It’s a bittersweet week for fans of Jeopardy! and its perpetually dapper, suave and beloved host Alex Trebek. The man with the answers for more than 35 years turns 80 on Wednesday and releases his memoir The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life on Tuesday. But it comes amid a public battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer so severe that the host revealed last weekend he would stop treatment if his new round of treatments fail. (Trebek has since clarified that statement.)
Gavin Edwards has been a longtime Rolling Stone contributor who appeared on the show on June 19th, 2000. While he didn’t win, his Final Jeopardy knowledge on who Venetians called “Il Milione,” the man of the million lies (Marco Polo) earned him a second place finish and bucket list checkmark. Twenty years later, Edwards recalls his experience with the show and Trebek.
When I was a kid, I thought that one of the greatest things that any American could do was to be on a game show. It seemed axiomatic: I loved games, and I loved TV, and I loved receiving checks for thousands of dollars (the idea of that, anyway — it had never actually happened to me). Or, alternately, I would have been happy to go home with a vast quantity of Turtle Wax or Rice-a-Roni. (I often wondered: Exactly how much constituted a year’s supply?)
Picking a game show meant entering the realm of its host, so you had to choose wisely. I loved them all, and knew their foibles well. Monty Hall was as happy to sucker you into trading a car for a goat as he was to give you that car in the first place. Gene Rayburn always looked like he had just had a 10 a.m. Brandy Alexander backstage with Charles Nelson Reilly. Dick Clark would consume your soul during a commercial break to keep himself looking eternally young. The top priority of Richard Dawson was pressing the flesh of the young female contestants; Bob Barker had the same vibe, only with their mothers. Wink Martindale was in it for the Botany 500 suits. Pat Sajak wasn’t the master of his own wheel — it was clear that Vanna White was the mistress of fortune. Chuck Woolery hosted so many shows, he had allegiance to none of them.
But Alex Trebek? He rigorously presided over Jeopardy!, the game where three people came to match their intellect on national TV without whammies or spinning wheels or jokers. Alex had all the answers; he just wanted you to ask the right questions.
I auditioned for Jeopardy! in early 1999: On the set of the show, the contestant coordinators gave us a written test of 50 medium-difficult questions. If you got 35 right, they invited you to stick around and audition; otherwise they sent you home with a ballpoint pen and instructions to tell friends that you missed the cut by one question. After you played a quick sample game, the staff told you that if you didn’t hear from them in a year, that meant you didn’t make the cut (and you could audition again).
“I told a story about participating in the world’s largest tomato fight in Spain, the surefire anecdote sputtering and dying under Alex’s bored stare.”
While I waited for that call, I tried to turn myself into the ultimate Jeopardy! warrior — in short, I tried to make myself more like Alex Trebek. I couldn’t hope to match the luxurious power of his mustache or his unflappably dry-cleaned demeanor. As far as I could tell, Alex was raised in Canada on a strict diet of encyclopedias, then vacuum-sealed and shipped down to Culver City, California, where he was released for two days every other week to fulfill his hostly duties. (Jeopardy! filmed five episodes a day: out-of-towners on Mondays, then Angelenos on Tuesdays.) What I could do was turn myself into somebody who spat out facts the way a grizzled pitching coach spat out chaw.
So I bought the World Almanac, memorized the U.S. presidents, and played along with Jeopardy! five days a week, diligently keeping track of my right and wrong answers. After a month, I had learned that my weak spots were poetry, Canadian history, and especially geography. The easiest way to get better at geography was to memorize world capitals, which came up as consistently as a sax solo at a Springsteen concert. I made a thick stack of flashcards comprising the names of 200 countries, including tiny island nations, one of which didn’t even have a capital city (Nauru, which has the de facto capital of “Yaren District,” and a weird, tragic backstory of imperialism). I had a host of mnemonics. A van with an airbrushed picture of a bicep-flexing arm on the side? That mental image means that for the rest of my life, I will remember that the capital of Armenia is Yerevan. Or this catechism to learn the capital of Botswana: “What do robots want? A nice pair of pants, maybe in gabardine.” Voilà, Gaborone.
Most of a year passed, and I despaired of ever entering Trebek’s domain, where I assumed the great man was surrounded by judges, researchers, and robed acolytes. I distracted myself with the brilliant series of “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches on Saturday Night Live, created by Norm McDonald, where Will Ferrell played Trebek as a man struggling to hold onto his sanity while famous people get stumped by answers like “This Number Comes Between Five and Seven” and Sean Connery keeps buzzing in to announce that he screwed Trebek’s mother. On SNL, Alex was helpless in the face of industrial-strength stupidity — but on his own show, the facts would always save him.
In February 2000, I finally got the call from Jeopardy! HQ: I was invited to be on the show a month later. (I had to buy my own plane ticket — the show paid travel expenses only for returning champions.) I planned to drop everything and cram as much knowledge into my skull as I could that month — but then I got a call from Rolling Stone asking if I wanted to do a cover story on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So I took the assignment, hung with the band in their homes and at a Moroccan restaurant with a belly dancer, and told myself I would do great on the show if there was a Californication category.
I was still able to make the taping, though. Contestants were kept away from Alex as much as possible — that was an artifact of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, when shows fed answers to the contestants in advance. To avoid even a hint of impropriety, modern game shows make sure there’s no way for the host to help the contestants. My longest one-on-one interaction with Alex came with the camera rolling, when — guided by a handful of index cards — Alex asked each of the three contestants about a personal experience. I told a story about participating in the world’s largest tomato fight in Spain, the surefire anecdote sputtering and dying under Alex’s bored stare. Just the facts, his eyes said. The conversations with the other two contestants seemed equally awkward. When the episode aired a few months later, I learned something unexpected about Jeopardy!: The producers added a laugh track to the interview segments.
“I had climbed the mountain and met Alex Trebek on top of it, a man who believed in the truth and shared as much of it as he could with the world, one fact at a time.”
Maybe it was the audience, which was mostly senior citizens bused in from a nearby retirement home (and my future wife, who was so nervous hyperventilating during my episode, she almost vomited into her purse). Old people, I discovered, loved Alex Trebek, and he loved them back: During commercial breaks, he answered their questions and turned on the charm. In other circumstances, I might have been fascinated too, but I was having a tough day. The secret of Jeopardy! was that on most days, all three contestants were smart, so who won came down to hand-eye coordination: If you could get into Alex’s rhythm and be the first one on the buzzer the microsecond he finished reading the question, you would win the game.
That wasn’t me — I got smoked by a shaggy paralegal named Gregg. I did have a few moments of glory, including nailing a daily double about reggae artist Burning Spear. (And if you’re curious, the “King of the Franks” in 799 was Charlemagne, not Oscar Mayer.) I came in second place. At the end of the show, Alex made chitchat with us while the credits rolled. His chosen topic of conversation was the Lakers.
My prize package was a trip to France and a watch — not as good as a large check, but better than the Turtle Wax.
I went home happy. I had a brain overflowing with facts, many of which I would discard in coming years as the pertinent brain cells died or moved on to other preoccupations, but a few of which would lead me into a deeper understanding of the world. I had climbed the mountain and met Alex Trebek on top of it, a man who believed in the truth and shared as much of it as he could with the world, one fact at a time.