Alex Trebek usually asks all the questions, so we turned the tables and asked him one for a change. What would the Jeopardy! clue be for the question, "Who is Alex Trebek?"
"He's the avuncular host of a popular quiz show who has been around, it seems, forever," Trebek replies.
Trebek, who turns 80 on Wednesday, has been hosting Jeopardy! since 1984. When he was offered the position back then, he had no idea he'd stay with the show for the rest of his career. "It was a job," he says.
Trebek has long resisted writing an autobiography. "I always felt that I had nothing particularly relevant to say to our viewers," he explains. "I'm just a quiz show host who's been doing the same job for 36 years."
But in March 2019, Trebek announced that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. "The outpouring from our viewers after I revealed my diagnosis ... that caught me by surprise and that humbled me a great deal," he says.
It also factored into his decision to agree to write an autobiography after all. The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life comes out on Tuesday. Trebek says all the proceeds will go to charity. And, it turns out, writing an autobiography wasn't so bad in the end.
"I started recollecting things that I had not given any thought to in many, many years," Trebek says. "And it felt good. It was a way of reviewing my entire life, and that just brought me a great deal of satisfaction."
Jeopardy! fans will find plenty of old photos, an entire chapter on Trebek's mustache, and may learn for the first time that the mild-mannered host actually curses quite a bit.
"I'm not going to give you any examples in this interview, but just be aware that I do it and I'm not particularly proud of it," he says. "But, hey, we have to live with who we are."
On trying to keep the spotlight on his contestants
Although I'm funny on occasion, I'm not a stand-up comic. I don't try to force the spotlight to be on me when I'm hosting these programs. I'm very conscious of the fact that my job is to work it so that the contestants are able to demonstrate their skills to the best of their ability.
I'm fairly well organized in front of the cameras in that I can guide the show. If it's lagging a little bit, I can push it. If it's going too fast, I can slow things down. I have a good sense of pacing with regard to the competition that's underway and I'm not an offensive personality on camera.
I seem to be, you know, your uncle, your friendly neighbor, and people react to that in a positive way. They feel comfortable with me. And so when you combine all of those things, it makes for a pretty pleasant experience for the television viewer. They don't feel, oh, gosh, you know, this is a good game, but that host, he's really obnoxious.
On whether it was therapeutic to write his book
No, not really. Even though I recollected stories that go back, you know, 60, 70, 75 years. But it was just a reasonably pleasant experience — I say reasonably pleasant because we were under pressure. We put it together very quickly in about six weeks. ... The written part came about fairly easily. I would sit at my desk talking on the telephone ... to the editor in New York and just begin thinking about episodes in my past. ... It flowed, and it flowed quickly.
On reassessing his toughness
I guess as a male figure of a certain age — one who belongs to a certain generation — the idea was when we were growing up that men were tough, women were delicate. And all of a sudden I realized maybe that concept of toughness, that way of looking at toughness, doesn't apply to me — because I'm a bit of a wuss. And that bothered me for a while.
And then it ceased bothering me because I came to the conclusion that, hey, maybe you're wrong in looking at toughness the way you have in the past. Maybe toughness is just dealing with life, dealing with what is handed to you, and trying to make the very best of it without falling apart, without denigrating anybody else in the process. Just doing what you can to keep things going in a positive way.
On confronting his mortality
If I were 25 or 30, I'd be fighting like mad every day to overcome this diagnosis. But age does influence you. I'm 80 years old and I've lived a great life. I have a marvelous family. I've had a fantastic career in terms of finances, in terms of acclaim within the television community. I have no reason to complain, whatsoever. So I think that does influence a person's outlook. ... You just say, boy, I've got to be thankful for what God has given me so far.
On Jeopardy! contestant Cindy Stowell, who competed while undergoing treatment for stage 4 colon cancer
She appeared while she was undergoing chemotherapy; she had stage 4 cancer, but she didn't want us to let the other contestants know. The only people who knew were our producers and myself. And while we were taping, she had a few bad moments and we had to stop tape and she would go backstage and be ill. And yet she succeeded and earmarked her funds for cancer research. ... She was just a gem of a person. There are degrees in terms of likability for Jeopardy! players, and she ranked very high in terms of likability.
On trying to reply to the many fans who reach out to him to share their own health struggles
I receive hundreds and hundreds of letters each week. ... There are times when I feel overwhelmed because people are sharing intimate secrets about their diagnoses. ... My heart goes out to them. And yet there's nothing I can do except give them a few words of encouragement. And there's a lot of pressure in my mind that comes with that. So I try to do the best I can, but I am very much aware of the fact that I am not able to necessarily make their lives that much better, or that much different.
On his message to Americans right now
Be kinder to each other. I see America in a crisis situation right now in so many ways. And I want people to open up their hearts, and open up their hands, and open up their wallets to help each other. Because if ever there was a time when we needed to do that, that time is now. ...
We can get through the pandemic if we follow the suggestions, the rules, laid out by the CDC, by the doctors, the epidemiologists, by the scientific people. If we follow what they want us to do, and if we are assiduous in doing that, we can get a grip on this pandemic. And if we get a grip on the pandemic, then the economy will follow right behind.
