book The Man With All the Answers

reviewed by Danielle Hayden

Published in Issue No. 281 ~ October, 2020

A pleasant recollection I have from childhood is sitting squished together in the den on the family futon watching Jeopardy! every weeknight at 7:30. Hearing that famous theme song followed by the charming and handsome host Alex Trebek strolling onto the stage and saying “Thank you, Johnny Gilbert” (or sometimes just “Thank you, Johnny”) is printed indelibly in my memory. This week began the 37th season the Emmy winning quiz show and I reflect now on how much it has been a part of my life. Now that I think of it, in fact, Jeopardy! may be the most constant thing in my life.

Just before his 80th birthday, George Alexander Trebek released his long-anticipated memoir, The Answer Is: Reflections on My Life (Simon & Schuster, 2020) which he calls “an aperçu” of his life. He doesn’t fancy himself a writer, and the words are not eloquent or elevated. In his introduction, he writes, “Tough shit.” And then, “Revelation #1: Alex Trebek swears.” I listened to some of the audiobook too, and hearing the word “shit” in his voice was surprising but made me smile to myself at his sense of humor, something that appears throughout the text. Aside from that one instance of profanity, the book is quite clean. Cleaner, in fact, than any of the other countless memoirs I have read. So while his good guy persona is not a façade, he is human and imperfect and I appreciate him all the more for it. Trebek’s words are human and real, as if he were having a conversation at the dining room table.  He did not descend from the mythological Mount Olympus; the host we know and love is forthright about his humble beginnings in Canada, and various times he did not succeed in life (getting kicked out of primary school and later a military college; his first marriage that did not work out before he later married the woman he calls his soulmate; blunders on his early days on Canadian radio and television, and more.) Trebek acknowledges how fortunate he has been—he’s comfortably wealthy and works only two days a week, a few months out of the year—but he also had to work his way up from the bottom. Photos in the book—both black and white as well as color—provide an additional window to his past and present.

For many longtime Jeopardy! fans though, Alex Trebek is a host we already feel like we knew even before the book’s publication. A person cannot visit our homes every weeknight for the past 36 years and remain a stranger. I feel so familiar, in fact, that I knew something was wrong before he even announced his diagnosis. An instance of monetary confusion; a slightly slower gait; a few pauses taken too long in a game known for lightning speed were indicative that something was amiss. I suspected an illness, but was saddened to learn that he not only had cancer but had the kind with the lowest survival. I hope and pray that he beats the odds. Of course I love the show and he is irreplaceable (I’d rather a hologram in his likeness host the show than a new person), but it is far more than that. He has always seemed to be a genuinely good person (even before the memoir told me of his charity work), beloved by both those who are familiar to him and fans who are not. After reading this book, I am a bigger fan than before and wish him the very best.