Techland Interview: Alex Trebek

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Jeopardy host Alex Trebek has been dishing out answers in the form of questions since 1984. Trebek recently made a guest appearance in an online episode of NBC’s FCU: Fact Checkers Unit. Who better to check facts than the Father of Facts, himself?

In an interview with Techland, Trebek discusses his career, his thoughts on technology, and what sorts of flying objects we may or may not expect to see once Jeopardy starts being filmed in 3D.

Techland: In this episode of Fact Checkers Unit, you’re referred to as the Father of Facts. Do your friends and family expect you to be a walking encyclopedia in real life?

Alex Trebek: I’m not sure if they expect that. However, in a subtle way, that might be the case because my children–my daughter is now a senior in high school and my son is a sophomore in college–whenever they run into problems researching material for an essay, for a test, whatever, they quite often come to me and ask me about it to fill in some gaps.

Even though they’re more computer literate than I am and they know where to find stuff on the internet, they will come to me to get color background.

TL: I always imagine an obscure question coming up at a dinner party and everybody says, “Oh, well, let’s ask Alex. He knows everything because of Jeopardy.”

AT: Yeah, well, that doesn’t happen at dinner parties. I’m too busy drinking [laughs].

TL: Most people know you as the host of Jeopardy, but you’ve been a TV host since 1963. What was your first hosting job like?

AT: Music Hop in 1963 was my first hosting job of a variety program. I also hosted a high school quiz show called Reach For The Top for the CBC in Canada. That was good training for all my future hosting work in game shows and quiz shows because you had to be fast, you had to make judgments quickly, and the right judgments in regards to a response given by a contestant or a student. So that was good training.

But Music Hop was neat in many ways. It was a precursor, if you will, to Shindig and Hullaballoo, which came later in the United States.

There was a lot made about those two shows being, “Hey, this is avant-garde stuff for kids.” Nonsense. Music Hop was first, and we did our show live.

And that was, in many ways, a scary proposition because on a number of occasions, I was asked to sing. I’m not a singer. And if problems arose, as they did on a couple occasions, I had to adlib to get out of a difficult situation.

TL: Did you always intend to be a game show host? If not, what was your original professional aspiration?

AT: Originally I think I wanted to be an actor. But I got into broadcasting by accident, if you will, because I needed money to pay for my college education. I applied for a summer announcing job at a couple of radio stations. I was turned down by two of them, but then the CBC hired me one summer and the rest is history.

TL: You often make guests appearances on TV shows and in movies playing yourself. What role would you love to play, other than yourself, if you had the chance?

AT: Freddy Kruger. Maybe not, let me take that one back.

Who would I like to play? Anything that would stretch me dramatically. It’s hard to say because I’ve been so fortunate in my career and comfortable in my own skin that I’ve been able to play myself rather well. It might be a little scary trying to be somebody else, but I’m willing to take a chance.

I would have loved to have a role in the HBO series Deadwood. It was Shakespeare in the Old West.

I’d love to play in one of the Law and Order-type shows. Law and Order was my favorite series, and now it’s cancelled. It’s going to be coming back as Law and Order: LA so I’d love to play a judge, a lawyer, even a criminal. It doesn’t matter, I’m not particular.


TL: Jeopardy has been on the air since 1984. During that time, which player sticks out in your mind as the most memorable?

AT: Well, Ken Jennings of course, because he won 74 shows. I don’t think his record will ever be matched.

Eddie Timanus, the blind contestant we had, was certainly amazing to watch. He would recall which clues had been used in which categories and he would say, “I’ll take History for 600, Alex.” And on a couple of occasions he’d say, “Ahh, I’ll take the next one in Geography,” because it had slipped his mind.

But my gosh, for a guy who was completely blind to do as well as he did against sighted opponents was truly amazing.

And there have been a number of the teens who have impressed me immensely. So, yeah, there have been many memorable contestants and special moments—moments that brought tears to my eyes.

TL: Which Jeopardy buzzer strategy is most effective? The single click, the rapid fire, the long press?

AT: Well since I’ve never been a contestant, only the host, you’re asking the wrong man. I don’t know, it’s what ever works for you.

Keep in mind that the signaling device always works better if you know the subject. If you are not 100% sure that you know the correct response, you will be a little slower in ringing in. And a lot of people will complain, saying, “Ah, it’s the buzzer. It’s the buzzer.” Well it’s not the buzzer, it’s your brain.

You’ll notice contestants who will be silent for quite a bit and then all of a sudden they’ll catch fire and run a whole category. It’s that they’re comfortable in the category, they know the category. That adds to the speed with which they’re able to ring in, and it also intimidates their opponents.

