Alex Trebek was America's greatest pop culture intellectual — and it happened kind of by accident

  • Alex Trebek, the longtime host of "Jeopardy!", died on November 8 at the age of 80.
  • His legacy will be marked as one of democratizing intellectualism: He made it cool to be smart.
  • Americans partly have Cold War-era politics to thank for Trebek's ascendance.
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As the eighth-most-trusted person in America, Alex Trebek was both lucky and good.

For more than decades, Trebek, who died at the age of 80 on Sunday following a 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer, was the host of "Jeopardy!" — the dry yet oddly addictive answer-and-question quiz show launched by TV titan Merv Griffin in 1964. Trebek took over from the show's original host, Art Fleming, in 1984. He was a bushy-haired 44-year-old with a cop's mustache.

Little did he know he was in the perfect position to redefine the American TV-watching experience, imprint beloved memories on millions of families, and change American pop culture forever. 

The man behind the podium

The longstanding success of "Jeopardy!" — having recently entered its 37th season and still regularly pulling in 25 million pairs of eyeballs a week — is owed to Trebek. He turned a simple question-and-answer game show into a high-stakes meeting of the minds.

Somehow, though, the show never lost its friendly face. And it's primarily because Trebek was the core of the "Jeopardy!" brand — he was "Jeopardy!" — whether it was his endearing attempts at witty banter with the contestants after the first commercial break or his just-go-for-it (and often flawless) pronunciation of foreign words. He seemed like he genuinely knew every answer, and was disappointed when contestants couldn't compete with his monster brain.

Not that he was somehow above the mainstream. Trebek's middle-brow charm and professorial approach to hosting will live on forever in Will Ferrell's impersonation on "Saturday Night Live," perhaps most notably as an exasperated straight man to Norm MacDonald's uncontrollable Burt Reynolds.

Other intellectuals have certainly owned corners of the TV market, many of them comedians — Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and Bill Maher, just to name a few.

But Trebek was the original family-room brainiac. Not to mention, he has hosted more episodes of anything than anyone ever. On June 13, 2014, he broke Bob Barker's record as host of "The Price is Right" when he hosted his 6,829th "Jeopardy!" episode.

When television and politics collide

Historically speaking, Trebek's rise to his illustrious position was kind of a happy accident — one driven largely by political will.

When "Jeopardy!" first hit the airwaves in 1964, America's greatest ideological opponent was the Soviet Union. We were in the middle of the Cold War. Yuri Gagarin, a Russian, had beaten us to outer space three years earlier.

For the next three decades, the US had something to prove.

In the millions of quiet living rooms around the country, meanwhile, episodic television was on the up and up. Americans watched shows that existed only in 22-minute chunks of airtime. They watched Marcia Brady get hit in the nose with an errant football one Friday and forget about it the next.

Around this time, the game-show world was still in its infancy, but it had already gained a dirty reputation as a genre defined by scandal. Past shows were accused of fixing who won and creating false storylines to drum up ratings.

In 1960, Congress declared that rigging quiz shows was officially illegal.

For the first decade or so of its life, the well-meaning "Jeopardy!" — a front-row student in a class of hooligans — failed to escape that stigma.

Then came the 80s, and TV saw a tectonic shift.

The cast of "Cheers."Magazine3.comSeries like "Dallas," "Cheers," and "Magnum P.I." took on larger arcs that viewers paid attention to and cared about. The shows mixed in darker themes and had well-rounded characters. Audiences enjoyed watching powerful people flaunt that power and, like true Americans, wield it mightily.

It was a climate prime for the drama of "Jeopardy!," which had just relaunched with a daily syndication and a fresh-faced host named Alex Trebek. 

Winning contestants could keep coming back so long as they took home the most prize money. Viewers remembered their faces and could debate with family members whether this week's underdogs were capable of stealing the champion's throne.

Alex Trebek's 1984 takeover of "Jeopardy!" came at a time when American audiences were perfectly primed for strong, narrative TV and simultaneously possessed the competitive drive to outsmart the Soviets. Everything American families wanted — dramatic TV, a sense of intellect, prestige — Trebek held in the palm of his hand.

Cementing his legacy

Thirty-six years later, not much had changed. Prior to his cancer diagnosis, Trebek no longer sported the mustache, and his hair may have taken on a silver sheen, but the show still proceeded by the same rhythms it always had.

In that way, the legacy Trebek will leave behind is one in which he democratized intellectualism. He led a show that, right when people felt they need a leg up the most, armed American households with a kind of brainpower that gave people the feeling they helped destroy a major enemy, even if they never left the couch.

"Jeopardy!" will probably never move the needle on US test scores, but what it will always do is uplift a deeply held American belief. If something can be formed into a competition, in which there is a clear winner trailed by a pack of losers, it doesn't matter if it's a competition between know-it-alls, we will spend 36 years watching it, unblinking.

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