Appearing as a contestant on Jeopardy is the #1 item on my bucket list, so you can imagine how hard the passing of Alex Trebek hit me. Still, my natural reluctance toward celebrity memoirs was hard to overcome. Thankfully a copy of The Answer Is… was waiting under the Christmas tree this year.
Trebek proves to be an engaging writer. The book is conversational in nature though there is a fair amount of biographical information up front. The first third or so is much more conventionally organized, as Trebek briskly goes through his Canadian upbringing as the son of an Ukrainian immigrant chef and a French-speaking mother. Though he doesn’t dwell on it, you get the impression that money was tight and times could get tough in the Trebek household. At a young age his mother departed for America and Alex spent some time living with other relatives. He also struggled in school until a kindly priest became a mentor.
Trebek similarly rushes through the start of his broadcasting career. His ability to speak both English and French landed him summer job at the CBC and he managed to turn that into a full-time gig. In short work he was hosting a wide variety of television programs and special events. In a precursor to his later fame, he hosted a quiz show for Canadian high-schoolers called Reach for the Top. There are some amusing anecdotes from this era including a couple of brief interactions with her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Once Trebek emigrates to the States, the book becomes a little less organized. In short chapters Trebek hits the highlights of his pre-Jeopardy game show gigs, his first encounters with important figures in his life like Merv Griffin and Johnny Gilbert, and some of the most famous Jeopardy contestants like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer.
Trebek devotes a bit more time to his family, his travels, and his charitable work. He seems enormously proud of his two children and sincerely in love with his second wife. His efforts to raise money for World Vision charities in Africa and on behalf of his favorite animal the musk ox are impressive.
Trebek occasionally delves into the lessons he feels he’s learned along the way and while this could be cloying he manages to do so without preaching too much. He seems genuinely overwhelmed by the response to his going public with his cancer diagnosis.
The book’s close is rather difficult to read in the wake of Trebek’s passing. He is of course aware of what’s coming even if he’s unsure of how much time he has left. The fact that it was written and published during the coronavirus lockdown makes Trebek’s musing on the end of his life all the more poignant as he wrestles with all the things he wishes he had time while remaining grateful for the good life he’s had.
Alex Trebek held a unique position in American life. Welcomed into millions of homes and a decidedly un-polarizing figure in our increasingly polarized world. It can be tempting not to want to learn too much about such a person. The Answer Is… may not be a complete biography, but any Jeopardy fan will appreciate this glimpse behind the scenes of their favorite show and into the mind of its host.