I was on the subway last Wednesday when I realized something had happened.
As the train flitted between stations, my phone rang, loud in the headphones. Unknown Number. I ignored it, and shortly after, emerged from the 49th Street Station into Times Square. As my phone regained service, it buzzed rapidly twice.
“Hey Austin. It’s Harvey Levin. I’m in Mexico. Are you available for a call in the next hour or so,” the first message said, followed by “Austin. It’s Harvey. Please call ― it’s urgent.” My phone again rang ― Unknown Number ― and this time, I answered.
“Hi Austin. It’s Harvey Levin from TMZ…”
This is how I found out that “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
The next couple of hours were a whirlwind as I FaceTimed with TMZ, had an unrelated media appearance, attended a meeting with entertainment industry people about a potential project, then hosted a typical trivia night at the bar where I work. All the while, at each encounter, an overwhelming concern for Alex dominated all my exchanges with whomever I met.
Likewise, every TV, every Times Square news ticker, and every TaxiTV I passed seemed to be broadcasting his name and diagnosis in boldface type. The sheer volume of texts, phone calls, tweets, and DMs I received in the ensuing hours testified to the esteem in which Alex is held by so many people around the world.
I can’t say I was surprised. With all of his famous cameos, the innumerous and mostly good-natured parodies of him that abound, and the fact that the very name “Alex Trebek” itself so frequently signifies knowledge and gravitas, the beloved game show host is firmly affixed in the firmament of popular culture. But it wasn’t always like this.
I grew up watching “Jeopardy!” ― Alex debuted as the game’s host when I was 5 years old, and the show quickly became mandatory viewing for my family. But as I ventured into young adulthood and headed off to college during the no man’s land between the network-dominated appointment viewing television of the ’90s and the full video-on-demand of the newly dawning Netflix era, my interactions with “Jeopardy!” were scarce. A young career and active social life made a 7:00 p.m. rendezvous with the couch nigh impossible. Thus, I missed the Ken Jennings juggernaut, the Watson battle, and the Decades tournament.
During that interim period, Alex’s popularity evolved from the host of the smartest game show on television to the host of America’s Favorite Game Show™ to his becoming an absolute fixture of American (and, arguably, global) entertainment.
That’s why, during my regular-season appearances on the show in 2017, when I was several wins into my 12-streak run and Alex said to me, “You’ve been on a couple of times now ― what do you want to talk about?” I was completely unprepared for the backlash associated with my reply: “I don’t know, dude. What do you want to talk about?”
The audience alternately gasped and chuckled awkwardly, as if I’d said, “Couldya please pass the jelly?” when I was, in fact, dealing with Polaner All Fruit.
Months later, when the episode finally made it to air, Twitter erupted with, “You can’t just call Mr. Trebek ‘DUDE!’” and more vitriolic variations thereof. That was the exact moment I learned the cultural cachet the man holds. Thousands of people freaked out about my blase attitude toward a cultural juggernaut ― their cultural juggernaut. What I regarded as an innocent, funny quip was personal to millions because Alex is personal to millions. He is beloved, and his fans wanted me to know it.
That experience immediately recalibrated my attitude toward him. In my subsequent returns to the program, I dialed it back a bit. Not in deference to Alex himself ― believe me, he can take it as well as he can give it ― but instead out of respect to the mystique that has cemented itself around him. Alex did not necessarily cultivate this persona on purpose, but his audience expects it ― and demands that it be respected ― and I respect that and them.
This is due to the fact that for 35 years, we have welcomed Alex into our homes. Each night at 7:00 p.m. on WABC7 here in New York or 3:30 p.m. on WIAT CBS Birmingham or 4:30 p.m. on KARE11 in the Twin Cities, so many of us have come to know the duality of the man who is simultaneously patrician yet always cracking dad jokes. A man who is a stern taskmaster but also the cool teacher who helped you form a bogus after-school club just so you could hang with your friends. He’s the older brother who will subtly dare you to do something foolish, then not-so-subtly ― but lovingly ― rip on you when it fails.
When Alex sees blank stares on contestants’ faces after a particularly tricky clue, he goads them on. “No one?” If a foolhardy contestant takes the bait only to come up with an incorrect response, Alex retorts, “Oh, sorry. Shouldn’t have gone for that!” even though, ever the trickster, he’d just lured them into it!
So many of us have come to know the duality of the man who is simultaneously patrician yet always cracking dad jokes. A man who is a stern taskmaster but also the cool teacher who helped you form a bogus after-school club just so you could hang with your friends.
