While many game-show hosts have had the same look throughout the years, Jeopardy!‘s Alex Trebek joked that he’s a chameleon.
“I have changed my appearance quite often, and sometimes for no reason whatsoever,” he said, sporting a new Stanley Cup playoff mustache from the stage of PromaxBDA’s Station Summit as television station marketing and promotion professionals gathered in Las Vegas for the annual conference.
Trebek was joined by Harry Friedman, executive producer of Jeopardy! as they took attendees through the past 35 years of the show, showing videos of Trebek’s childhood and rise to fame, and touching on the strategies that have kept the show at the top of the ratings chart for the past three decades.
On the Evolution of Jeopardy!
They unearthed some promos from the Jeopardy! archives—where they should have stayed, said Friedman—that demonstrated how the marketing of the game show has evolved over the years, always with an eye on pop culture.
From celebrity contestants, to content partnerships with local news talent and brands such as broadway musical Hamilton; from the ‘clue crew’ that travels around the world to deliver answers from remote locations, to the show’s transition to social media platforms such a Facebook and Instagram, and integrations with voice activated technology such as Amazon’s Alexa, Jeopardy! is on board with pretty much anything that engages its audience.
“We are eager to participate in any way we can by helping to promote the show, and by extension, your stations,” Trebek told the room full of broadcasters.
Trebek described Jeopardy! as “feel-good television—the best kind of reality TV”—and gave a nod to the many networks currently bringing back the game-show format.
“One of the reasons we have been so successful is the synergy that exists between people like Harry, the production and the promotion, which you guys provide,” he told attendees.
On the Contestants
“In my 57 years of hosting television programs, I have always been introduced as the host, never as the star of the show,” Trebek said. “Because the stars of the show are the contestants and the material.”
He says he’s never had a contestant that was too hard to handle.
“They’re really regular folks, born in wedlock,” he joked. “They don’t try to upset the cart in any way. They’re polite.”
His favorite tournaments have been the ones featuring teenage contestants.
“Because I look upon them as the future of America,” he said. Their participation in the show “not only appeals to the higher levels of intelligence, but the higher levels of gracious living and people being kind to each other.”
His favorite response to a Final Jeopardy question came from a teen who wrote, “I don’t know the answer, but I just want $75,000.”
Trebek said it’s great when they have a “contestant we can ride,” such as goofy New York City bartender Austin Rogers’ 12-game winning streak in 2017, and someone like Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutive games in 2004 and went on to face off against IBM’s Watson supercomputer.
“We look at these guys as gems,” Trebek said. “People often ask me, do any of them tick you off? No. If they’re out there, if they’re slightly weird, we love it because it gives us something to promote; it gives our viewers someone to love, someone to hate.”
When a contestant gets a question wrong, Trebek is also conscious of not making them feel bad, often responding with something like “you were probably thinking of this” or “you misspoke.”
“You are on television for the first time, you are bright, and then all of sudden you’re not doing as well as you hoped,” he said. “I don’t want you to go away feeling like my life is ruined because I didn’t do well on Jeopardy!”
On Prepping for the Show
Jeopardy! tapes five shows a day, two days in a row, for 46 weeks of original programming.
“I work 46 days a year. Yeah. I’m overpaid,” Trebek joked.
Friedman said on the days they’re shooting, he’ll get in a 6 a.m. and the only one there before him is Trebek—who drives himself over in his Dodge Ram pickup—and reads over all the games, perfects his pronunciation and highlights anything that might seem off.
“For someone, after 35 years, to care this much about his performance and a brand and a show we love, is amazing,” Friedman said.
For a long time,Trebek would also take the four different Jeopardy! contestant tests a year, and get upset if he scored below 50 percent. But after a few decades, “I said to myself, ‘you got the job. What the hell are you worried about?’”
Now, at 77, “my memory doesn’t retain as much as it used to,” Trebek said. “I still make mistakes, but fortunately they clear them up in editing, and I look really smart on air.”
Trebek is also empathetic to potential contestants who come in to take the test and don’t qualify to be on the show. His advice is that people know they came in to take the test, people know they’re smart. Go back home and just tell them, “Alex said I missed the cut by one.”
The pressure to pass is particularly tough for kids.
“They take it really hard, and there are a lot of tears being shed when they’re 7, 8, 9, 10-years-old,” he said. “They’ve always been the one, and now they’re not the one, and that hurts.”
On Frequently Asked Questions
Trebek also took a moment to answer some of the questions he’s most often asked.
On his health following surgery in December 2017 for subdural hematoma ― blood clots in his brain:
“The good news is they operated, and they found a brain.”
On Will Ferrell’s Jeopardy! skits on Saturday Night Live:
“I used to love them. But they don’t do them anymore because Will Ferrell is no longer a member of the cast.”
If he were not the host of Jeopardy!, what other job might he have liked to have had?
“Pope. I would loved to have been pope. I look really good in white. A long white gown … let’s not go there.”
What does he do when he’s not taping?