Film and TV

Alex Trebek for $400: What Does Ex-Contestant Think Jeopardy! Host Is Really Like?

I get two questions when someone hears I've been on Jeopardy!

"How much did you win?"

"What's Alex Trebek like?"

I scored $40,399 and didn't win, a feat that netted me the dubious title of second-highest-scoring loser in Jeopardy! history (I've since been bumped down to third), a spot on a Reddit thread devoted to the top bad breaks on the show, years of bitter regret, and $2,000 for second place.

The second question is simpler, and also more complicated.

I thought a lot about Alex Trebek on Wednesday, after he announced that he has been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, as my phone buzzed with text messages asking if I'd heard the news.

Trebek can come off as detached. Aloof. Unsympathetic to upset contestants, even the kids. He's the king of the vaguely condescending, "Ooh, sorry...," the master of dad jokes so deadpan they barely register. To me, it's all part of his charm.

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"Please take this picture so I can go back to the green room and cry."
Courtesy of Jennifer Goldberg

I think I was always destined for the show. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, my parents, unwilling to give me an allowance for simply existing, sat me down in front of Jeopardy! and made me a deal: 10 cents for every right answer. I was 7 years old and already a devoted almanac reader, and in short order I began racking up the dimes.

Nineteen-eighties Trebek was the era of Silly Mustache Trebek, but despite the dated facial hair, he was still someone I came to respect and admire: the man with all the answers.

My parents eventually was cut me off from Jeopardy! for profit when my nightly earnings rose too high, so years later, after moving to Phoenix, I took the natural next step: I turned pro.

Road auditions came to Fort McDowell Casino in early 2007, and two tests and an interview later, I was in the contestant pool. Eleven months after that, I got the call.

When I arrived in Los Angeles in February 2008 to tape the show, I was nervous and excited — not just to play the game, but to meet Trebek.

Oh, you won't meet him before it's your turn to play, the program coordinator told the group of that day's contestants. He doesn't come out until it's time to tape.

"And do not say 'Suck it, Trebek' to him."

(True story.)

I barely remember taping my episode, this moment I'd been heading toward for 20 years. I chatted with Trebek about a humorous anecdote from my adolescence, I didn't get a single question wrong, and then I lost. I held back tears as they took a souvenir photo of him and me, and then I left.

So getting back to the question: "What's Alex Trebek like?"

He is exactly how he is on TV. And also probably nothing like he is on TV.

He's got a wife and two kids, other family, and friends. I have no idea who he is with the people in his personal life.

Spending less than an hour with him in a work setting doesn't really provide any additional insight into his character beyond what the audience gets. The Trebek you see on your TV is the same one I experienced: intelligent, well-spoken, a little stand-offish, dignified except for the occasional cheesy joke, and above all, professional.

Which is fine — perfect, actually. I love that he doesn't put on an act for the cameras, doesn't fit the stereotype of the clowning, smarmy game-show host.

The prognosis for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is dismal: The five-year survival rate is 3 percent, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. I cried as I watched the announcement video: Alex Trebek, a significant figure in my life for 30 years, shared the worst possible news with candor and strength and the slightest bit of humor. He vowed to fight, and I believe he will. I hope he wins.

Here's to the man with all the answers.

Jennifer Goldberg is the editorial operations manager for Phoenix New Times.