In Conversation: Alex Trebek

Ryan Pfluger for Vulture,David Marchese

Alex Trebek, dressed in a chambray shirt and blue jeans, walks into the plushly carpeted, book-lined study of his rambling Los Angeles home and plops down in an easy chair, draping a leg over an armrest. “People ask me,” he says, “Who would you like to replace you?” He shrugs. “The decision will be out of my hands.” After 35 years as the host of Jeopardy! it’s hard to imagine that the 78-year-old Trebek, who caused fans’ hearts to skip a beat earlier this year when he suggested he might retire in 2020, won’t have a say in who eventually takes his place behind the lectern. It’s even harder to imagine Jeopardy! without him — for us anyway. “It’s a good show,” says Trebek. “It should, and will, go on after I’m done.”

There are people watching  Jeopardy! who assume that you already know all the facts being presented — even though the show actually doesn’t provide evidence for that. Does knowing what qualities viewers project onto you give you any insight into the public’s relationship with television?
Whoa. Okay, let’s start there. I’ve learned that people draw conclusions that satisfy their prejudices, and those conclusions don’t always coincide with reality. People think because I’m the host of a fairly serious, intelligence-based quiz show that I must know all the answers. I do — because they’re written on a sheet of paper in front of me. And audiences are always surprised when they discover that I like to fix things around the house, that I’m not a nerdy person who spends all his time researching information that might come in handy on Jeopardy!. But I don’t mind surprising people in that way.

At least it’s a relatively benign surprise.
Yeah. You know, when the #MeToo movement started, I had discussions with the staff during production meetings. I said, “My gosh, this has got to be a scary time for men.” I’m fortunate that I’ve never been in a position of power where I might be able to lord it over somebody sexually. I said, “But there are guys out there — young guys are stupid in their teens.” There’s nothing stupider than a teenage boy. They’re operating on testosterone.

I don’t think youth is always an acceptable excuse. And young men are not the only ones who are a problem.
That’s true. This is making me think of a great scene in a movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore — I can’t remember the title.

Disclosure.
Disclosure?

What is Disclosure?
Disclosure! Michael Douglas’s character is explaining to his wife about the situation between himself and Demi Moore’s character, who had been his lover a long time ago. He says, “This was not about sex. This was about power. She was my boss. She had the power.” That’s a very important scene.

This conversation has taken a turn.
You took a turn.

You were single in Hollywood in the ’80s. Do you remember the gender dynamics as being markedly different back then?
I was not a player. I dated not that often. I was a shy, small-town Canadian kid. A friend of mine, Alan Hamel, who is married to Suzanne Somers, had come to California before I did, and I always thought, He fits right into this society. I never felt like I belonged.

When did you start to fit in?
When I had someone older guiding me. There was a man named Richard Gully, who had been a publicist for Jack Warner. We met, and because he threw a lot of dinner parties at the Bistro, an “in” restaurant in Beverly Hills at the time, he often needed single guys to fill out the table. So Richard would invite me, and his being there to introduce me to people made me comfortable. And Burt Sugarman, who produced the very first show that I hosted here, The Wizard of Odds, introduced me to the backgammon-playing community. I met people that way; I didn’t have to go out on my own. And once I’d achieved a certain degree of popularity, I would play in celebrity golf tournaments and meet stars. Frank Sinatra told me he was a fan of the show. Jimmy Stewart, too. I thought, Oh my gosh. These major stars watch me on occasion. I felt good about that.

What about fitting into the role of Jeopardy! host? Is there an art to that?
Yes. You have to set your ego aside. The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself. That’s why I’ve always insisted that I be introduced as the host and not the star. And if you want to be a good host, you have to figure a way to get the contestants to — as in the old television commercial about the military — “be all you can be.” Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association I do well.

When you say you want the contestants to be all they can be, does that ever extend to trying to influence them to bet big on Daily Doubles? It sometimes seems as if you do. And you can also seem disappointed when contestants wager conservatively.
I have been disappointed when contestants made conservative wagers because they don’t realize the obvious. And that is, if a clue is in the second box from the top, it’s going to be easier than a clue at the bottom of the category. So if you’ve landed on what should be an easier Daily Double clue, why not take a chance? But I try not to influence contestants’ wagers. I do joke about it. You’ll hear me say things like, “You made it a true Daily Double in the first round when you only had a $1,000. Now that you’ve got $13,000, I’m sure you’ll want to make it another true Daily Double.” But I’m not seriously suggesting they make that wager.

