Alex Trebek, took over for Art Fleming as the host of Jeopardy! when creator Merv Griffin revived the series in syndication in 1984, and for the past 25 years, Trebek has presided over what’s arguably TV’s most challenging game show—all while demonstrating the kind of quiet, almost smug authority that one would expect from a man with a philosophy degree from The University Of Ottawa. And yet the Trebek we know today is not the Trebek that Americans first met. The Trebek who came south to host the game show The Wizard Of Odds in 1973 was this Trebek:
This Trebek had started his career as a serious broadcast journalist at the CBC, but had been dabbling in game show hosting for a few years before he arrived in the U.S. (with pal Alan Thicke in tow as The Wizard Of Odds’ producer and theme-song-composer). And this Trebek was apparently ready to conform to whatever American TV wanted him to be.
The Wizard Of Odds only lasted a year—and has all but disappeared from TV history, save for some tiny, tiny publicity stills and an episode in UCLA’s archives—but Trebek came back strong the next season with High Rollers, his first show for innovative game show producers Merrill Heatter and Bob Quigley. On High Rollers, Trebek acted the part of the consummate huckster, cracking jokes and goosing contestants to keep the game lively. He’s almost 180 degrees removed from the kind of host he is now.
During his run on High Rollers, Trebek had a cup of coffee as the host of The $128,000 Question, and spent a year hosting the reasonably complex trivia game Double Dare, on which he acted a little classier then he did on High Rollers, while still remaining basically chummy (with an undercurrent of ‘70s swinger smarm).
After High Rollers ended in 1980, Trebek moved on to Battlestars, a blatant Hollywood Squares ripoff that had Trebek mimicking Peter Marshall, albeit with a higher level of exasperation at the show’s camera-hog celebs.
The early ‘80s were something of a shaky time for Trebek, career-wise. While suffering through Battlestars, he was also hosting the syndicated Pitfall back in Canada, and trying unsuccessfully to liven up one of a wave of gimmicky game shows that emerged around that time (weighed down by elaborate sets and complicated game-play).
But at least Pitfall wasn’t as bad as Malcolm, which never got past the pilot stage. Here, Trebek shared hosting duties with a wisecracking cartoon:
Jeopardy! stabilized Trebek’s career path and his reputation, though even after signing on to host Jeopardy!, Trebek took other game show gigs that let him be a little looser, like a revival of Concentration…
…and to To Tell The Truth:
I grew up with Alex Trebek on my TV, but never gave him much thought until I started getting deeper into game shows in my early 30s. My interest was sparked in part by a growing affection for old-school showbiz craft, and in part by the almost knee-buckling nostalgia factor of watching a rerun of The Price Is Right or Card Sharks. When we first started getting Game Show Network on our cable system, I’d gaze at the faces of all-but-forgotten celebrities and hear the music of Match Game, and it was like being transported back to the shag carpet in my grandparents’ sunken living room. I saw my life flashing before my eyes—though none of the big moments. Not the triple I hit in Little League, or my parents’ divorce, or my first kiss… no, just the day-to-day idleness that makes up so much of our lives and then disappears a dim haze.
By all accounts—particularly in Ken Jennings’ fascinating three-part interview with former Jeopardy! clue-writer Carlo Panno—Alex Trebek is very hands-on with his signature show, making sure that Jeopardy maintains its standard of excellence. Because of that—and because he’s been the Jeopardy! guy so long—Trebek’s achieved a kind of cultural permanence as a mild-mannered know-it-all. I’d read some about Trebek’s earlier career, and I remember seeing him on TV a lot pre-Jeopardy!. But stumbling across YouTube clips of Trebek’s pre-Jeopardy! work was jarring. It was a lot like a recent experience I had with a high school friend on Facebook, who posted a picture of me in a sweater that I used to love, but hadn’t thought about in over 20 years. That’s what’s so great about the internet: it's become a common store for our memorabilia, and has given us concrete images to connect with our shaky memories. And that’s what’s so frustrating too, because what the internet can’t provide—like clips from The Wizard Of Odds, for example—has begun to feel remote, unreal, perhaps even impossible.
For example, I have a vague memory of an early episode of Jeopardy! in which Trebek described a psychological condition called “inability to entertain,” and joked that he was afraid he suffered from it in the early ‘80s. But now I can find no record of the condition or Trebek’s joke. I also couldn’t find anything on-line about Trebek’s association with a new breed of game show “hunks” that emerged in the mid-‘70s, though I could swear I read an article about that bunch five or six years ago. Perhaps I just dreamed these things. But I could swear I didn’t.
These aspects of our cultural life—game shows, talk shows, dime novels, comic books, regional commercials, journeyman baseball players, discontinued fast food sandwiches—come and go so quickly, and because we rarely make a big deal about them at the time, they sometimes retain their connection to the era they belong to even more strongly than those rare movies and songs and books that endure. Casablanca is a record of the ‘40s, but regular references to the film—and its continued popularity on TV and home video—means that people can associate Casablanca with different times in their own lives. Ditto the Jeopardy! Alex Trebek, who transcends generations.
But that jumpy, shaggy-haired dude laying down a line of patter on High Rollers? Well, he’s a man wholly of his time.