But, hey, this is a time where we have to come together. ... These are the United States of America, and yet we're so far apart in so many ways. And that, that upsets me. Let's come together. Let's be united. We've got nothing to lose.
Danny Hajek and Ashley Westerman produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the web.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So many of us have that one teacher we think back to who impacted our lives. "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek has written about his.
ALEX TREBEK: Kenny Gardner (ph) was his name.
GREENE: Yeah. And I - it sounds like he saw something in you that turned out to be kind of prophetic.
TREBEK: Yeah. Just he cut through all of the crap that I was dealing with or exhibiting in class, and he saw something that made me, in his eyes, be a little special. And to feel that way turned things around for me in many ways.
GREENE: I want to read the line just so our listeners can hear it. I mean, he said, there's a kid in my homeroom, sits at the back of the class - doesn't say a word. But in discussions, if the students are ever stumped and can't come up with the answer to a question I'm asking, I'll point to him and he gives the correct response.
I mean, that - it was almost like he's saw your future career playing out.
TREBEK: Future "Jeopardy!" host sitting at the back of the room...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: On "Jeopardy!" - and now, here is the host of "Jeopardy!," Mr. Alex Trebek.
GREENE: Alex Trebek, who has been hosting "Jeopardy!" for 36 years, has a new book out called "The Answer Is...: Reflections On My Life." He writes about his childhood in Canada, his parents' divorce. There's even a chapter on that legendary mustache. Oh - we also learn about the other quiz shows he's hosted.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH ROLLERS")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: "High Rollers" - now here's the man with the action, Alex Trebek.
GREENE: There was also a '70s show called "The Wizard Of Odds."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIZARD OF ODDS")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Playing "The Wizard Of Odds" - and now here's the wily wizard himself, Alex Trebek.
GREENE: Since 1984, though, it has been "Jeopardy!"
What do you think it is about you that would make people want you to be in this role? Like, what is it about Alex Trebek that makes you right for hosting a quiz show?
TREBEK: Well, although I'm funny on occasion, I'm not a stand-up comic. I don't try to force the spotlight to be on me when I'm hosting these programs. I seem to be, you know, your uncle, your friendly neighbor. And people react to that in a positive way. They feel comfortable with me.
GREENE: Trebek is like family for so many of us, and that is why it felt personal when he shared the news of his cancer diagnosis last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")
TREBEK: This week, I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I'm going to fight this. I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.
GREENE: Alex Trebek never wanted to write a book. But after that diagnosis, he got letters from so many fans, it just felt right to tell his story.
You write so personally about confronting a cancer diagnosis, and you say people confront it in different ways and that it's a personal decision...
GREENE: ...But that, as you put it, sometimes there's a lot to be said for dying.
TREBEK: Mmm hmm.
GREENE: What do you mean by that?
TREBEK: It has to do with quality of life. I mean, if I were 25 or 30, I'd be fighting like mad every day to overcome this diagnosis. But age does influence you. I'm 80 years old. I've lived a great life. I have a marvelous family. I've had a fantastic career. I have no reason to complain whatsoever. So I think that does influence a person's outlook. If you've already had all of these positives in your life, you just say, boy, I've got to be thankful for what God has given me so far.
GREENE: In the book, you keep coming back to this theme that this was never about you - I mean, that the best host of a show makes it about the contestants, the guests, like, everyone else.
GREENE: I think about one of your contestants, Cindy Stowell, who...
GREENE: ...You told us about. But remind us about her story.
TREBEK: Well, she appeared while she was undergoing chemotherapy. She had stage 4 cancer, but she didn't want us to let the other contestants know. The only people who knew were our producers and myself. And while we were taping, she had a few bad moments. And we had to stop tape, and she would go backstage and be ill. Yet she succeeded and earmarked her funds for cancer research. And in addition to being a contestant suffering from cancer, she was just a gem of a person. And her winnings, over a hundred thousand dollars, helped the charity a great deal.
GREENE: Do you think about her through your own cancer diagnosis?
TREBEK: To be quite honest with you, I do not. And the reason is simple - because I receive hundreds and hundreds of letters each week and so many of them tell me about people who are suffering from cancer. And frankly, there are times when I feel overwhelmed because people are sharing intimate secrets about their diagnoses. And my heart goes out to them, and yet there's nothing I can do except give them a few words of encouragement. And there's a lot of pressure in my mind that comes with that. So yeah, Cindy's in my mind every once in a while but not on a regular basis because every day I'm confronted by new people who are suffering the same way Cindy and I and other cancer people are suffering.
GREENE: I have to ask this. You know, if on "Jeopardy!" - if the answer is, who is Alex Trebek? - what do you think the clue would be?
TREBEK: Oh, gosh. (Exhaling). I don't know. He's the avuncular host of a popular quiz show who has been around, it seems, forever. And the host appears to be reasonably intelligent. He wants the contestants to succeed, to be all they can be. And there are moments in television where the host and the program are a good match, and that usually leads to a great deal of success.
GREENE: Alex Trebek, it's been wonderful talking to you. And thank you so, so much.
TREBEK: David, it was a great pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Alex Trebek's new book is called "The Answer Is...: Reflections On My Life." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.