What about your tone when contestants whiff on what you clearly think are easy clues? There was a game earlier this year when none of the contestants knew anything about football, and you conveyed this beautifully subtle, slightly pedantic air of disappointment.
Oh, that got a lot of play. I had fun with it. The last clue in the category had to do with the Minnesota Vikings. I looked at the players and said, “If you guys ring in and get this one, I will die.” The gaps in people’s knowledge never cease to amaze me. And on occasion, all three players have the same gap. But football? America’s game?

In those moments, how intentional is the “You’ve disappointed father” tone you take with contestants? Are you consciously playing a role there?
Yes, it’s conscious. Not that it’s preplanned — it’s a reaction — but I know that “You’ve disappointed daddy” is a tone I’m striking. It’s also, “How can you not get this? This is not rocket science.”

To what extent do you think Jeopardy! has a natural order? Every now and then you’ll get contestants, like Arthur Chu or Buzzy Cohen or Austin Rogers, who try in various ways to upend the show’s paradigm.
They’re trying to disrupt.

Does that bother you?
With regard to the players you mentioned, they all have great, outgoing personalities, and I loved that. What bothers me is when contestants jump all over the board even after the Daily Doubles have been dealt with. Why are they doing that? They’re doing themselves a disservice. When the show’s writers construct categories they do it so that there’s a flow in terms of difficulty, and if you jump to the bottom of the category you may get a clue that would be easier to understand if you’d begun at the top of the category and saw how the clues worked. I like there to be order on the show, but as the impartial host I accept disorder.

There’s thinking out there that bouncing around the board is strategically advantageous.
That strategy started with Chuck Forrest.

The famous Forrest Bounce.
That’s right. He jumped all over the board in an obvious attempt to throw off his opponents. It worked. They never adjusted. But, you may remember, Chuck didn’t win the championship that year. So go figure.

There was another contestant named Roger Craig who prepared for the game by statistically analyzing the clues.
And set the single-game record: $77,000.

Is approaching Jeopardy! from an algorithmic or statistical standpoint like Roger did contra to the spirit of the show? It was almost as if he’d hacked the game.
The late owner of the Oakland Raiders, who was it?

Al Davis.
Al Davis had a saying that applies: “Just win, baby.”

Is there a formula for success on Jeopardy!?
Yeah, know the material.

What’s the part of your job that feels the most like a grind?
Nothing really.

Lucky man.
Yes, lucky me. I have to work, but it’s work I enjoy and that still has challenges. I have at least two new players on each program and all new material that I’ve got to read properly. As I’ve gotten older I realize, as professional athletes do, that the difficult thing is not losing your physical skills. It’s losing your ability to concentrate. I remember the old all-star guard for the Green Bay Packers —

Jerry Kramer?
Yes, David, Jerry Kramer. He said something like, “The adrenaline will flow and you’ll physically gear up for the play, but the hard part is thinking, with split-second timing, Wait a minute, who do I block here?” It’s the same with Jeopardy!. We have a clue every 10, 12 seconds. I can’t dwell on the one I screwed up; I have to dwell on the next one. Interestingly, the lady who handles the keyboard backstage in the computer room — she presses the button that reveals the clue that the contestant has selected — she never used to make a mistake. She’s been on the show for over 30 years, and in recent years age has made an impression. A contestant will say, “I’ll take Geography for $600,” and you’re ready to go to the $800 clue next. But if the contestant instead skips ahead to the $1,000 — it’s hard to maintain concentration when you’ve done something so repetitive for so many years.

What about dealing with off-camera crap? I’m thinking of a flare-up I read about a few years back when the mother of a contestant on Jeopardy! Kids complained that you’d been rude to her daughter after she lost. And the producers asked you to reshoot or apologize, and you told them that you were frustrated because you’d always defended the show against its attackers and now you expected the show to defend you. I didn’t realize that Jeopardy! gets attacked. For what?
I’ve been criticized for treating women more harshly than men. I’ve also been criticized for treating women better than men. In fact, I remember looking in a stack of letters once and finding two: One said, “Boy, you fawn over women [contestants] and try to help them out.” And the other was, “Boy, you’re mean to women.”

What accounts for that discrepancy?
A viewer’s reaction is dependent on their biases in everyday life. If they think that women are put upon unfairly, they’re going to watch the program and if they see anything that they believe satisfies their bias, it becomes their reality: “I always suspected you were nasty and now you’ve confirmed it!” But one reason why a host can succeed for a long time is by not offending. You saw it with Johnny Carson. He was bright enough to cover almost any potentially offensive moment with his wit. That’s one of the things, unfortunately, that we lack in politics today. There isn’t enough humor.

