, and in January of this year, they sent me another link to another Jeopardy! contestant search. Having failed to secure an audition the first time around, I was no longer nervous and took the test just to make Jack and Celine happy. But this time I was successful. I received an email informing me that at some future date I would be invited to audition in San Francisco. I was terrified, but Jack and Celine were delighted. Then fate intervened. Shortly after I aced my online test, the pandemic struck and almost every aspect of American life was mothballed, including my audition. For the time being, it appeared that I had dodged the Jeopardy! bullet.

But in June or July of this year, I was invited to participate in an online meeting with other potential contestants on September 2nd, at three in the afternoon, via Zoom. I had never Zoomed (or even FaceTimed) before. I know nothing about computers other than how to send an email and surf the net. I told Jack I would probably blow off the September 2nd event but he wouldn’t hear of it. He told me that he would come to my house on the day of the event and set up his laptop computer on my dining room table and help me establish the Zoom connection. With great trepidation, I agreed.

Weeks passed. As September 2nd drew closer, I became increasingly anxious about my audition. Finally the big day arrived. At eight o’clock, I received a phone call from my sister Cynthia who, like the rest of my siblings, knew nothing about my involvement with Jeopardy! and would have been stunned to learn that her shy brother was even considering appearing on a nationally televised game-show. She told me that our 87-year-old mother had died earlier that morning. This was not a great shock. My mother had been living in a memory-care facility in Portland, Oregon, for years. Just a few weeks earlier, she had taken a turn for the worse and been put into palliative care. I thanked Cynthia for calling and told her that COVID would probably prevent me from traveling to Portland for the funeral.

After hanging up, I realized that I now had a perfectly good excuse to bow out of the Zoom audition scheduled for later that day. But as I was about to text Jack and tell him not to bother bringing his laptop over, I began to have second thoughts. My mother was the person who influenced my life the most. She was a pop fiction junkie like me. She was a TV junkie like me. And she had participated in a TV game-show audition in San Francisco, something that would also have happened to me had it not been for the quarantine. Maybe I owed it to her to go through with my audition. My mother was a devout Catholic. I was raised a Catholic, but long ago lost my faith in the supernatural. Nonetheless, the timing of my mother’s death seemed oddly poignant. I decided not to cancel the audition. Jack showed up at two o’clock and set up his laptop on my dining room table. He used a link provided by Jeopardy! to help me access the Zoom call. He feared he might make me nervous if he stayed for my audition, so he left and promised to return at five o’clock to retrieve the computer. I made no mention of my mother.

I had no idea how the Zoom audition would proceed. I worried that it would be a simulation of an actual Jeopardy! game in which I would be competing face to face against my fellow Zoomers. This didn’t turn out to be the case. The first part of the call was just a meet-and-greet during which we all introduced ourselves and gave a bit of preliminary background info about our lives. The actual test was just like the previous online tests I had taken, although it lasted longer and consisted of more questions (actually answers—in the Jeopardy! format, contestants are provided with answers for which they have to infer the correct question). But, thankfully, during the test, the contestants were prevented from seeing or hearing one another. So I felt like I was alone in the dining room playing trivia online. Except I wasn’t alone. Not only was an unseen Jeopardy! representative watching me, I also felt the presence of my mother—many of the questions were about pop-cultural subjects of which she’d had a vast knowledge, including one about The Sound of Music, a favorite movie of nearly every Catholic woman of her generation.

Perhaps it was my mother’s influence or perhaps it was just that I was relieved not to have to compete face-to-face with other people at this point, but I thought I did extremely well. I made only one obvious error, and it was a painful one. The category was something like 80s Pop Music. The clue was: Its opening words are “Just a small town girl/livin’ in a lonely world.” No-one my age who listens to pop music on the radio has heard that song fewer than a thousand times. I knew it was by Journey and I knew the next line was “She took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.” I could hum it. I could sing it. Hell, just a few months earlier I had watched a documentary about Journey the title of which was the same as this damn song! But, for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with “Don’t Stop Believin’” within the allotted eight seconds. Just like my mother, I had failed at Name That Tune! Fortunately, that was about my only error. A few weeks later, I was informed that I would be advanced to a final audition to be held on November 6th. Again, I was terrified. But Jack was elated.

