It’s amazing to realize the joy that can arise simply from the removal of crushing despair. Nonetheless, this year continues to inexorably grind out reminders of its awfulness, most recently with the announcement of the death of Alex Trebek.
The removal of a constant living-room presence, a mustachioed evening diplomat succinctly and politely dashing the aspirations of the insufferably knowledgeable, ought to be one of the lightest microplastic straws 2020 lays on our already hunched, humped backs. But 2020 is a year of afterthoughts, of churning nuances that can lead to gardening centers instead of luxury hotels. To humiliation or exaltation.
Mild humiliation was my lot before Trebek, duelling with a returning champion only to lose by a dollar, and that only because, the champion told Trebek, he had been home the prior Saturday night and had gotten the Final Jeopardy! answer from a TV show. I hated Benedict Cumberbatch more than ever.
It was fine; my appearance had usurped the dreams of a family member who had wanted to be on the show since she was a kid; I had treated my appearance as a lark as, with so much of my life, so much of the life of the upper middle class, I had lucked into it through some mix of charm, wit and useless information. I had been surprised to discover how many people I knew had been on the show, another sign of the sheltered bubble I inhabited for most of my life.
Trebek himself was far nicer than they had suggested to me: polite, kindly, avuncular, eager to talk to the audience about hockey during the commercial breaks… so hella Canadian. In person he radiated the same quiet dignity we saw broadcast on our TV sets, the same diffident Canadianness with which he gently told erring contestants, “I’m soarry.”
That dignity made it easy to mock him in SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! skits opposite Sean Connery. Connery’s own recent death had just dashed my hopes that they would one day appear on a real Celebrity Jeopardy! episode.
I’ve been surprised by the outpouring of emotion at the news of Trebek’s death, following a long and hard-fought battle against pancreatic cancer. Trebek had already beaten the odds by living a year past his initial diagnosis, and renewed his contract until 2022, hoping to host until the side effects of treatment would make it too difficult to continue.
One didn’t have to be a genius to appear on Jeopardy!, only an insufferable know-it-all. Nor did one have to be a genius to host the show. Trebek was one of a generation of showmen who had made the journey from early careers hosting music shows for teens (a shot of him hosting something called Music Hop in 1963 is unbelievable) to quiz shows like To Tell the Truth, before he finally helmed the Jeopardy! relaunch in 1984. Along the way he generously funded scholarships and lectures, donated land to a conservation group, and just last week received the heartfelt thanks of a contestant who told Trebek he had learned English watching Jeopardy! sitting on his grandfather’s knee.
I do not think it a coincidence that America today is remembering a somewhat distant, neutrally likable figure who stood for decency and maturity, and in age gave off the image of a sort of efficient wisdom. That is also what America has also just elected, in the hope of regularity and in that regularity a sort of comfort. So I welcome the basic memes that no doubt will follow of Trebek standing with RBG and Chadwick Boseman giving the Trebekanda Forever salute, or being greeted at the Pearly Gates by Connery purring a friendly “Sho Trebek… we meet again…” That is how we now remember public figures of whom we are fond. Alex Trebek, 1940-2020.