“Hey Marlow,” offers a familiar voice on the other end of the line, “are you ready to unleash the beast?”
So begins my discussion with Alex Trebek, a man of many mustaches who is perhaps the most iconic—and wondrously silvery, wonderfully stoic—game show host in TV history.
The Canadian-born television personality is in his 34th year hosting Jeopardy, a quiz competition that, amid a deluge of Russian fake news, Alex Jones, and an administration with a loose grip on history (and reality), feels all the more comforting to take in; a beacon of sanity and calm in an age of utter chaos.
And no game show—or game show host, for that matter—can come close to matching the cultural cachet of Jeopardy. Sure, Richard Dawson may have starred as a demented version of himself opposite Schwarzenegger in The Running Man, but Trebek and his program have popped up everywhere from The Golden Girls and Cheers to Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Who can forget Will Ferrell’s Trebek squaring off against Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery on SNL (“the penis mightier!”), Bill Murray acing answer after answer in Groundhog Day, or Rosie Perez’s Gloria Clemente schooling her fellow contestants on foods that begin with the letter ‘q’ in White Men Can’t Jump?
Trebek’s favorite cameo, he says, was in The Bucket List, a movie, about two terminally ill old-timers—Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman—who embark on an epic road trip to do all the things they still hope to in life before they kick the proverbial bucket. “It’s a lovely film that truly brought a tear to my eye,” says Trebek.
Another thing that brought tears to his eyes—of an entirely different type, mind you—was hash brownies.
As the story goes, when Trebek first arrived in California, he attended a swanky party at a friend’s beach house in Malibu and came across some delicious-looking brownies on display. Now Trebek, despite at one time resembling a ’70s porn star, was no hippie and hadn’t dabbled much in recreational marijuana, let alone potent edibles. So needless to say, he had no idea what he was in for.
“It was by accident! I didn’t know what they were,” he tells me. “I had just arrived in California and went to a friend’s house for dinner, and there were brownies. I love brownies—I’m a chocoholic—and I didn’t realize that they were hash brownies. And… whoa. That threw me for a loop. I took down about a half-dozen. The dinner party was on a Friday, and I was not able to leave that house until Sunday afternoon. I spent the next day and a half in bed. It was not a good trip, and I have not done any of that stuff since!”
The 77-year-old TV legend has, however, crossed several other things off his bucket list.
I’m 32, so I literally can’t remember a time without you hosting Jeopardy. But this is your 34th year. What do you feel has changed since the early years in both the show and your approach to it?
[Laughs] Oh, you’re trying to make me feel really old, aren’t you? Very little has changed in my approach to the show. The show has made a few changes. I made one as producer of the program in our second year, which was that contestants could not ring in immediately, they had to wait until I’d read the clue in its entirety. And since then, we’ve added to the amount of money we give away, we’ve introduced a lot of outside elements with regard to our clues—particularly our own “Clue Crew” which travels all around the world to record clues. I just got back from a trip to the Galapagos where we recorded clues. And next year there will be a contest and the winner will get to go with me to Alaska on a cruise. We were, I believe, the first game show to go high-def. We try to stay ahead of the curve as much as we can.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t hosting Jeopardy?
I’d like to be pope. I look good in white. If I hadn’t gotten the job hosting Jeopardy, I would probably have continued in the same business and might have hosted other game shows that would have been canceled many, many years ago, but I got lucky and winded up with this program. Keep in mind that I’ve been in broadcasting for 55 years now, so it’s not like it just came about suddenly. I had invested twenty years in my career before starting out as the host of Jeopardy. I was basically a staff announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which meant I did sports, I did news, I hosted live music programs, did narration for films, classical music programs, a little bit of everything.
You’re Canadian of course, but became a U.S. citizen in 1998. What compelled you to come to America?
I had been with the CBC for 12 years and kind of exhausted all of the opportunities that a staff announcer with the CBC would have, and I thought I’d like to expand my boundaries in terms of work, so I looked south of the border. I felt burned out. I initially tried to apply with either ESPN or ABC Sports, and I was supposed to come down and audition, but I had been thinking of the United States. When my friend Alan Thicke came back and asked me to audition for a new game show called The Wizard of Odds I did, and the rest is history.
Has there ever been a sense of rivalry between you and any of the other game show hosts, like Pat Sajak, Bob Barker or anyone else?