There’s a lot of humor. President Trump makes jokes all the time, and his critics make jokes about him all the time. Isn’t the issue more that the tenor of the jokes has gotten nastier?
I wouldn’t say that he [President Trump] makes jokes. He picks on people. I think back to George W. Bush, who had a good sense of self-deprecating humor. Now, some would say, “He should have been self-deprecating because he was worthy of self-deprecation.” But I wouldn’t agree with that necessarily. Obama also had a good sense of humor, with a pretty sharp edge. Reagan had a good sense of humor, and not a mean-spirited one. But pity the fool who comes up with a funny line now. We are so polarized that he or she is only going to be savaged for it.

Have you met President Trump? Or Prime Minister Trudeau?
I have not met Donald Trump. I’ve met Trudeau. I spent almost an hour with him in Ottawa. I’m keenly aware of little nuances, and I noticed at one point, after about 45 minutes, that Justin did something like this [scratches under his shirt], and about ten seconds later, there was a knock on the door and one of his assistants came in and said, “Mr. Prime Minister, you have a meeting.”

I don’t follow.
He has a buzzer under his shirt that he can use to signal his assistants when it’s time to come and get him. But Trudeau did say to me, “Count me in if you ever do a celebrity tournament featuring world political leaders.” I said, “I can’t think of anybody who would want to take you on.”

How would President Trump do on Jeopardy!?
He might not agree that any of the correct responses are correct.

How about Jeopardy! in the wider context of the culture? This is a show that explicitly rewards knowledge. Does the country hold knowledge and learning in the same esteem that it did when you started on the show in 1984?
I mentioned something about this on the air not too long ago. Basically, what I said was that you never have to apologize for acquiring knowledge, even if it’s not going to be of immediate benefit. Having knowledge makes you better able to understand the world in which we live. The more I know, the less surprised I’m going to be. There are precedents, and most people won’t understand them. They might say, “What a mean son of a bitch that person is” — without realizing the person is mean because they were attacked beforehand.

Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?
How many times do we hear about killers? Something like 90 percent of murderers were abused as children. You don’t become a nasty human from birth. Something occurs early in your life to change you. But my point is that you want to be open to new knowledge.

What do you make of skepticism about something like climate change?
Ninety-seven percent of the scientists and climatologists of the world agree on this, and yet there are people, like our president, who say, “There are scientists who don’t agree.” When you have a preconceived notion about something, any information that reinforces your position is the one you’re going to go with.

Your fellow game-show host Pat Sajak has needled people on Twitter about climate change.
I’ve heard that. There was a report that came out once about Pat and me being ultraconservatives. I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Pat’s a Republican. I’m an independent.” I’m not ultraconservative. I’m not ultraliberal either. I told Sean Hannity once: “I’m a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. I want to help people, but I’m not necessarily eager to pay for it.” He [Hannity] got really pissed at me for that. It was as if I had said something that goes against everything he believes. There are people with entrenched points of view. We keep talking about compromise, but people don’t want to compromise.

Certainly an ideologue like Sean Hannity doesn’t.
You got the feeling that Bill O’Reilly was not as far right as Sean is.

Did you?
Oh, yeah.

Really?
Bill was more likely to not trash you for a middle-of-the-road point of view. Sean will trash you for that. Strict doctrinarians will say, “No, it’s got to be my way.” In my estimation, the people you should trust the most are the ones who have doubts because they’re more likely to have entertained different points of view before arriving at conclusions.

Do you watch a lot of Fox News?
I used to. Now, for news I’ll probably watch CNN or ABC. Politics now are like the days of the O.J. Simpson trial — it’s all we do every day. I was talking to a friend of mine recently about the Khashoggi investigation. I said, “Trump is letting it slide a bit.” And my friend’s response was, “Well, who ever investigated Benghazi?” He went from Khashoggi to Benghazi. I was going to say to him that there were extensive investigations on Benghazi, but he kept taking it back to Hillary Clinton. I’ve joked about this kind of thing with my wife. I said, “I don’t think Sean Hannity can do a program without mentioning Hillary Clinton. I don’t think it’s possible.”

Do you have any sort of relationship with Pat Sajak? I think of you and him as the two iconic game-show hosts that are still going.
Look, we’re friends, but we don’t socialize. We’ve never discussed politics. I know where he stands. I don’t think he knows where I stand.

