Book Review: ‘The Answer Is...’

Ben Miles

It’s difficult to think of the longtime host of “Jeopardy!” as the late Alex Trebek. In reading his memoir, “The Answer Is...” – a fun play on the classic answer-first quiz show’s format – Trebek’s literary voice resonates with aliveness and authenticity.

With his persona steeped in authority, dignity and sophistication one wouldn’t necessarily think of the Canadian-born, bilingual Trebek (he spoke fluent French) as the product of working class parents. His father George Edward, an emigrant from Ukraine whose surname was Terebeychuk, was a chef, and his mother, Lucille Marie, a Franco-Ontarian, married after they discovered that Lucille was pregnant with the child whom they would name George Alexander and television audiences would one day know as Alex Trebek.

Young Trebek worked as a bellhop at the Nickel Range Hotel, in Sudbury, Ontario, where his father was the chef. Because he was unable to afford college, Trebek, after graduating from a Catholic boarding school, applied to and was admitted to Regular Officer Training Program (ROTP), a course of study sponsored by Canada’s armed forces. Once accepted, the Canadian military would finance the full tuition at a four year college. But soon Trebek decided that the military life was not the life he wanted: One reason: He sported a pompadour hairdo with a “ducktail” dangling in the back, of which he was quite proud. Of course, the military forbade such a coiffure, regardless of the fashion rage it may have been.

Curious and in search of a college education, not a military career, Trebek, after dropping out of the ROTP, went on to the University of Ottawa, from where he graduated in 1961 with a philosophy degree. Why he chose this esoteric subject to major in was not out of some quest for universal answers to the perplexities of life, but for quite practical purposes. Philosophy classes were scheduled in the mornings, which enabled him to maintain an afternoon job; this enabled him to pay his way through the university.

The job he had even prior to completing his college degree was at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. As Trebek states, “I did everything, at one time replacing every announcer in every possible job.” He would read the national news and report on a number of events for CBC Radio and for CBC Television, including horse racing the unique sport of curling.

Trebek’s initial hosting gig was in 1963 as the emcee for the Canadian-like version of “American Bandstand,” titled “Music Hop.” Subsequent to hosting a high school quiz show, known as “Reach for the Top,” introducing classical music programs for the CBC and a weekly program on skating, in 1969, he presided as host of “Strategy,” an afternoon game show.

After relocating in the United States Trebek worked for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) as emcee of a new game show, “The Wizard of Odds.” After one season on that show, Trebek went on to host “High Rollers” and “Double Dare” and engage in several other master of ceremony assignments, both in Canada and the U.S. But it was with the revival of “Jeopardy!” (after the quiz show’s original emcee, Art Flemming, chose not to return to the “Jeopardy!”) that Trebek and “Jeopardy!” became nearly synonymous among quiz-show aficionados and in popular culture.

Unique among television emcees, Trebek remained as host of “Jeopardy!” from 1984 until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2020. In this easy-to-read and engaging memoir we learn of Trebek’s two marriages, his two children and his philanthropic efforts with the humanitarian organization World Vision, through which he traveled the world – most extensively in Africa – rendering aid and distributing food in some of the most impoverished corners of that continent.

The back cover of “The Answer Is...” has for simple sentences that serve as a fitting epilogue to Trebek’s memoir and epithet for his life: “ I believe in the will to live. I believe in the power of positivity. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope.”

As Ken Jennings – the highest-earning American game show contestant of all time (earning $4, 522, 700 in 74 wins of “Jeopardy!”) and who’s served as “Jeopardy!” guest host subsequent to Trebek’s death – says at the conclusion of each episode he’s emceed: “Thank you Alex.”

“The Answer Is...Reflections on My Life” is widely available and easily obtained.

Simon & Schuster, 290 pages
New York, NY, Copyright 2020
ISBN: 978-1-9821-5799-9
ISBN: 978-1-9821-5801-9


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