As the eighth-most-trusted person in America, Alex Trebek is both lucky
For three decades, Trebek has been the host of “Jeopardy!” — the dry, yet oddly addictive, answer-and-question quiz show launched by TV titan Merv Griffin in 1964. Trebek took over from the show’s original host, Art Fleming, in 1984. He was a bushy-haired 44-year-old with a cop’s mustache.
Little did he know he was in the perfect position to change American pop culture forever.
“Jeopardy!’s” [weird, recast] long-standing success — having just entered its 32nd season and still regularly pulling in 9 million pairs of eyeballs a night — is owed to Trebek.
He is the core of the “Jeopardy!” brand, whether it’s his endearing attempts at witty banter with the contestants after the first commercial break or his just-go-for-it (and often flawless) pronunciation of foreign words. He seems like he genuinely knows every answer, and is disappointed when contestants can’t compete with his monster brain.
Even when he eventually steps down as host, which some say could be as early as 2016, he will have been immortalised by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live.” His middle-brow charm and professorial approach to hosting will live on forever as an exasperated straight man to Norm MacDonald’s uncontrollable Burt Reynolds.
Other intellectuals have certainly owned corners of the TV market, including the freshly retired Jon Stewart, the delightfully British John Oliver, and the ever-snarky Bill Maher.
But Trebek was the original family-room brainiac. Not to mention, he has hosted more episodes of anything than anyone ever.
On June 13, 2014, he broke Bob Barker’s record as host of “The Price is Right” when he hosted his 6,829th “Jeopardy!” episode.
Historically speaking, Trebek’s rise to this illustrious position was kind of a happy accident.
While Americans might not be the brainiest country in the world, we are ruthlessly competitive. We pride ourselves on a tireless work ethic — not just for its own sake, but for how much harder we are working than everybody else.
When “Jeopardy!” first hit the airwaves in 1964, America’s greatest ideological opponent was the Soviet Union. We were in the middle of the Cold War. Yuri Gagarin, a Russian, had beaten us to outer space three years earlier.
For the next three decades, the US had something to prove.
In the millions of quiet living rooms around the country, meanwhile, episodic television was on the up and up. Americans watched shows that existed only in 22-minute chunks of airtime. They watched Marcia Brady get hit in the nose with an errant football one Friday and forget about it the next. Television’s amnesia lent it a memory span of just one week.
Around this time, the game-show world was still in its infancy but had already gained a dirty reputation as a genre defined by scandal, due to past shows fixing who won and creating false storylines to drum up ratings. In 1960, Congress declared that rigging quiz shows was officially illegal. For the first decade or so of its life, the well-meaning “Jeopardy!” — a front-row student in a class of hooligans — failed to escape that stigma.
Then came the 80s, and TV saw a tectonic shift.
Series like “Dallas,” “Magnum P.I.,” and the now-disgraced “Cosby Show” took on larger arcs that viewers paid attention to and cared about. The shows mixed in darker themes and had well-rounded characters. Audiences enjoyed watching powerful people flaunt that power and, like true Americans, wield it mightily.
It was a climate prime for the drama of “Jeopardy!,” which had just relaunched with a daily syndication and a new, bushy-haired host named Alex Trebek.
Winning contestants could keep coming back so long as they took home the most prize money. Viewers remembered their faces and could debate with family members whether this week’s underdogs were capable of stealing the champion’s throne.
All this, while the US was up to its ears in anti-Soviet rhetoric.
Alex Trebek’s 1984 takeover of “Jeopardy!” came at a time when American audiences were perfectly primed for strong, narrative TV and simultaneously possessed the competitive drive to outsmart the Soviets. Everything American families wanted — dramatic TV, a sense of intellect, prestige — Trebek held in the palm of his hand.
Thirty-one years later, not much has changed. Trebek doesn’t sport the mustache anymore and his hair may have taken on a silver sheen, but the show proceeds by the same rhythms it always has.
In that way, the legacy Trebek will leave behind is one in which he democratized intellectualism. He led a show that, right when people felt they need a leg up the most, armed American households with a kind of brainpower that gave people the feeling they helped destroy a major enemy, even if they never left the couch.
“Jeopardy!” will probably never move the needle on US test scores, but what it will always do is uplift a deeply held American belief. If something can be formed into a competition, in which there is a clear winner trailed by a pack of losers, it doesn’t matter if it’s a competition between know-it-alls, we will spend 31 years watching it, unblinking.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.