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Alex Trebek’s memoir ‘The Answer Is …’ is everything a ‘Jeopardy!’ fan could want

UPDATED: Mon., July 27, 2020

By Angela Haupt Special To The Washington Post

Here’s a clue, “Jeopardy!” fans: For decades, Alex Trebek resisted writing this type of book before finally delivering one on the eve of his 80th birthday.

If you responded, “What is a memoir?” for around $30, you could spend your winnings on the long-awaited reflections from the beloved game show host, “The Answer Is …”

In March 2019, Trebek – who has spent 36 years with “Jeopardy!” – announced that he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He received an outpouring of support that convinced him that perhaps a memoir was warranted, after all: “I want people to know a little more about the person they have been cheering on for the past year,” he writes. “It’s an aperçu of Alex Trebek, human being. What is he like? What has he done? How did he screw up? Things like that.”

In the opening pages of the slim book, which Trebek worked on during the coronavirus pandemic, he warns readers that, aside from contributing the occasional “Jeopardy!” clue, he’s not a writer. But those who adore him for his reassuring nature and warmth likely aren’t interested in his literary prowess; they’ve come for his stories. And “Answer” delivers. It’s an amusing and at times sobering series of vignettes – a quickly inhaled highlights reel of Trebek’s life.

The memoir opens in Ontario, where Trebek grew up. After a relatively uneventful childhood, he attended the Royal Canadian Air Force military academy college – for three days. He dropped out when he learned the college planned to buzz his luscious head of hair. Instead, he studied philosophy while working as a disc jockey, ultimately spending 12 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In the early 1970s, Alan Thicke lured Trebek to the U.S. to film a game-show pilot in Los Angeles. That led to a flurry of hosting gigs and a new Hollywood lifestyle to complement his new address. Still, Trebek jokes that he didn’t easily fit in with the guys: He had no vices; his drink of choice is low-fat milk. “People can be suspicious of someone who’s so chaste,” he realized, so he temporarily took up cursing.

Trebek quotes Mark Twain, Malcolm Gladwell and Chinese proverbs, and he shows off a quick wit and reverence for intellect. Those are among the traits that have served him well since joining “Jeopardy!” in 1984, when the show was revived by creator Merv Griffin. Hosting, he says, is similar to being a Broadway actor. “We both do the same show night after night, and we have to find new ways to make it unique and interesting to ourselves,” he writes. “I have to keep the show moving, guide it, present an environment in which the contestants are going to be performing at their very best.”

Trebek dishes on “Jeopardy!” superstars like Ken Jennings – who’s co-narrating the audiobook version of the memoir with him – and whisks readers backstage at the game show. He appreciates the work-life balance the show affords, taping just two days a week. On those days, Trebek arrives at 6 a.m. to start prepping. The team tapes five shows a day, with 15 minutes in between each – enough time to change suits and get a makeup touch-up. (Or abruptly shave off his signature mustache, which Trebek did in 2001 to much ballyhoo.)

The behind-the-scenes intel is fun, especially for longtime fans of the show. But the rare insights into Trebek’s personal life are far more revealing. He devotes loving passages to his “soulmate” – his wife, Jeanie – and their two grown children, Emily and Matthew. (He’s also a father figure to his first wife’s daughter, Nicky.) Trebek notes that Matthew recently returned home, allegedly to weather the pandemic. It’s a convenient excuse: “He recognizes this is our last go-round. He’s here to spend quality time with me before we have no time left to spend together.”

Over the years, Trebek has had so many maladies that “Jeopardy!” turned them into a category. (Ailments include: a torn Achilles tendon; two heart attacks; and blood clots in his brain.) The pancreatic cancer, he acknowledges, has taken the hardest toll.

“This morning, I sat down with (Emily), Matt and Jeanie and told them I had made my decision,” he writes. “I’m going to stick with this current protocol, then that’s it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll probably stop treatment. It wasn’t an easy conversation, and it isn’t any easier writing these words. Quality of life was an important consideration.”

Trebek then slides into more comfortable territory: a joke. He hasn’t lost his levity and says he’s not afraid of dying. “I’ve lived a good, full life, and I’m nearing the end of it. I know that. The only thing that might bother me is if I pass on before I get to have grandchildren. (Hint, hint.)”

After nearly four decades at the lectern, Trebek is more than the face of “Jeopardy!” – he’s its heart. He’s so synonymous with the show, and the charm that’s made it an evening ritual, that even after a satisfying memoir, at least one question remains. How does the show continue without him?

Give a “daily double” to whomever has the answer for that one.

Haupt is a freelance writer and full-time health editor in D.C.

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