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Remembering Long-Time 'Jeopardy!' Host Alex Trebek

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to our interview with Alex Trebek, the longtime host of the popular quiz show "Jeopardy!" He died yesterday of pancreatic cancer. He was 80. Trebek won seven Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Game Show Host, the latest was last June. And he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 2011, he received a Peabody Award for, quote, "encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge," unquote.

He's in the Guinness Book of World Records for most game show episodes hosted by the same presenter. That's more than 8,000 episodes. He started hosting the show in 1984. I spoke with him in his third year, 1987. "Jeopardy!" is somewhere between a trivia quiz and an IQ test. Contestants try to earn prize money by answering questions in different categories. Trebek would give the answer. The contestant would have to give the question, like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: May I have authors for $200, please?

ALEX TREBEK: Certainly. The first clue is - in the 1950s, he published "Brave New World Revisited," a supplement to his 1932 work. Joe (ph)?

JOE: Who is Aldous Huxley?

TREBEK: You are right.

JOE: Cards for 200.

TREBEK: The high card in a royal flush poker hand. Lee (ph)?

LEE: What is the ace?

TREBEK: Right.

LEE: Thank you, Alex. I'll start with M for $200, please.

TREBEK: The answer - meaning, belonging to the muses. It's a picture made of colored tiles set in mortar. Joe?

JOE: What is a mosaic?

TREBEK: Right.

JOE: Starts with M for 400.

TREBEK: The answer there is an audio daily double.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Maybe a lot of viewers already know the answer to this, but I don't. What's the rationale for having to give the answer in the form of a question?

TREBEK: Basically, it's a gimmick. But it is the gimmick that makes "Jeopardy!" unique among quiz programs. It adds one step to a mental process that is already very difficult for our contestants. And it happens to be the way that Merv Griffin invented the game.

GROSS: I've seen times when a contestant has lost money because instead of saying, what is the Brooklyn Bridge, Alex, they say, the Brooklyn Bridge. Does it make you feel bad when you have to...

TREBEK: Oh, sure.

GROSS: ...Disqualify an answer because it wasn't asked in the form of a question?

TREBEK: Oh, absolutely. I'm not a mean person. I'm there to see that the contestants do as well as they possibly can within the context of the rules. Now, we are lenient to a certain extent. In the Jeopardy! round, the first round of play, we always remind the contestants about their phrasing. We do not do that in Double Jeopardy!, we do not do that in Final Jeopardy!, and we do not do that for any of the Daily Doubles. If they make a mistake in those three instances, unfortunately, it is going to cost them.

And it cost one of our players in last year's Tournament of Champions very dearly. He got the correct response, but he didn't put it in the form of a question. I was heartbroken for him. I had tears in my eyes. He took it a lot better than I did. So, yes, it does upset us when that kind of thing happens. And as a result, we have contestant coordinators working with the players through all the commercial breaks, constantly reminding them, remember; phrase it in the form of a question, especially on Final Jeopardy!

GROSS: Do you guys ever make mistakes in what you think the correct answer is and have to correct it after the commercial?

TREBEK: Usually our facts are correct, but they may be incomplete. A contestant who knows a great deal about a particular subject may be able to enlighten us and say, hey; this really is right. I'm a nuclear physicist, and your question had to do with nuclear physics. And none of your writer-researchers are experts in this field, and I am. And if you look in such and such a book, you'll find that my response is acceptable. And we'll do that, and we'll make a correction.

GROSS: I don't know what your role is in choosing the contestants. Are you involved in that process?

TREBEK: No. The networks are very sensitive to the old scandal problem that gave them a great deal of concern in the 1950s. And so what they like to have is a separation of powers or a separation of personnel, if you will, between the contestant area and the material preparation area. And because I was producer and was overseeing everything, I made a decision on my own to stay out of the contestant selection process entirely.

GROSS: It sounds like it's quite an elaborate process. Contestants have to take tests and then do sample shows before you pass them and make them an official contestant.

TREBEK: Absolutely. It's probably the most difficult test of any show on the air right now, and it has to be. We want our contestants to have a broad base knowledge. We want them to be able to recall information quickly and accurately. We want them to be able to play the game well, and we also would like them to have some measure of personality.

GROSS: For a lot of people, I think getting on a game show is a peak experience. You're not only on TV, but you're also able to make a lot of money while you're on TV, bringing together two of the great American dreams. And people would be so nervous in that moment that I'd imagine a lot of people freeze once the cameras turn on.

TREBEK: Not really.

GROSS: Does that happen a lot? Really? They're that well prepared, huh (ph)?

TREBEK: It doesn't really happen on "Jeopardy!," and I'll tell you why. Most game shows or quiz shows are taped five programs in one day, so you need a whole week's supply of contestants on that particular date. They've already had a rehearsal game prior to this, so they've gotten kind of comfortable with the television lights, with the camera, the music and all of the activity that's going on in the studio.

And in addition, the people who are upcoming contestants are sitting in the audience and are playing the game. They're saying, oh, boy. And you always play it a lot better when you're not involved in it. I'm sure you've heard the comment from your friends who might be "Jeopardy!" fans. They say, gosh, I sit at home in my living room, and I get everything right. Well, that's true. Most people do a lot better in their living rooms than they will ever do on the program. And our contestants react the same way. So they're in the audience, and they're feeling confident. They say, gee, I wish I had that game. Boy, I'd have been able to make $15,000. And now all of a sudden, it's their turn. So they realize nothing bad's going to happen.

What they're concerned about most - and this is true, I would say, of 90% of the "Jeopardy!" players - is not making a fool of themselves. Most of the time, our contestants are not there for the money on "Jeopardy!" They are there to show off their intellectual skills. They are there to have their moment in the sun and be television stars for that half-hour.

GROSS: Well, thanks for talking with us, Alex.

TREBEK: My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

My interview with Alex Trebek was recorded in 1987. He died of pancreatic cancer yesterday. He was 80. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, imagine standing in a soccer field when suddenly the medical device in your chest shoots 2,000 volts of electricity directly to your heart. Our guest will be Katherine Standefer, whose new memoir is about living with an implanted cardiac defibrillator and struggling to keep health insurance as Congress was trying to abolish the Affordable Care Act. She also writes about visiting precious metal mines in Africa to investigate the human cost of making exotic medical devices. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND'S "IT'S ALL OVER NOW")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND'S "IT'S ALL OVER NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.