Alex Trebek was a man in search of a vice.
It was Los Angeles, in the late ’70s. The Canadian quiz show emcee had been tapped to host a new trivia program, the short-lived “Wizard of Odds.” “I had the world by the tail,” he writes in his new memoir, “The Answer Is…” “I was the talented newcomer in broadcasting. I was the bright, fair-haired boy.” He was also saddled with a few striking disadvantages, as he saw it. “I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs,” he writes. “There were no big negatives associated with me.”
He was too chaste to be trusted — “it held me back from becoming one of the guys.” He tried cursing. He tried boasting about his drinking even though he privately preferred one percent milk (sufficiently sinister, to my mind). In the end, he reconciled himself to that unnerving wholesomeness and reserve, which have become so integral to his appeal. The “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings has described Trebek as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a Perry Ellis suit.”
It’s little wonder that Trebek has written a memoir of consummate caginess, one of the wariest I’ve read: a friendly, often funny account marked by a reluctance so deep that it confers a curious integrity upon the celebrity tell-all. For years, he resisted personal questions (“Get a life,” he’d say in interviews) and resisted writing an autobiography. Only after the outpouring of support following his announcement last year that he had pancreatic cancer did he feel he owed something to the public.
[ Read our recent profile of Alex Trebek. ]
But everything in proportion, please. “I’m a second-tier celebrity,” he insists. “The biggest reason the show has endured is the comfort that it brings. Viewers have gotten used to having me there, not so much as a showbiz personality but as an uncle. I’m part of the family more than an outside celebrity who comes into your home to entertain you. They find me comforting and reassuring as opposed to being impressed by me.”
On this point, Trebek is remarkably direct: Even if he can’t quite understand the public fascination with his life, he knows he means something significant to the culture, something soothing and in short supply. He knows he fills a need. For the 36 years hosting “Jeopardy!” — an industry record— he has been a nostalgic father figure of sorts, showing up reliably at dinnertime and remaining tantalizingly aloof. In the autumn of the media patriarchs, he stands practically alone, untinged by scandal. His authority derives from his defense of facts, not their distortion.
He takes pride in his work, and in the achievements of the contestants — when Jennings was finally ousted after winning 74 games in a row, Trebek teared up. But he never takes himself seriously; his memoir is a shameless dad-joke extravaganza, largely at his own expense. He is eager to talk about his hairpiece (“a damn good one”). He shares silly photos of himself in all-denim outfits (“wearing the Canadian tuxedo is my birthright”) and posing in the “Got Milk?” campaigns of the 1990s (“I really do love the stuff”). He recalls the early years of “Jeopardy!” with relish, when the prizes for runners-up included “Lee Nails, ‘delicious low-calorie meat’ from Mr. Turkey and Tinactin Antifungal Cream — use only as directed!”
Alex Trebek loves the troops, he loves his wife, he loves his Dodge Ram. He really loves his bromides. His kids? Champs. His divorce? Amazing; he and his ex are still good friends.
Around the margins, a darker story blooms. Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario, in 1940, to Ukrainian immigrants — warm, loving people, if ill-suited for each other. His father drank. Trebek’s early years were full of poverty, instability and illness, but he presents them with his typical cloudless beneficence: “I don’t have a lot of ghosts. I don’t have any bad memories that affect my life. It’s all good.” When he was 7, he fell into a frozen lake and became afflicted with painful rheumatism. For 12 years he’d wake crying in the night until suddenly the pain disappeared. “Go figure,” he shrugs.
Young Trebek had a rebellious streak. He clashed with the nuns at school and bounced between jobs. He quit military college when he heard that buzz cuts were mandatory. “I had a good head of hair — a sort of pompadour with a ducktail in the back,” he writes. (Photographic evidence is provided.) “I’d be damned if I was going to let them shave it off.”
Trebek might have inspired dread in his teachers and early employers, but he discovered that his real talent was in projecting calm, in allowing others to shine. As a host, it has been his proudest quality — his ability to buoy an anxious contestant through tone alone.
Facts themselves can confer steadiness. A small aside: I took to “Jeopardy!” early, and in high school had a weird, cursory career competing in televised trivia contests. My teammates and I — immigrants all, as it happened — glutted ourselves on dates and data with a hunger I couldn’t have possibly explained at the time but that now seems embarrassingly obvious. Facts could be trusted. Facts consoled. Their patient, dogged acquisition constituted a kind of shy possession of the world.
Of course, any possession in this life is, at best, temporary. “My life has been a quest for knowledge and understanding, and I’m nowhere near having achieved that. And it doesn’t bother me in the least,” Trebek cheerfully concludes. He ends the book at home, like of all us, in quarantine. He is exhausted by cancer treatments, exhausted by uncertainty but still sublimely calm and grateful. As he’s always advised his contestants to do, he’s already looking ahead to the next question.