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What makes Alex Trebek the quintessential game-show host

What makes Alex Trebek the quintessential game-show host
Entertainment
Call me a sucker. I loved the blinking lights, the cheesy jingles, the audience participation, the B-list celebrities, and the anticipation in the bonus round — the escapism of it all.

After dinner, I’d make my poor dad sit at the kitchen table so we could play the The Price is Right board game. When we got to the “Showcase Showdown,” I’d reveal the prizes with my best Johnny Olson-announcer impersonation. “It’s a brand new carrrrrr!”

The daytime television landscape in those days was awash with game shows. For the most part, their hosts ranked high on the likability scale and each brought a unique style: Bob Barker oozed charisma and had an uncanny ability to put contestants at ease; Chuck Woolery had the silky, smooth voice; Dick Clark was the unflappable statesman; Richard Dawson was the folksy charmer (though with a bit of an “ick” factor in the way he kissed female contestants); and Bert Convy just seemed like an all-round fun guy.

Though he is a little more buttoned-up and cerebral than most quiz-show hosts, he has the perfect blend of gravitas, a speaking cadence that’s easy to the ear, and a quick wit. While Jeopardy’s format is certainly less free-wheeling than other game shows, Trebek still lets loose every now and then — like the time he conveyed the questions (or answers as it were) in an entire category in rap, or when he walked onto stage without his trousers as a prank.

While he generally provides words of encouragement to players who have faltered, he doesn’t hesitate to gently scold contestants in the manner of a schoolmaster if they’ve really messed up.

During one episode, when the contestants reached the final clue in the category of American football without having answered any of the previous ones, Trebek took a fun poke at them. “Let’s look at the $1,000 clue, just for the fun of it,” he said, throwing his hands up in the air.

“Not that it’s pre-planned — it’s a reaction — but I know that ‘You’ve disappointed daddy’ is a tone I’m striking,” he said in an interview with Vulture last year.

this week that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the tributes — from celebrities, former contestants and fans — immediately poured in on social media. They praised him for his classiness and for his grace.

As Trebek has pointed out repeatedly over the years, he has always strived to never make the show about him.

“That’s why I’ve always insisted that I be introduced as the host and not the star,” he said in the Vulture interview. “And if you want to be a good host, you have to figure a way to get the contestants to — as in the old television commercial about the military — ‘be all you can be.’ Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association, I do well.”

I reached out to Jordan Nussbaum, a lawyer from Thornhill, Ont., who appeared twice on Jeopardy! last year to ask him what it was like to meet Trebek in person.

“He seemed to be very happy that I was Canadian,” Nussbaum recalls. “And the champion who won three games before (Ali Hasan) was also Canadian. There was a bit of banter about that. He commented, ‘What’s with all the Canadians on Jeopardy?’”

For someone who makes a living telling people when they get things wrong, he’s always conducted himself in such a professional and classy manner, Nussbaum says.

“He doesn’t come off as condescending; it’s not malicious. He does want contestants to succeed and do well.”

Trebek, an Order of Canada recipient and honorary president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, has never forgotten his roots. In 2016, he donated $5 million to the University of Ottawa, his alma mater. During his visit to the capital, he appeared before a group of elementary school students, imploring them to find something in life they’re good at and that they enjoy doing — and not to worry about the money.

There’s been a trend in recent years that has seen outsized, comedic personalities take the helm of game shows. Think Howie Mandel, Steve Harvey, and Drew Carey. There’s no question they’re entertaining, but reigning Jeopardy! superchamp Ken Jennings got it right this week when he tweeted that Trebek “is, in a way, the last Cronkite” — that “authoritative, reassuring TV voice you hear every night, almost to the point of ritual.”

And it was with that familiar, reassuring voice that Trebek told viewers this week that, despite his grim prognosis, “I’m going to fight this.”

“And I’m going to keep working,” he continued. “And with the love and support of my family and friends, and with the help of your prayers also, I plan to beat the low survival rates.”

It was remarkable. At his time of need, he was comforting us.

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