I definitely knew Will Ferrell’s impersonation of Alex Trebek before I knew the man himself.
It was not a good imitation.
Playing the longtime “Jeopardy!” host on “SNL,” Ferrell was piqued and perennially at his wit’s end over the regular haranguing of Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery and the confounding idiocy of other celebrity contestants. Asking these competitors to write a word — any word! — for Final Jeopardy or solve a category called “Movies That Start With The Word Jaws,” this Trebek, who never shaved his iconic mustache, ended each show with a glower and a dimmer view of humanity.
Obviously, that was the joke. For 37 seasons, the actual Trebek, whose final episode of “Jeopardy!” airs Jan. 8, was preternaturally unruffled. If you want a study in contrasts, you can watch the real Trebek’s cameo on Will Ferrell’s final episode as a cast member, where he tells Connery off.)
Trebek’s presence on the program was largely one of benign omniscience. He held the cards, and his writers’ collected knowledge and his own eclectic smarts. He rarely betrayed an emotion other than cordial interest or mild sympathy for a missed answer. But it was the moments where he broke from that restraint that I remember most.
The departures from his unaffected efficiency were memorable and memeable and often came during a perfunctory mid-show segment in which contestants shared personal anecdotes. A notable example: When a contestant named Susan professed her love for a genre of music called “nerdcore hip-hop,” where self-identified nerds rap about video games and science fiction and “having a hard time meeting romantic partners.”
Trebek responded, sounding a bit like David Letterman, “losers, in other words.” Given his audience and his players, the assessment was confounding but not unfamiliar in sentiment.
For all of Trebek’s love of knowledge, he often had a soft disappointment in his bookish buzzer-pressers’ geeky inclinations or niche hobbies. It was his version of Ferrell’s overstated exasperation. In these moments, he had the air of an Ivy-educated father who met his wife at a Yale-Harvard game and whose child, while brilliant, had no interest in sport or socializing away from a D&D board.
He didn’t like it when contestants whiffed at sports categories and he was duly bored with boring stories. I often was, too. So many were so dull that a Twitter account sprang up devoted to the most mundane.
“My mom said Germany was America”
“I went to school with my wife”
“My Latin teacher was great”#Jeopardypic.twitter.com/7MPiYeJdtm— Cool Jeopardy! Stories (@CoolJepStories) December 24, 2015
Occasionally, something caught Trebek’s interest, like when a contestant named Laura Jambon told him how her pygmy goat died after eating a bag of quickcrete. “Was it a 60 pound bag or an 80 pound bag?” Trebek asked, to which Jambon chided him, at long last: “Alex, you’re being insensitive.”
Trebek was often sensitive, particularly when it came to other cultures, taking care to pronounce foreign words correctly or — controversially — dock points when contestants butchered them. Occasionally you’d see him in Machu Picchu or other corners of the world for a remote video category. When it came to Jews, he kept a worldly interest.
He asked Rabbi Joyce Newmark if it was difficult becoming a female rabbi. She responded that, when she was asked what it was like to be a female rabbi, she said, “I don’t know, I’ve never been any other kind.”
Trebek’s response: “Good answer.”
While Newmark’s appearance was a high watermark in Jewish “Jeopardy!” history (and reader, I have a Birthright acquaintance who was on the show) it was not the most Trebekian engagement with a Member of the Tribe. That would have to go to the time he clapped back at contestant Alexandra Henkoff after she uncertainly, but correctly, answered a question about Luther’s 95 Theses.
“I’m Jewish,” Henkoff said, explaining her hesitance.
Trebek, with a smile and a shake of his head, replied, “That’s no excuse.”
One could take the response in jest, as it was likely intended. You could see it as another instance of Trebek being insensitive. I choose to view it as the sincere conviction of a man who truly valued well-rounded knowledge. Of course, it helps that he had the answers already.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.