What is heartbreak, Alex?
For those of us who tuned in every night — especially for the generations who grew up with him — it feels like we lost a family member.
America’s uncle, longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, died at his Los Angeles home over the weekend, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Trebek passed away early Sunday morning, surrounded by family and friends, according to a “Jeopardy!” statement. He was 80 years old. Trebek was diagnosed in March 2019, and while he had openly discussed his cancer fight, he hosted the trivia show right to the end.
In fact, those who tuned in Friday saw a charming, joking Trebek — in other words, his usual avuncular self.
“It’s one of those things we’ve all been waiting to hear this, but it’s still shocking,” said “Jeopardy!” champ and all-star Buzzy Cohen. A popular player, the dapper and charismatic Cohen won nine games in 2016, won the 2017 Tournament of Champions, and appeared again in the 2019 “Jeopardy! All-Star Games.”
“He seemed to be doing better. We were all hopeful that he’d recover and get to step down when he wanted and not when the disease said so,” Cohen continued. “Taping to the bitter end is the way he wanted it.”
Watch with Kleenex for the next month or so. “Jeopardy!” episodes hosted by Trebek will air through Dec. 25. His last day in the studio was Oct. 29. The show is not announcing plans for a new host at this time, according to a statement.
I watch “Jeopardy!” every night. Like Ken Jennings told me in May, when the show re-ran its hit GOAT Tournament, “It’s comfort food.”
“America relies on ‘Jeopardy!’ being ‘Jeopardy!’, down to the second. Every night. It’s part of the fabric of people’s lives,” Jennings, who holds the record for the show’s longest winning streak, said.
There’s a reason “Alex Trebek” was the number one trend on Twitter Sunday. From Will Ferrell’s impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” to ubiquitous catchphrases like “I’ll make it a true Daily Double, Alex,” or “What is [blank], Alex?” that became part of America’s lexicon, the show is a cultural touchstone.
Those who love “Jeopardy!” aren’t just game-show fans — we’re “Jeopardy!” fans. The same way people who love chess wouldn’t call it a “board game.” We loved the game itself. And what made “Jeopardy!”? “Jeopardy!” was Alex Trebek.
“Alex realized what a big moment it was for everyone appearing on stage. He wanted to make everyone’s experience as meaningful and as fun as possible," said Cohen.
In more ways than one, Cohen said, the show “changed my life … I’ve been open with my struggles with depression, and [I was] able to see myself in a different way through the show.”
Brown University’s Dhruv Gaur went viral, and ended up on “Ellen,” after he made Trebek choke up last year when Trebek shared his diagnosis. Instead of answering the Final Jeopardy question, Gaur wrote “What is we [heart] you, Alex!”
Trebek’s voice trembled and cracked: “That’s very kind.”
Gaur wrote it on impulse, he told me Sunday, after learning of Trebek’s death.
“Everyone was thinking it. We all knew Alex was going through a rough time — the progression of his cancer and everything," he said. "It was one of those things we were all thinking, and it was almost an impulse to say it in front of him. That expression of love.”
Learning of his death, the Brown senior and Providence resident was “shocked” and felt “immense gratitude that this person was a part of my life. Not just the show, but growing up, watching ‘Jeopardy!’ every day. As long as I can remember, he was there, on the TV."
“He was the person who so many of us tune into every day for your 30 minutes of joy. Being a nerdy kid, excited about trivia, it was a place I could have fun with learning and knowing things,” he said. “We’re grateful for what he brought to our living rooms, day after day.”
When I interviewed “Jeopardy!” champ James Holzhauer last year, the trivia king and viral sensation told me he’d wanted to be on the game since childhood.
His comments made me chuckle softly Sunday, as so many contestants have said the same things about Trebek’s humor: “Alex is an incredible professional, a master of his craft. It’s even more impressive to watch up close. What surprised me is that he has a potty-mouth in the postgame chats.”
When reached by e-mail Sunday, Holzhauer said he wasn’t ready to be interviewed, but had a statement to share:
“Alex Trebek was a legend of American television who will never be forgotten or truly replaced. His courageous fight against cancer was an inspiration to all, and his charitable work touched countless lives. In a time where the country feels deeply divided, Alex will be missed by everyone.”
The whiz tweeted publicly: “It was one of the great privileges of my life to spend time with this courageous man while he fought the battle of his life. You will never be replaced in our hearts, Alex.”
Born in 1940 in Sudbury, Ontario, the debonair Canadian with a sense of humor felt like the most popular teacher in your high school — smart, cool, a bit cheesy at times, the one who could always make the kids laugh.
“It was the fates that put him as host, but he took up the mantle of someone who championed knowing things,” Cohen said. “That’s powerful. That we had someone on our TV every night who was excited when people knew things, or had weird or interesting hobbies.”
Earlier this year, I’d asked Jennings if he’d gotten a sense of Trebek’s health during his taping: “It’s hard to say because even when he’s not having a great day — he was in chemo at the time — when the music comes on and Johnny [Gilbert] says his name, he can just stride out there. I’ve seen him do it. He turns into Alex Trebek, and it’s remarkable.”