But you have to wait until the clue has been read in its entirety. So from that point of view, there’s a timing strategy involved. You have to get the timing down just right. But, again, if you are confident in that subject matter, you’ll get the timing down right.


TL: Which one piece of technology could you not live without? Why?

AT: My television sets. I have many of them. I’m a TV watcher.

I have an Apple computer, which I use to play Spider Solitaire and do research on the internet.

The TiVo and the DVRs, though, are a godsend because they enable you to pick and choose what you want to watch when you want to watch it.

If you’re not available, if you’re going out to dinner, in the past you’d say, “Darn, I’m going to miss that episode,” and then you’d ask your friends and relatives what happened. Now you don’t have to worry about that. It’s there, it’s recorded. You come home and watch it the next morning.

Technology keeps advancing. I saw an ad yesterday from our parent company, Sony, with Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake talking about 3D and I’m saying to myself, “Hmmm. That’s the wave of the future.” There’s always something new. It was flat screen, it was wide screen, it’s high-def, now it’s going to be 3D. And I gotta get me one of those.

TL: How soon do you think you’ll start shooting Jeopardy in 3D?

AT: I don’t know. We were the first in high-def, so hopefully we’ll be the first in 3D. And then we’ll have a lot more visual clues. And I’ll be able to throw things at the television screen that cause you to duck.

If a contestant gives an incorrect response, maybe I’ll throw something at the contestant. I don’t know, maybe a tomato or something, and say “Aw, you idiot,” and the camera will pick that up.

Who knows? I’m getting meaner as I get older.


TL: Do you have a favorite cell phone you use all the time? Are you a cell phone guy or do you not like being tethered like that?

AT: I use cell phones to make calls and receive calls. I’ve never texted, I’ve never received a text. I was out to lunch recently with one of my bosses at Sony, who had forgotten his cell phone. He asked to use mine, I said sure and I gave it to him, and he started to laugh. I said, “What’s wrong?” and he said, “This cell phone has an antenna.”

I’m not one of those individuals who are attached umbilically to their cell phones. I have friends who cannot live without their BlackBerrys. I attended the Emmys and sat next to someone who was on his cell phone throughout, just texting and reading messages.

If you can’t be without that piece of equipment, I think that’s sad. We’re becoming too attached to our technology. We need more time to ourselves. more time to sit and think and be quiet, instead of constantly being accessed.

And as far as Twitter goes, are we so insecure that if we’re not connected to somebody else every moment of the day, we’re in a panic? What happened to the days of contemplation? The days of being self sufficient? Enjoying ourselves instead of being in contact with everybody else?

I don’t see it. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just my generation. I don’t know. But my generation doesn’t feel as comfortable with new technology as your generation would, and as my children’s generation feels.

But I think we’ve lost something. People don’t write letters. People don’t know how to write letters. And because of texting and the shorthand you use while texting, a lot of people don’t know how to spell any more. That’s unfortunate.

We’re slowly losing an important part of our lives. Ah, I’m getting too profound.

TL: No, I agree with you. I work in technology and I’m in my early thirties, but I still remember what it’s like to write. I had to write in school. I didn’t have a laptop or a cell phone or anything.

AT: Talk about writing, I have fountain pens. Nobody writes with fountain pens. I probably have an old quill somewhere around here, too.

TL: So can we assume there’s no official Alex Trebek Twitter account to follow?

AT: Nope. I don’t even have my own website.


TL: God forbid this day would ever come, but who would you select to be your successor as Jeopardy host?

AT: Bob Barker! Whoops, I went too far in the opposite direction.

I have no idea. No idea. There are a number of talented young hosts out there who are probably earning a lot more money doing what they’re doing now than they would hosting Jeopardy.

But they, and by “they” I mean the people at Sony, will find somebody to replace me when the time comes. Everyone is replaceable. There is always someone who can bring a whole new approach, a new audience, and a new sense of excitement to the program. The program will remain the same.

TL: Are you looking to retire any time soon?

AT: Oh gosh. I’m up and down on that one. There are days when I think, “That’s it. I’m screwing up too much. I’m not able to read the clues as well as I used to,” and there are other days when I think, “Geez, I really like this so much there’s no reason for me to stop.” So I’m torn.

I’m like most people as they get older, they say, “Well, I should retire.” And then their wife says, “If you retire, you’re going to be around here all the time! I wouldn’t be able to put up with you.” So what are you gonna do?

Watch Trebek in the “Fact Master” episode of FCU: Fact Checkers Unit, created by Brian Sacca, Peter Karinen, and Dan Beers.

More on Techland:

Q&A: The Event’s Jason Ritter

An Interview With Ray Kurzweil

Q&A With Jedi Path Author Daniel Wallace

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