Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Alex Trebek, knowledge and kindness.

As Jeopardy!'s year of guest hosts has progressed since his death last year, I've paid more attention to Alex Trebek's legacy. His 36 years hosting the show were only part of his career. If he had retired at news of his stage four cancer diagnosis, his streak would have been celebrated as outstanding. Instead, he appeared on set until his final weekend, allegedly reading answers to his contestants amid frailty and pain, disguised with his usual poise. Memorable moments included a short message favouring kindness and generosity, a champion thanking Alex for teaching him English as a child, and the news he'd spent his last day as he hoped, watching the horizon with his wife. What finer final days could I wish upon myself?

I've since watched a little Classic Concentration, whose reruns individuals have surfaced on YouTube, seemingly without objection. (Fascinating that's now "the way" to get older TV episodes. You'd think providing them would be a way for networks to convincingly illustrate good will and good values, which is worth more to consumers than most companies realize, seeming instead to believe that saying they value stuff in advertisements is sufficient.)

Concentration was about recalling the locations of hidden matching tiles on a game board, which would incrementally reveal a rebus beneath. It was a game so simple that I thought it would be better-suited for contestants who were children, whose main weakness would have been ignorance of the cultural staples or figures of speech that were the match-deciding rebuses' solutions. (As a child, I played Concentration for DOS enough to gain the advantage of learning and memorizing many of those expressions.) What struck me was that contestants commentated somewhat meaninglessly about their choice of tiles. Rather than "thirteen," they might say "I'd like to open up the middle of the board, so let's go with thirteen," and it was consistent enough to seem unnatural, as though explicitly encouraged. Trebek did the same kind of thing, bordering over-commentating on those choices, or on the solution, or on a contestant's shortfall in deriving it. It felt like the improvisational churning of a person who couldn't find the intellectual depth he craved, attempted to manufacture it, and came out looking as verbose as transparent. (I thought this all happened before Jeopardy, but in actuality, this was one of two other shows Trebek was hosting alongside it. In any case, while interesting and entertaining, it left me unsurprised the show dropped away in 1991 while Jeopardy now persists.)

After he died, I found "dry wit" cited as a common trait of his character. An understandable take, but a shallow one. Whatever he was promoting by staying with Jeopardy to the latest possible moment, he cared sincerely and deeply about it. You couldn't tell which answers' questions he didn't know, but considering his occasional foreign pronunciations seemed informed and his occasional elaborations seemed off-the-cuff, you got the impression he'd do well against the highest-achieving champions, with whom he seemed closer to enamoured than impressed. The question I was left asking: what is the right word for the thing he cared about? Knowledge? Scholarliness? Intellectualism? An academic mindset?

Watching Jeopardy lately, the characteristic that most struck me might be impartiality. No matter what the clue was, Trebek recited it with unwavering clarity and formality (even as categories merited casual, styled or humourous phrasing). Was a topic controversial or ghastly? It didn't seem to matter, so long as it was factual and verifiable. Was it video games, still dismissed as flippant or irrelevant to more important things in life? They've enjoyed the same moments on the blue grid as famous composers and world history. Competitive sports, inconsequential as they seem to external matters? There they are, now and then (even when the contestants reveal themselves as my type of person).

That might be the insight I've gained. Alex didn't seem to discriminate between worthy and unworthy knowledge; he just seemed to care that the mind was open, actively observing and taking note, taking interest, as much in the seemingly boring as the seemingly exciting. After all, to any one of us, the seemingly boring may one day become the genuinely exciting.

All of this seems tangential to kindness. Did Alex see some more direct link between this open-mindedness and the world he envisioned and wished to egg into existence? Here are those presuming words from one of his final shows:

We're trying to build a gentler, kinder society, and if we all pitch in just a little bit, we're gonna get there.