Is there a difference between the kind of person who loves Wheel of Fortune and the kind who loves Jeopardy!?
Yes, there’s a lot more excitement with Wheel of Fortune because luck plays a much greater role — there’s the spin of the wheel. On Jeopardy! it’s all what you know. People relate more positively to the element of luck. They’re a little intimidated by Jeopardy!.

How strong do you think the correlation is between intelligence and trivia knowledge?
That depends how you define “trivia knowledge.”

The ability to retain and recall facts.
Well, bright people are able to do that better than most. So, yes, I think there’s a strong correlation.

Pat Sajak and you are part of the tiny number of human beings who know what it’s like to spend a lifetime hosting a game show. Do you ever have a desire to talk shop with other hosts?
No. We game-show hosts are in the same business, but we all handle our jobs differently. The danger for viewers when they look at game-show hosts is to regard them in a narrow way. Peter Marshall is a singer, a television performer, and he hosts programs. Wink Martindale expanded his career beyond hosting game shows. I interviewed all of these guys in a documentary called Game Changers that I’m not sure if you saw. And there are guys like — I’ve lost who I was thinking of.

Chuck Woolery?
No.

Drew Carey?
No.

Bob Barker?
No.

Monty Hall?
No. I’m thinking of the one who brought the Beatles to the United States.

I don’t remember him hosting a game show, but Ed Sullivan?
No. Come on. It’s gone. But these hosts have interests outside of their jobs, and to consider them just as game-show hosts prevents you from appreciating the breadth of their talent.

Are there things about you or your career that deserve more appreciation?
Nothing I need anyone to know about. As I said earlier, I like to fix things around the house. A week ago I took a gas leaf blower up to our place at Lake Nacimiento to blow leaves and pine needles off the driveway, and it didn’t work. I was ticked. So I brought the blower back here and took it apart: Oh, there’s a tube that became detached. I put it back together and it worked, but only for a few minutes: There’s something fundamentally wrong. Then yesterday afternoon I got it working properly. That’s what gives me pleasure: fixing things.

Can you tell me something interesting about Johnny Gilbert?
Johnny Gilbert is 117 years old.

Here I thought he was a sprightly 94.
Johnny and I have been together for 35 years. We get along. We don’t socialize. Our relationship has lasted longer than either one of our marriages.

What’s the strangest thing a fan has ever said to you?
A guy came up to me and said, “Where does the American flag fly 24 hours a day, every day of the year?”

The moon.
Yes. I got it right, too. The guy saw he hadn’t stumped me and walked away.

How much does your job give your life meaning? I get the sense you’re looking elsewhere.
The meaning I get from my job is that it has provided me with opportunities to explore the world geographically, socially, and philanthropically. Doing that has allowed me to develop as a human. Now, Reader’s Digest did put out a list of the most trusted people in America, and I dropped in somewhere in the top ten.

You were No. 8. Between Bill and Melinda Gates.
Yes, he was ahead of me and she was behind me. To be trusted in that way by the general populace, to me that’s important.

But doesn’t something like that just confirm that viewers’ opinions are almost totally arbitrary? No one who watches Jeopardy! really knows anything about you.
But it becomes about having a concordance between the way you are and the way you appear to the public. I feel at peace with that. I live a quiet life. I was never part of the Hollywood social scene. I don’t do drugs.

Was drinking ever an issue? You joke about it a fair bit.
I joke about that with audiences at the studio because it always gets a laugh. People say, “How do you prepare for the show?” “I drink.” Laugh. On another day it’ll be, “When you stop hosting the show, what are you going to do?” “I’m gonna drink.” Laugh.

I was wondering if there was anything underneath those jokes.
No. People ask, “What’s your favorite drink?” I say, “Chardonnay and one percent milk. Not together.”

How will you know when it’s time to retire? Will there be clues?
They’ve already appeared. Instead of saying “1492” I’ll say “1942.” But my mind — I love doing crossword puzzles, and recently I’d be looking at a clue, it’d be 23 across, and I’d be trying to fit the answer into 26 across. I was always off. Because of that I went to be tested for early Alzheimer’s. The first time they tested me they said, “It doesn’t look good.” Then we did more testing and they said, “You’re okay. No need to worry.”

I’m glad to hear that.
It’s natural. I’m 78. It’s not like this happened at 50. When it’s clear that it’s time for me to go, I’ll go.

Earlier this year you said there was a slightly better than 50 percent chance that you’d retire after your contract was up. How are you feeling about retirement today?
Hard to say. I got a lot of publicity when I mentioned that to [TMZ’s] Harvey Levin, but, pardon me, I look at the show and think, I’m pretty good. So either our director is saving my ass through judicious editing or I’m not as bad as I sometimes think I am.

