Alex Trebek has a new memoir coming later this month full of stories about his life and time on Jeopardy! and through it we’re learning just how essential he is to the show. Though not the trivia game show’s first host, over the years he’s become synonymous with Jeopardy! and the rapid-fire show currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hanging over all of that is his battle with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, which has impacted him significantly and also, in a way, created more urgency for him to write the book in the first place. With The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life coming out next week, Friday brought us a profile of Trebek in the New York Times. One intriguing anecdote from the story — which sadly has some heartbreaking moments detailing the pain he’s suffered from chemotherapy and how it’s impacted his day-to-day life — is about his uncanny ability to predict which questions will give contestants trouble.
As the story goes, Trebek usually would get to the studio very early in the day to look over the hundreds of clues for the five episodes the show tapes per day. He’s very careful with pronunciation and the cadence of how the clues are read, and he often makes notes on the clues themselves if they seem too tough.
Pre-pandemic, when “Jeopardy!” and everything else was still getting made, Trebek would wake up at 5:15 a.m. and arrive at the Sony lot at 6:30. At 7:30, he would go over the 305 clues for that day’s shows, making notations, diacritical marks and pronunciation notes. If a clue seemed too hard, he told the writers to drop it.
“I’ll say, ‘Nobody’s going to get this.’ And they usually take my suggestions, because I view myself as every man,” Trebek said.
There’s a very specific way clues are written and structured on the board, including how difficult the question is based on how much money it’s worth. But Trebek’s notes have some serious value here. Whether the show’s writers listen to him, well, that’s up to them. But he’s usually right about his “every man” instincts.
Sometimes the writers keep esoteric clues in anyway. Almost invariably, the contestants are stumped. “We get this horrible dead-fish look from him,” said the show’s co-head writer Billy Wisse. “We know we’re going to hear about it at the next meeting.”
It’s an extremely charming story, though I definitely wouldn’t want to be scolded by Trebek about much of anything, let alone stumping contestants. And it’s another detail about just how instrumental Trebek is in coming up with categories and questions and the impact he has on the show.
As we’ve heard from Jeopardy! GOAT Ken Jennings here at Uproxx, figuring out what people know is hard, and Jeopardy! itself has impacted what people know and consider general trivia canon. It’s another indication of just how much of Jeopardy! is Alex Trebek, and how difficult it will be for the show to move on without him when he decides it’s time to retire.