Last year when I was in LA with some free time, I attended a “Jeopardy!” taping and saw this dichotomy in action. As an audience member watching a sharply suited Alex referee episode after episode and encouraging contestants while maintaining his trademark judicial neutrality, I was in awe of how smoothly he controlled the game. While you’re in the game as a contestant, you don’t notice how seamless and effortless he makes it look. You’re too preoccupied with yourself to notice the well-honed routine of a true impresario.
Later, in the Sony Pictures parking garage, I heard “Hey! Austin!” and turned to see the other side of Alex ― the “off the clock” side clad in a baggy jacket and decidedly dad-like jeans in what looked to be an acid wash finish. “What do you think of this All-Star tournament we’re going to do?” he asked. I toed the party line, saying I was excited and because it’s something brand new, it should be cool. “Yeah? Well, I have no idea how it’s going to work. Who knows if it even will work!?” He chuckled and kept on heading toward his car.
Two sides, organically coexisting ― one running “Jeopardy!” with a firm and comforting hand from inside the soundstage and the other gently ribbing it from the adjoining parking structure. This is one of the main reasons I love and respect this man so much.
Alex’s brilliant duality was also on display in the instantly viral video in which he announced his pancreatic cancer diagnosis last week. The clip is sober, thoughtful, hopeful ― but not without wit.
“I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease,” he promises while directly addressing his fans. “Truth told, I have to! Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! For three more years!”
There is Alex Trebek, revealing a diagnosis that could decimate a lesser person, drawing on the strength of his character and his conviction in beating this disease to crack a much-appreciated joke. Our hearts were breaking, and I suspect Alex knew this, but he cared too much about us in his own time of need to let us grieve without offering us the chance to also take a breath and laugh ― if only for a moment.
That, to me, is a true gift and truly exemplifies the man I have come to know and love over the last year and a half ― and that we have all come to know and love over the last 35 years.
Through his entire career, while dealing hundreds of thousands of clues, Alex has always been the arbiter of absolute facts. Alex, and “Jeopardy!” as an institution, peddle in truth, something that is especially valuable in our current social and political climate. Authoritative without being authoritarian, Alex informs us OF things we should know, things we don’t know, and things we want to know more about. And most importantly, Alex is never too proud to admit when he is wrong. As tens of thousands of viewers scream at their televisions that “pencil” and “crayon” are synonyms in French and throw their hands up in exasperation when Alex adjudicates them incorrectly from the screen, they soon sigh in relief when he returns moments later after a commercial break and lets everyone know that a mistake was made ― we, not Alex, were correct ― and wrongs are duly righted.
Few in the current entertainment climate can offer contrition, let alone admit fault outright. But Alex does. In that way ― his way ― Alex comforts us with his dependability and his trustworthiness. He is an Icon, with a capital “I”. As Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings tweeted: “I’ve said this before but Alex Trebek is in a way the last Cronkite: authoritative, reassuring TV voice you hear every night, almost to the point of ritual.” Chicken soup, a warm blanket, Alex Trebek’s voice.
I believe in all of us and the role we can play in Alex’s fight because I believe in the healing properties of community, family, and the psychologically restorative powers of knowing that you’re cared for. Together, we can show Alex how much he has meant to us by standing by him…
Now it is the time for us to offer him the comfort he has selflessly provided us for decades. Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is a terrifying diagnosis. Alex has offered us solace on so many nights; so now, let us return the favor.
As he implored in his video, together, we can beat this ― and I believe him and believe in him. I also believe in all of us and the role we can play in Alex’s fight because I believe in the healing properties of community, family, and the psychologically restorative powers of knowing that you’re cared for. Together, we can show Alex how much he has meant to us by standing by him, tweeting our support or offering our love in whatever other ways feel right to us.
At the Jeopardy! All-Stars Tournament wrap party last year, Alex came over and had a glass of wine with my parents and my companion Maria, and we welcomed him into our family circle as millions of others have done virtually for decades. My mom quipped something along the lines of me being a pain, and Alex replied something to the effect of, “No, we love Austin here. He really became a great part of our humble show.”
And that’s, to me, the most salient quality of Alex: In interview after interview, when asked what it is like being the star of “Jeopardy!” he replies without fail, “In my 57 years of hosting television programs, I have always been introduced as the host, never as the star of the show. Because the stars of the show are the contestants and the material.”
But this, in his continually self-effacing manner, is a mistruth that bears correction. Alex Trebek is the star of “Jeopardy!” and ― for so many of us ― the bright spot in our evenings. Now he needs all of our support, love and faith, and giving him everything we’ve got feels like the very least we can do to thank him for everything he’s given ― and continues to give ― us.
Austin Rogers is a “Jeopardy!” Champion and host of the podcast “A Lot to Learn With Austin Rogers.”