Currently in his 23rd year as host of television's classiest—and certainly smartest—game show, Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek has established himself as both a consummate professional and a genuine pop-culture icon.
Apart from winning three Outstanding Game Show Host Emmys (Jeopardy! itself has won Outstanding Game/Audience Participation Show honors five times), the 66-year-old Ontario, Canada, native has appeared in more than 70 movies and television shows.
In 1991, he also became the only host in TV history to front three daily game shows in the same season: Jeopardy!, Classic Concentration and To Tell the Truth. In 2001, while naming Jeopardy! the second-best all-time game show (after The Price Is Right), TV Guide wrote, “The show has become a genuine American institution under Trebek, whose all-business demeanor set the ideal tone for TV's most serious IQ test.”
Gary Dretzka, along with Robert Edelstein, spoke with Trebek about Jeopardy!'s innovations, the flattery of parodies and whether he plans to out-host Price's Bob Barker.
Jeopardy! is well-known for keeping pace with emerging technologies, from HD and DVD-ROM to the Internet and videogames. Yet the most newsworthy event in the show's recent history seems less “innovative”: Ken Jennings' $2.5 million in winnings. How did that come about?
Our executive producer, Harry Friedman, is very innovative and is constantly looking for ways to tweak the show, whether in set design or in more subtle ways, like extending the win cycle beyond five games.
The move paid off in great ratings. How do you feel about tinkering with aspects of the show?
We've been around a long time, and Jeopardy! is a fairly set half-hour of television. We're old hat on the one hand, and yet we are always freshening up the product. Last year, we introduced the Clue Crew [roving correspondents assigned to providing visual clues and collecting information], and we started testing on-line. Last week, we had 75,000 people take our online Jeopardy! test, which allowed them to try out for the show.
You must find the long list of Jeopardy! parodies gratifying.
I get a kick out of them. When they do that to you, it's because you're a part of Americana. The audience is going to recognize the parody immediately; it doesn't have to be 'splained to them. The reason I say that is, the writers came up with two categories recently for the same show; one was “Lucy,” followed by “You Got Some Spleening To Do.” It was all about the spleen. Harry supervises a creative bunch. We also had one category with clues about Homer, who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the clues were read by [Dan Castellaneta], who does Homer on The Simpsons.
Have you attempted to attract new viewers by tinkering with the selection of categories?
We probably have more American-culture categories, and we think that has helped us appeal to a broader audience. It falls within the purview of people who watch television and keep up with what's in the news, show business, music and art.
This isn't the same as adjusting the answers to compensate for what some people suggest is a dumbing down of Americans?
No, not at all. It would be difficult for us to notice any dumbing down, as you say. In terms of contestants, we only attract a certain kind of individual … someone who's well-read, who considers himself or herself very bright. Something that's been consistent throughout the years is that our pool of potential contestants is much narrower than the general population pool.
Bob Barker is taping his final The Price Is Right episodes this month. Have you given any thought to becoming the Cal Ripken of quiz shows?
I've been doing game and quiz shows in America since 1973, but I'm not going for any record. Retirement is certainly something I'm considering, although I'm still having a lot of fun doing what I'm doing. But I don't have the kind of ego that would drive me to be wheeled on stage.
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