Those of us who have appreciated really hard trivia for the last 37 years are likely still mourning the Nov 8 passing of long-time “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek.
Trebek somehow lived two full years following his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, something of a feat in itself (although I’m no doctor, I have known several people who only lived a few months after receiving their diagnoses, depending upon the stage), but he was still taping his 37th season of “Jeopardy!” episodes up until a few weeks before he passed.
Trebek is a role model for not only every game show host, but also for a certain news magazine editor who auditioned to be on the greatest game show of all time (but didn’t make it) — twice — and who had what I’m hoping is a unique exchange of words with the late “Jeopardy!” host.
But First: A Little Background..
I don’t remember what age I was when I first was flipping through my seven original TV channels (CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS and the New York independent stations — Channels 5, 9 and 11) and saw the late, also great Art Fleming hosting the original “Jeopardy!,” which also featured the dulcet tones of announcer Don Pardo.
All I knew was that, as a youngster, I had finally found a place to unleash my truly “encyclopedic” knowledge of…well, as close to everything as I could get (which wasn’t very close, but still) — almost all of which was gleaned not so much from school, but from reading every individual letter edition and every year’s Year Book (beginning around 1963) from our World Book Encyclopedia set. Imagine me as a little smarter version of Joey on “Friends” who loved that my parents purchased more than just the letter “V” for us.
Most of my close friends were smarter and did better in school than I did, but I knew I was pretty good at writing and great at “Jeopardy!” I also knew that someday, I would get on the show, win some money and impress the producers enough to have them grooming me to replace Fleming — who couldn’t last forever, could he?
And, even though Fleming’s first run with the show ended when producer Merv Griffin’s original “Jeopardy!” was shut down in Jan. 1975, Fleming was brought back for a couple of other revivals of the show, which again ended in 1979. In 1984, Trebek’s first year as the host of the new syndicated version of “Jeopardy!,” I flew out to Los Angeles to audition for the show I knew I could win. “All I have to do is study up on some British royalty and classical music and I’ll dominate,” I kept telling myself.
Well, that trip from NYC to Hollywood didn’t have a Hollywood ending for me. At the 20-question test the producers give you during their regular L.A. “talent searches,” I felt pretty good about myself. All of the questions would have been $800 or $1,000 questions at that time (those were the highest amounts during “Double Jeopardy” back then), and I was happy to get 15 of 20 correct.
I totally had no idea about a European history question that had to do with Prussia or another about a Pope from the Middle Ages, and I only got one wrong I really thought I had correct…in the (gulp) Sports category (my best back then) about a baseball pitcher from the Old Negro Leagues who wasn’t named Satchel Paige (I think I said Don Newcombe). My 15 out of 20 correct missed by one to qualify me to get to play a mock version of the game. I think they selected 18 of about 120 people to do that.
Two or three years later, “Jeopardy” brought its talent search to Manhattan’s renowned Radio City Music Hall, where 400 or so people came to audition and they were going to limit the selection to only 50 or so people to advance to that mock game round.
This time, I got 16 of 20 questions correct but felt that the questions had something of a gender bias. Of the four $800 & $1,000 questions I missed, one was in the “Female Poets” category (of course, it couldn’t be Emily Dickinson), one was “Women in History” (and not Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Amelia Earhardt or Golda Meir) and one was about tapestry making. Oh, and one that I got right was “Female Olympians” (Wilma Rudolph).
I knew, as soon as they said it took 17 correct answers to be called on stage that I hadn’t made it — and I was pissed. I called out to that super smooth, somewhat smug guy announcing those who had advanced “Yo, Alex.” To my surprise, he looked right at me and said, “Yes?”
“Ummm, do you notice anything similar about most of the people (more than 3/4 of which were women 40 & older, an apparently desired demo for the show) on stage? While other people yelled “Sour grapes,” all Trebek said was, “Better luck next time.” I don’t think I said, “I’ll have your job someday,” but I know I thought it.
So, even though I was never a contestant, much less a champ (like current interim host Ken Jennings) — really, who deserves the gig more?
I’m just kidding. I admired Alex Trebek a lot and wish that I could have done what he did, but no one will ever be able to truly replace him.