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I’ve always wondered whether Alex Trebek would be any good at Jeopardy! Trebek projects erudite unflappability as he doles out “answers” on matters of middlebrow general knowledge. He pronounces Charybdis and osteoarthritis with aplomb. And he occasionally expresses gentle surprise at a whiffed question, suggesting he wouldn’t have erred thusly himself. Then again, he never has the chance. Is Alex Trebek really a suave polymath, or just a game show host who can read?
Trebek’s brisk new memoir, The Answer Is …, provides a refreshingly direct answer. “Against my peers (people in a coma), I’d do fine,” he cheerfully confesses. “But a good thirty-year-old would clean my clock.” As it turns out, Trebek’s genius has never been in his intellect. It’s in his steadiness. If the book slightly tarnishes the image of Trebek that superfans may have constructed in their own minds, it provides something more deeply reassuring to replace it. Alex Trebek may not be an intellectual, but he is—at least in his own telling—a thoroughly wholesome mensch.
Trebek teases in his introduction that some of what he includes “may even shock you,” and he claims that one reason he finally agreed to publish a memoir at age 79 was to “stay ahead of the tabloids.” But it’s hard to imagine the tabloids finding much grist here. Some have dutifully reported on a one-paragraph chapter about Trebek’s experience accidentally having so many “hash brownies” at a party in L.A. that he had to spend the weekend recovering at his hosts’ home. Trebek calls himself a “little bit of a shit stirrer” and some military college peers “a bunch of dicks.” But even this is hardly a display of authentic rebellion: He confesses that he deliberately “decided to add more salt to my language” after he arrived in Los Angeles from Canada. He wanted to fit in as “one of the guys,” but he didn’t drink or do drugs. In recent years, he adds, he’s been cursing less than he used to.
Here’s the Alex Trebek the reader meets in The Answer Is …. This Alex Trebek enjoys soup. He adores his wife and kids. His divorce from his first wife was so amicable that they ended up living across the street from each other. He respects his colleagues. His favorite philosopher is Mark Twain. His motto is “A good education and a kind heart will serve you well throughout your entire life.” A chapter on politics recommends “common sense” over liberalism or conservativism and ends with some emphatic advice for both sides: “Enough!” He loves 1 percent milk.
As a piece of writing, The Answer Is… goes down easy. Trebek does not pretend the book is a narrative masterwork or an excavation of his psyche. “We’re just hitting the highlights,” he writes in the introduction. “It’s an aperçu of Alex Trebek, human being. What is he like? What has he done? How did he screw up? Things like that.” The 82 brief chapters each start with a clear topic sentence: “I have always loved movies.” “People often ask me how I juggle a career and family.” “In addition to my passion for the musk ox, I also have a deep love for horses.” The chapter titles, each of which start with some version of “What is …” likewise assert themselves plainly: “Rheumatism,” “Great Colleagues,” “The Musk Ox.”
But for all its breeziness, the memoir does the work of fleshing out a character with whom millions of Americans have spent their evenings since the 1980s. Trebek was raised in a working-class home in Ontario; his Ukrainian immigrant father worked as a hotel chef. Trebek writes of helping his dad make wedding cakes at the Nickel Range Hotel, a popular hotel in the mining town of Sudbury. It was little Alex’s job to collect empty Kodak Brownie film spools that he frosted to serve as cylindrical supports for the cake’s upper layers. After a peripatetic school career, he ended up as a broadcaster with the CBC, and then moved to L.A. for a gig hosting a game show called The Wizard of Odds. Jeopardy! launched in its current iteration in 1984 and has been on the air ever since.
The book offers some insights into the mechanics of Jeopardy! itself, although nothing that will be new to attentive fans. Trebek shoots five shows a day, two days a week. He tries to keep his banter encouraging, positive, and cautiously topical. (“If it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll open with ‘Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.’ ”) He grumbles about contestants who start at the bottom of the board but acknowledges that it’s an increasingly common strategy. He writes admiringly of champions like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, and resurrects some obscure favorites from the canon. Although he is highly attuned to the tasks of hosting, overall Trebek comes across as more of a fan than a mastermind. When he travels, he looks for interesting facts that could be turned into Jeopardy! clues—but he views it as a treat when one actually makes the board.
Trebek had brushed off previous opportunities to write a memoir, but his diagnosis last year with stage IV pancreatic cancer changed the calculus. He received an outpouring of public support, which nudged him into opening up. But opening up doesn’t mean conjuring angst where it doesn’t exist. “I don’t have a lot of ghosts,” he writes—believably, somehow. “I don’t have any bad memories that affect my life. It’s all good.” Trebek writes frankly about the darkness he’s facing: the side effects from chemotherapy, and the conversations with his family about when to stop treatment. But he also seems uncommonly prepared for the end of the game.