No, not that I can think of. There’s no reason to have that kind of rivalry. They’re hosting their shows, I’m hosting my show. Their ratings are good, my ratings are good. And I’ve never felt any sense of rivalry with any of the game show hosts out there. There was a time, of course, when game shows were extremely popular and there were a ton of them on the air in daytime. But we were all gainfully employed, so good for us!
You had this incident some years back where you tore your Achilles tendon chasing a burglar who’d broken into your hotel room. That sounds completely bananas.
Yeah. That happened in San Francisco about six years ago. I chased a woman who’d stolen my wallet, some jewelry, and my wife’s purse. She snuck into the hotel room very quietly—she didn’t break in, it was very, very quiet. I woke up and I thought I saw my wife going to the bathroom and then I realized, “Wait… my wife is still in bed next to me. This must be somebody else.” So I got up, chased this woman, and blew out my Achilles. We caught her before she left the hotel and she denied everything, but then finally cut a deal with the DA in San Francisco and served four years. I wrote her a letter, she wrote me back and told me what she had done with my bracelet, because it had sentimental value. I wished her well, and that was the end of that. She was released I believe earlier this year.
People tend to view you as this paragon of correctness, but is there a darker side to Alex Trebek that we don’t know about? Have you ever had, say, a crazy weekend in Vegas?
Oh no, nothing like that!
Do you have a favorite Jeopardy champion? Ken Jennings and his historic run was a very big moment for the show.
Yeah it was. But there have been others. There was a teen contestant named Dana Venator, who was a young girl from Georgia who played the bagpipes and my heart went out to her. Eddie Timanus, the blind contestant, I liked him a lot. Austin Rogers, who competed recently and who’s coming back next week for our “Tournament of Champions,” I like him a lot. I’m often asked by people in our audience, “Is there any contestant that you disliked?” and you know what’s interesting? I cannot recall any contestant that I disliked. So either I’m a nice guy or we attract nice people.
People really loved when you rapped through a Jeopardy category earlier this year.
Oh, we did it once and it got a lot of press, and… that’s fine. We may do it again, but it’s not high on our list of priorities!
Do you listen to rap music?
Very rarely. I’m on hits of the ‘50s and ‘60s on Sirius XM.
Will Ferrell’s parody of you on Saturday Night Live is a classic. Did you ever end up giving him any tips or pointers?
No, I was only on the show once and it was the last time they did it with him as a regular member of the [SNL] cast. At that time, I was no longer wearing a mustache and yet Lorne Michaels had Will with a mustache. So it was kind of fun meeting him, but no tips or anything like that. But the best take of my work that I can recall was done by Eugene Levy on SCTV with all those morons. At the beginning of my career, I hosted a high school quiz in Canada called Reach for the Top, and it was based on that. You had guys like John Candy, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Dave Mason, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin. They had quite the cast. And Eugene Levy looked a lot like I did. He had the mustache and the dark hair. The first time they called him “Alex Trebell,” and then they realized, well, who the hell are we kidding, everyone knows who we’re making fun of, let’s just say “Alex Trebek.” So they did.
I’ve read that when it comes to politics, you lean conservative. It is pretty surreal that the former host of a reality-television competition show—essentially a game show—is the president of the United States.
Well, I don’t know where you got the idea that I’m conservative. There was a comment in, I can’t remember if it was a tabloid or an internet thing, about how “Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek had said this or supported this,” and I contacted them and said, “That’s not true at all.” It had to do with global warming and they said that we were both global-warming deniers, and I said no, that’s not true at all. I don’t usually talk about politics to reporters but I will say what I’ve been saying to my friends and acquaintances: Hey, we get the leaders we deserve because we elect them. So let’s see if we can’t get this one to do the right thing. And there’s still time.
Your Jeopardy contract is up in 2020. Do you plan to retire after that? I can’t imagine the show without you.
Oh, the show will go on without me. Bob Barker has retired and Drew Carey is doing a good job on Price. Monty Hall, my good friend, died recently and Wayne Brady is doing a good job on Let’s Make a Deal. So, there will come a time when Pat and I [retire]—I’ll probably leave before Pat does, because he’s younger—and somebody else will come along and replace us. No problem.
Are there things you still really want to do with Jeopardy before you hang it up?
We are what we are. We can try to make little tweaks here or there to spice it up, try to make it interesting, and stay ahead of the curve, but what are you going to do with Jeopardy? If you do something radically different, the people might not like it. So if it’s not broken, stay away!