Columnist Jim Cahillane: In ‘Jeopardy’ with Alex Trebek

  • In this Oct. 1, 2018, photo, moderator Alex Trebek speaks during a gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey, Pa. AP photo

Published: 4/15/2019 6:00:18 PM

America was shocked March 5 when Alex Trebek announced his serious cancer diagnosis. The popular quiz show host and “Jeopardy” are celebrating their 35th anniversary. Given that news, I’m inspired to reconsider TV’s test-your-general-knowledge show.

Alex promised to fight the disease and expects to complete his three-year contract. Hundreds of thousands of good wishes arrived; Alex read them all before saying, “I’m a lucky guy.”

This past winter has kept us indoors for far too many evenings. In conversations, I’ve learned that my spouse and I are far from alone in our devotion to “Jeopardy.” The rules state that answers must be in the form of a question.

Category: Stupid answers: The resident of Grant’s tomb? Answer: Who is General U.S. Grant?

Yet, as one D.J. Trump confides, “not everyone knows this.” Who, or what, is Grant? are acceptable answers and protect a contestant from overstating their case. A brief, accurate response works best.

The nitty-gritty of the show is its categories. Finding your category and reeling off a half-dozen correct answers is like a home run at Fenway. Baseball or any such category can flummox a person that doesn’t follow sports. Age, too, can be a determinant of success. We know stuff in many cases because we were there.

On the other hand, popular music of a recent vintage is a total mystery. How people actually know the names of one-hit long forgotten groups, except the Beatles, is beyond me.

Humor on “Jeopardy” is a rare commodity. Everyone’s tastes being different, it’s safer to stick to the facts. The British comedian Benny Hill used to do a spoof of the tough BBC quiz show, “Mastermind.”

Benny’s version was “Master-Brain.” He once asked his stooge to define the word Pathologist: “A man who can find his way through a wood” came the reply. It must have been funny because I remember it years later.

“Who is Shakespeare?” was the correct answer to the all-time most quoted person. The sinking of a boat full of colonists 650 miles off Jamestown, Virginia, was the inspiration for what play? Answer, “What is The Tempest?”

“What is krill?” answered a question about the food source for whales and other large fish. One category was called Peaceful Guns. Types were: “What is Radar?” also, “What is a Tee-shirt gun?”

We’ve bravely entered a few trivia contests on vacation. It’s one thing to watch “Jeopardy” at home where embarrassment is confined to our nearest and dearest. It’s quite another to be representing all of America on a Cunard Liner and fumble the ball — loads of times.

Alex often consoles his show’s losers by blaming their inability to push the button quickly. In my case, it’s my brain’s inability to verbalize what I know. It’s there, then gone. It was on the tip of my tongue!

Sorry, no points at home and no dollars on “Jeopardy.”

I once poetically described the relationship between moderator Alex Trebeck and his Jeopardy players as that of “minimal friends.” A few years ago my friend, UMass professor Joe Bartolomeo, was a “Jeopardy” contestant. Impressively, Joe won two times.

Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan declared that in the new age of television we will likely all enjoy our “fifteen minutes of fame.” In Latin: Sic Gloria transit Mundi predicts fame or fortune garnered during our short lives won’t last. Yet, as my poem said of Joe, two wins are two wins!

To me, Canadian contestants receive a little extra warmth from Alex; he’s a dual U.S. citizen. Contestants are kept at a distance before each game, relaxing only after the show is taped.

Ken Jennings, author of “Jeopardy’s” longest-winning streak, wrote an appreciation of Alex Trebeck in the New York Times. He compared Alex’s image to that of the late TV newsman, Walter Cronkite, known as the most trusted man in America. Another big “Jeopardy” winner, Austin Rogers, writes lovingly that healing Alex should be a community effort. “We owe him that much for standing up for truth on his show every night.”

Ken Jennings spoke of the difficult job done by Alex Trebek and how effortless he makes it seem. “Hosting such dense, fast-moving game is an insanely hard job. He has 61 clues to get to, and not a lot of time.”

In concert with Ken Jennings, I don’t want this bit of memory to be an elegy for Alex Trebek, but a thank you for a job well done and prayer that he will win out over a challenging disease.

What is: “See you tomorrow!”

Writer Jim Cahillane vigorously competes in the secrecy of home, while holding his copy of “The American Songbook.” He lives in Williamsburg.

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