He was a Canadian-born game-show host whose second run stewardship of a TV classic made him an icon and whose death from pancreatic cancer left a hole in the nation’s cultural landscape.
Who is Alex Trebek? He’s the man who reminded us to phrase our answer in the form of a question.
Alex Trebek died Sunday at the age of 80. For 35 years he hosted Jeopardy!, a game show originally shepherded by Art Fleming from 1964 until 1975, and then canceled after a scheduling change doomed the popular program to low ratings.
But once Trebek began helming the new incarnation, he made the game show his own, and the program helped make raw intelligence and intricate knowledge, nerdiness and geekiness even, seem cool. Today top "Jeopardy!" champions like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer are as famous as many professional athletes.
That the current version began in 1984 was either a tremendous stroke of luck or fate because brainy games and puzzles like Dungeons and Dragons and the Rubiks Cube were beginning to find favor, and kids began teaching themselves to program home computers like the Apple 2E, released a year earlier. The nerd chic that wouldn’t be fully recognized until decades later, with shows like "The Big Bang Theory," was incubating, while families were watching "Jeopardy!" together.
At a time when nearly everybody carries in their hands a supercomputer that can access the answer to nearly any factual question, it would be easy to conclude that having all the knowledge in our heads that top trivia whizzes carry is no longer necessary. That’s untrue. Having the information in our heads, and not just our phones, and synthesizing and understanding it, allows us to make wise decisions and keep a sense of perspective. Being knowledgeable is more important now than ever before, and Trebek helped make that cool.
Trebek had reflected on the phenomenon, and supplied a charming explanation for it:
"There’s a certain comfort that comes from knowing a fact," Trebek said. "The sun is up in the sky. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to change that. You can’t say, ‘The sun’s not up there, there’s no sky.’ There is reality, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting reality. It’s when you try to distort reality, to maneuver it into accommodating your particular point of view, your particular bigotry, your particular whatever — that’s when you run into problems."
When Trebek announced he had stage-four pancreatic cancer in March, 2019, the news chilled fans familiar with a dreadful disease. The five-year survival rate is just 9%, not least because the symptoms are often not severe until the disease has progressed. It can be treated with chemotherapy, and Trebek underwent two courses, seeing gains from the first but not the second. He also used his fame to increase awareness of the disease, and appeared at events for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Answer: Alex Trebek’s legacy
Question: What is every child — and adult — who always seeks out knowledge, and believes in facts?
— The editorial board