Alex Trebek Talks “Jeopardy,” Washington, War, and Politics

The longtime game-show host shares his passion for World War II, why he’s an independent, and his hidden talent.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Photograph courtesy of Jeopardy Productions.

It’s election season, and all eyes, when not on the campaign trail, are on Washington. That makes the city topical even in popular culture, which is why the hit game showJeopardy will be here on Saturday, April 21, to tape a week’s worth of “Power Player” broadcasts. There will also be a “Teen Tournament” taping on April 20. Over its almost three decades, Jeopardy has won a record 29 Emmy awards. The global syndicated audience is estimated to be 25 million viewers each week. To find out how to get free tickets to the DC taping, click here.

Alex Trebek is the longtime host of Jeopardy;his face has practically become synonymous with the show. He started his career as an announcer and newscaster in his native Canada, with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. It was there that he began dabbling in game shows, a career path that solidified when he moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s. Since becoming the host of Jeopardy in 1984, he has taped more than 6,000 episodes. He gave us some time today to discuss both his public and his private lives.

You have taped so many episodes of Jeopardy . Do you ever dream about it?

I never dream about Jeopardy. I dream about many things, and there’s always a storyline, but in 28 years of hosting the show I’ve never once had a dream about Jeopardy.

This will be your third visit to Washington, right?

Yes. We’ve done two “power player” tournaments before, the last about eight years ago.

Have you returned to any other city that often?

We’ve done a number of shows in New York, at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall. New York and Washington: the two most important cities in America.

What brings you back to Washington?

Probably the fact that this is an election year. Politics is in the forefront of the news. Why not take advantage? It seemed natural.

How are the Washington contestants chosen?

We ask people we believe could be considered power players—people who work in broadcasting, in the political arena.

Is the secret to success on the show to be smart or fast or smart and fast? Is one more important?

You got it. Smart and fast. Of the two, though, I think smart. You’re going to be up against your peers. It is unlikely they’re going to be so much faster than you. With kids, it’s different. They play a lot of video games. My 18-year-old daughter has the fastest thumbs in the West.

You are a student of World War II. Is that why you chose Constitution Hall for the tapings? It was used by the Red Cross during the war.

I was not involved in the selection process, but it seemed to work out well for us before. It has history. It has a central location, and it’s pretty hard to beat the name.

Have you visited parts of Washington that relate to World War II—the new World War II Memorial or FDR Memorial, for instance?

I have not. I haven’t really had the opportunity. When I come to Washington, my time is pretty well filled up. One year I was the Cherry Blossom Festival grand marshal, and we had a driver who took the family and me around and showed us some sights.

Have you visited the war rooms in London?

Yes, where Churchill ran his part of the war below ground, including the little nook where his cot was. 

What is it about World War II that interests you?

It’s a fascinating part of our history. I’m fascinated by the German part in World War II. This past summer my family and I took a cruise to Nuremberg, where the rallies and trials were held. There’s a fantastic museum there that chronicles the history of the Nazi party. You can spend the whole day there. Visiting Yad Vashem in Israel was amazing; it chronicles what happened from the Jewish point of view. When you think about it, for one man to mobilize 50 million people into deciding to eliminate a whole segment of society—it’s mind-blowing.

How did Jeopardy get involved with the USO?

It started with a trip we did many years ago. We started in Germany, where we were just trying to give the military people the chance to become contestants. Since they serve abroad they can’t come and take our tests. We took the testing mechanism to them. It worked out well. It was satisfying to spend time with them and to realize the USO is working at times of peace as well as times of war, and a lot of people forget that. We’re going to do another tour this year. We’re going to Germany. We were talking about Turkey, but they say it might be a little too dangerous. We’re also discussing Kuwait and Bahrain, but it hasn’t been nailed down.

You seem to have a great love of language. To what do you attribute that?

It bothers me because there’s a line in Pygmalion about the character who has the great facility in languages, and George Bernard Shaw said anyone who has that facility is basically an airhead. It’s always worried me.

Do you think this love of language drew you to broadcasting?

No. What drew me to broadcasting was I needed a job to pay for college.

You started in broadcasting in 1961. Twenty-three years later you started with Jeopardy , and now here you are with a life that allows many privileges. Outside of work and family, what captivates you the most?

Fixing stuff around the house.

So you’re a handyman?

I got up about 1 o’clock this morning. I told my wife, “There’s water running somewhere.” I wondered if a sprinkler was on. I got a flashlight and went out and checked, but no sprinkler was running. I tracked the sound to a downstairs toilet that was broken and running. I repaired it and went back to bed. 

Do your children want to be in broadcasting or the entertainment industry?

At times they have expressed a desire. Now that they’re both in college, broadcasting doesn’t seem to figure prominently in their futures.

You are an American citizen now. What made you decide to give up your Canadian citizenship?

You don’t give up Canadian citizenship. You add American citizenship. I have both. I did it because I’ve lived half my life in the United States and I’m married to an American citizen and my children are American citizens. Also for tax purposes. There are so many headaches involved if you are not an American citizen.

It made life simpler?

Yeah. Until two weeks after I became a citizen and I got a notice for jury duty. I’ve now been called five times. Sometimes seated, sometimes dismissed.

How many years remain on your contract?

One.

Do you own your show?

Oh, gosh, no. Sony owns it. I’m an employee.

What would you do if you hung it up?

Become a telemarketer.

Seriously.

I don’t know. Travel, do charity work. We have formed the Trebek Family Foundation so we can do a little more. It has forced a change in me. Before I’d get tons and tons of requests from different charities. They all did good work, but some were better organized than others. You weigh whether to do this one or that one. Once you form a charitable foundation it becomes easier to give. It’s brought about a nice change.

Do you still own racehorses?

All gone. It’s a speedy way to lose money.

What did you learn about yourself through having a heart attack and the process of recovery? Did it scare you or make you calmer about life?

It didn’t scare me. I don’t know if it’s made me calmer. What’s calmed me down in life is my marriage to Jean. A lot of people say I became softer and nicer, and that’s good.

I’ve heard Mark Twain is your hero. What’s your favorite Twainism?

About the guy who comes to town and speaks very little and everybody wonders how bright he is, and then one day he opens his mouth and removes all their doubts. I try to live by that. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Try to be genuine and down to earth with people. I’m just a regular guy. If people try to make you into something you’re not, disasters can ensue. If you watch the HBO film about Sarah Palin [Game Change], it’s a perfect example of somebody thrown into a wild environment and not given enough help.

Do you like politics?

Yeah.

Do you have a candidate?

No. I’m an independent. But I keep getting mailers from both parties. I’m one of those who wishes there were more civility in government. The problem now is we are so evenly divided between conservatives and liberals. If you don’t happen to agree with the other side you are a disreputable wretch, and I don’t like that. It’s so depressing.

Well, hopefully your time in Washington won’t be depressing.

I’ll have a good time in Washington as I usually do, because during the commercial breaks I talk to the people.