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Jack and Celine aren’t the only immigrants to America who learned a great deal about their adopted country and its people from Alex Trebek and Jeopardy!. On one of the last episodes of the program to air before Trebek’s death, a winning contestant named Burt Thakur tearfully thanked Trebek at the end of the show. As a child of immigrants, Thakur said, he learned to speak English sitting on his grandfather’s lap watching Jeopardy!. As a child, James Holzhauer, a legendary Jeopardy! performer who won nearly three million dollars on the show, promised his Japanese grandmother, who spoke no English, that he would appear on the show when he grew up, and that he would do it when she was still alive to watch him.

Trebek, a Canadian national, was himself a naturalized American. And something about his warm and gentle manner made his program a welcoming place for newcomers trying to learn something about their adopted country. One of the people I auditioned with on November 6th, the researcher who Zoomed from her laboratory, was a woman of color named Shankari. She told the rest of us that she was excited to appear on Jeopardy! because her mother, an immigrant to America, had appeared on the show in the year 2000 and proved to be a one-episode winner.

Jeopardy! will no doubt continue without Trebek, but it will never be quite the same. To generations of Americans like Jack and Celine, Trebek was Jeopardy!. In fact, I feel odd typing Trebek because everyone I know just referred to him as Alex, as if he were a family member. During the auditions, contestants always referred to him as Alex: “Will we get to meet Alex beforehand? Does Alex sign autographs? Is Alex doing okay?” Nobody used his last name. And nobody asked, “What’s Alex really like?” because everyone already felt as if they knew him, and knew what he was really like. Even the contract I signed with Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., the company that produces Jeopardy!, tended to elide the name Trebek. Below the line on which I was asked to enter my full name the form asked: WHAT NAME WOULD YOU LIKE ALEX TO USE ON THE SHOW? I typed in Kevin, and experienced a thrill when I thought about Alex actually chatting with me on a first-name basis.

When iconic film star Sean Connery died, eight days before Trebek’s death, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat jokingly tweeted:

This was a reference to a well-known Saturday Night Live skit in which Will Ferrell played Alex Trebek in a Jeopardy! spoof that featured contestants Kathie Lee Gifford (played by Kristen Wiig), Tom Hanks (playing a cartoonish version of himself), and Sean Connery (played by SNL regular Darrell Hammond). The three celebrities behave in ways that would try the patience of a saint, but Ferrell as Trebek, though clearly annoyed, remains unflappable as only Alex Trebek could. Wiig’s Kathie Lee is clearly drunk. Tom Hanks nearly kills himself by being a klutz and an idiot, and Sean Connery seems interested only in making crude sexual comments about Trebek’s mother. During the Final Jeopardy segment of the spoof, Connery, instead of writing down the amount of his wager, instead draws a cartoon of Alex Trebek’s grave (upon which Connery has done something unspeakable). Once, during this long year of COVID quarantines, I texted a link to the celebrity Jeopardy! spoof to Jack. But he never responded to it. For him, and a lot of other American immigrants, Alex Trebek wasn’t something you joked about. He was a friend and a mentor. You don’t make jokes about him, and certainly not about his death (the SNL skit was filmed long before Trebek was diagnosed with cancer).

On the morning of Sunday, November 8th, I awoke to a text from Jack. It read simply, “Alex is gone.” I hadn’t seen the news yet but I knew right away what this meant. Later I told Jack that Jeopardy! was the most prestigious game-show on television and would certainly find a top-notch replacement. But I don’t think he much cared. Eventually I may end up competing on Jeopardy!. I hope it pleases Jack and Celine. But, for them and thousands of other immigrants who learned about America from the show, part of the magic will be gone.

 

Kevin Mims is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, CA. His work has appeared in numerous venues including the New York Times, National Public Radio’s Morning EditionSalon, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinMims16.