So too much was made of that retirement comment?
I don’t understand the publicity around it. The same thing happened when I shaved my mustache off in 2001. It got so much play. Folks, get a life. There are more important things.

Do you have a vision for your last show?
If I do, it’s that I will tell the director, “Time the show so that I have 30 seconds at the end.” Because when Ken Jennings lost after 74 wins in a row, I had a tear in my eye and no time for a good-bye. So all I want on my last show is 30 seconds, and I’ll do what Johnny Carson did: “Hey, folks, thank you. Been a good run and all good things must come to an end.” Then I’ll move on.

Did you like Ken Jennings? In his book he wrote about being unsure.
I would be hard-pressed to name a contestant whom I disliked.

That’s interesting because it’s not the case for viewers. Arthur Chu, for example, took a lot of heat from fans online. Although that may have had something to do with racism.
I don’t think so. But when you’re dealing with race, who knows? More often what viewers think about a contestant has to do with the contestant’s comportment. Sometimes what happens is that our show attracts brighter people and — particularly in regard to children, like with the Jeopardy! Kids incident you referenced earlier — these bright people are not used to failure. They don’t know how to fail, and now, all of a sudden, they’re in a game against people who are just as bright and maybe handle the pressure better. Some people overreact when they don’t do well.

What’s your opinion on the current state of game shows?
In this day and age, when there is so much societal tension, game shows are valuable because they’re pleasant. If you want to compare them to court shows, those are always about conflict — it’s nastiness. And I think in today’s society we feel a need to get away from nastiness.

Ever play HQ Trivia?
I haven’t.

Will you feel proprietary about leaving Jeopardy! to another host?
No. All you need is a competent host to help keep things moving. But we’re in the #MeToo movement now, it’s the year of the woman, so I suspect that the producers might give serious consideration to having a woman host. She’ll obviously be younger; she’ll have to be personable, bright, have a sense of humor. My recommendation is Betty White.

That’s another go-to joke of yours.
Yeah. It gets a laugh. Betty commented recently that she has a crush on me. It got a little bit of play.

I’ve also heard you say, in talking about other ways your career might have gone, that you were hypothetically interested in hosting a talk show. Who would be your dream guest?
People used to ask me, “Who would your dream Jeopardy! contestant be?” I used to say Kevin Spacey. He’s bright, and there would be so many funny moments because of all his great impressions. But now you can’t say that. So to answer your question: the pope. I was raised Catholic.

What would you ask him?
Why aren’t you making more changes in the Catholic Church?

What changes are you thinking of?
Women priests. Allowing priests to marry. Why not? What’s that [clerical celibacy] about anyway? I remember seeing a Belgian cardinal, Cardinal Suenens, interviewed and he talked about how doctrine is one thing, but if you examine your conscience, and your conscience says, I must do this, you must follow your conscience. And I said, “That’s the kind of guy who should be pope.”

What are you reading these days?
The Russia Hoax by Gregg Jarrett. I’m only up to page 49, but he’s so biased in his approach. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty; Amy Siskind’s The List. I just finished The Apprentice, Greg Miller. I started Michael McFaul’s book, From Cold War to Hot Peace. I read a little of everything. Talking to My Daughter About the Economy. That was a fun one. The Brontës — all about that marvelous family.

This is a random Jeopardy! question —
This is the random question?

What’s the point of making contestants phrase responses in the form of a question? How does that make the game any better than if they answered normally?
I don’t know that it makes it better. The impetus for doing that was a reaction to the game-show scandals of the 1950s. Merv [Griffin] was trying to come up with an idea for a game show, and his wife said, “Why don’t we give the contestants the answers?” He said, “That’s how people got in trouble with the Feds!” She said, “No. The answer is 5,280; the question is how many feet in a mile?” Ding! That difference makes Jeopardy! unique. The host — me — used to be unique by having a mustache. I no longer have it, although I like to play around with my facial hair. At the beginning of this season I had the full beard, and that came down to a Van Dyke, and then a mustache, and now I’m clean-shaven.

You change your facial hair because you know people will pick up on it?
Yeah, just to have fun. I often joke that Jeopardy! is a serious program hosted by someone who does not take himself seriously. I hope I haven’t come off in this conversation as sounding too pretentious.

I don’t think you have. What will you do on the day after your last Jeopardy! taping?
Well, it’ll take me a while to get home after taping because I leave the studio at rush hour. Then I’ll come into the house and, probably, have a glass of wine with my wife. Then we’ll look at each other and say, “What next? What now?”

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

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