On This Day: Sept. 10, 1984
It was Sept. 10, 1984 — a month after Mary Lou Retton had scored two perfect 10s at the summer Olympics and four days before Madonna would writhe on stage wearing a wedding dress as she crooned “Like a Virgin” at MTV’s first Video Music Awards — when a TV icon was born.
Well, maybe the word is arrived, because Canada native Alex Trebek had actually come into the world in 1940. He’d already logged decades as a radio and TV host at home and then in the U.S., having welcomed contestants on American TV game shows such as High Rollers and the cleverly named The Wizard of Odds since the 1970s.
It was the start of an entirely new era of the Merv Griffin-created show, which had been hosted by Art Fleming in daytime and in an earlier syndicated version between 1969 and 1974.
Trebek’s ‘sense of gravitas’
Trebek opened his first episode much the same as he would do for the next 36 years, with few words and a precise, professional delivery. While the set looked different — more like a 1980s music video than a brainy quiz show — and the game would eventually be tweaked, its host was already a natural, bringing an air of sophistication with him.
Craig Loftin, an American studies lecturer and U.S. pop culture history expert at California State University, Fullerton, says that made him stand out.
“Game show hosts often have a used-car-salesman persona. They’re very ‘up,’ talk very fast, generate a lot of hype and excitement,” Loftin tells Yahoo Entertainment. “They usually have huge smiles plastered on their faces. They act like they’re selling something. This is true with Trebek if you watch some of the other game shows he did early in his career, like Classic Concentration in the 1980s. But on Jeopardy!, he adopted a very erudite, almost scholarly demeanor. He dressed conservatively, carefully moderated his voice and enthusiasm, and made you feel smarter watching the show. He acted more like a professor than other game show hosts. He conveyed a sense of gravitas in a TV genre famous for its lack of gravitas.”
And there was a reason for that.
During a 2007 interview with the Television Academy, Trebek was asked about his hosting style, to which he answered that he wasn’t sure he had one. He had always sought to allow the contestants and the game to be the stars of the show.
“And I should not get in the way of that. And on Jeopardy!, it’d be very difficult to get in the way of that, because if you tried to feature yourself in a moment or two — a moment that would take up 30 seconds, you’re taking away two or three clues that the contestants would have time to deal with, and that might change the outcome of the game, so you don’t want to do that. That doesn’t prevent you however from coming up with funny little tidbits from time to time, or having fun. You want to keep it light, because it is a fairly serious show. It’s a quiz show, not a game show, and people take those intellectual-type pursuits more seriously.”
So, too, did Trebek.
“He rehearsed reading the questions for every show and was always prepared for difficult pronunciations or tricky foreign words,” Loftin says. “He read them evenly, clearly and smoothly without fail, which is more difficult than people realize. His timing was perfect. He was so consistent. Like Bob Barker, he had a serious work ethic that made his hosting duties seem effortless. But there was a lot of work that went into it.”
His efforts did not go unnoticed.
Under Trebek’s tenure, the show attracted a loyal viewership of millions and racked up dozens of Emmy awards, including a lifetime achievement honor for him. The show boasts even today that it’s won more of the trophies than any other game show in history. In 2011, Jeopardy! won a prestigious Peabody Award for its role in “encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge.” Trebek himself was recognized with the Order of Canada and a Guinness World Record for hosting the most episodes of a game show; according to Jeopardy!, it was more than 8,000 in all.
“He was on for so many years that he helped forge generational ties between adults and younger people watching together,” Loftin says. “Jeopardy was — and is — a time for families to spend time together, and Trebek took that duty seriously and created a generation of memories for millions of people.”
Trebek had intended to stay in the background. He ended up becoming an institution anyway.
“I think he loosened up a bit over the years, and as he got older, he put more of his personality into the show,” Loftin says. “His reactions became as entertaining as the show itself.”
Fans were devastated in March 2019 when Trebek revealed that he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Still, he continued to appear on the show.
Trebek’s hosting era lasted until Oct. 29, 2020, just 10 days before his death at 80.
Even in one of his final shows, Trebek refused to make it about himself.
“I’d like you to open up your hands and open up your heart to those who are still suffering because of COVID-19. People who are suffering through no fault of their own,” he told viewers. “We’re trying to build a gentler, kinder society, and if we all pitch in just a little bit, we’re gonna get there.”
It was only fitting that, in September 2021, Jeopardy! renamed the venue where it taped, Stage 10 at Sony Pictures Studios, the Alex Trebek Stage — a move that had been decades in the making.