'Jeopardy!' contestants on how the 'irreplaceable' Alex Trebek helped shape the show

Victoria Ahearn
·5 min read

TORONTO — For multi-time "Jeopardy!" contestant Bob Harris, there was perhaps no better example of late host Alex Trebek's generosity than during a wedding that took place off-hours on the set.

It was 2005 and Harris was officiating the nuptials between Dara Hellman and Dan Melia, his friend who'd beaten him on a 1998 "Jeopardy!" Tournament of Champions.

The Ohio-raised Harris had never officiated a wedding before and his heart was pounding out of his chest as he stood at Trebek's podium, in front of a game board of wedding-related categories like "Love" and "Marriage."

But when he saw Trebek standing in the shadows offstage, serving as the wedding's official witness, the genial host immediately calmed his jitters — just as he did with legions of contestants in nearly four decades on the show.

"I glanced over at him and he gave me this fatherly-like smile — and you know the smile if you've seen the show — and it was this little encouragement: 'Yes, go ahead, host this thing, take my stage for a minute," says Harris, a screenwriter in Sydney, Australia who competed on "Jeopardy!" about 14 times.

"It propped me up and I did the thing, and then I pronounced them husband and wife and they kissed. And Alex was looking over at them with this mix of beautiful joy and a little bit of wry amusement at a wedding on the 'Jeopardy!' set. Everybody could feel the glorious geekiness of this."

Harris says the giving nature of the Canadian-born Trebek, who died Sunday at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, was part of the success and fabric of "Jeopardy!" — and that quality is crucial to the show's future.

"Whoever they find has to be someone as generous, someone as thoroughly professional," he says.

Trebek took the helm of "Jeopardy!" as a host/producer in 1984, after a prolific broadcasting career that started at the CBC.

Harris says he learned from his research for the 2006 book "Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!" that Trebek had a "hands-on approach," designing the two-week tournament format and helping create the clues.

Trebek's tenure also had a key format change from the original version: instead of contestants being able to buzz in at any time, they had to wait until he was done reading the clue. Harris says that change allowed the home audience to play along better.

"A lot of the show's success, really does come down to him," he says.

However, he notes the Sudbury, Ont.-born TV personality insisted on being called the host of the hit syndicated quiz show, not the star.

Trebek let the contestants run the show and was deft at expressing genuine happiness when someone was doing well, Harris adds.

"And then he's also a professional dispenser of bad news. Two out of three players lose and he's got to say at the end of every show, 'Oh, sorry. You're not getting the payment on your mortgage'; 'Oh, sorry, you're not getting into med school' or whatever it was they were hoping the money would pay for. And he has to do that with grace and aplomb and some empathy, but not so much that anybody worries. It's a tightrope, and he did it so flawlessly."

Sally Neumann, a Seattle mental-health counsellor who competed on "Jeopardy!" in June 2016, says Trebek had a unique mix of being classy, humble, graceful, professional and silly at times.

"I think he's irreplaceable," she says. "I think a future host would really have to walk a line between continuing the mood of the show. There's really nothing better in existence that's better-quality trivia with better-quality delivery and format.

"So they would have to really know the game, they'd have to know the sport, they'd have to respect it as much as he did. But I think they would have to bring a little bit of their own element to it."

Sony Pictures Entertainment says "Jeopardy!" episodes hosted by Trebek will air through Dec. 25. The show is not announcing plans for a new host at this time.

Harris says Trebek always expressed a preference that the person who takes over "Jeopardy!" be a woman of colour or "somebody a little more diverse."

"Whoever it is needs to be humble because that's going to be Alex's mark that they stand on when they're introduced for at least the first couple years of the show, and everybody's going to feel that," he says.

Through various television eras of primetime soaps and reality TV, "Jeopardy!" has provided educational entertainment to families and given contestants from all walks of life a chance to flex their general knowledge to the world, Harris says.

"America gets to see themselves excelling at something purely academic," he adds. "There's so much pop culture that denigrates intelligence, or if you do portray it, you have to also add in that these people are dysfunctional.... That's a common trope in American culture. 'Jeopardy' does not do that.

"These people on the show are you and me. They're people who live next door. And they're cool, and they're smart. And God love them for it. That's a good thing. This is who you can be, America. That's so important. 'Jeopardy' is a hugely important part of the culture. And if it ever stopped, I think the country will be so much the worse for it."

Trebek himself wasn't worried about such a thing happening.

"There are other hosts out there who can do equally as good a job as me," he wrote in his 2020 memoir, "The Answer Is...Reflections on My Life."

"I think 'Jeopardy!' can go on forever."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press