Alex Trebek became the host of ‘Jeopardy!’ 36 years ago. Here’s 12 facts about the show
In his new book, Trebek goes behind the scenes on ‘Jeopardy!’ The host reflects on his favorite moments and talks about why the show is so successful.
To celebrate the anniversary — and to get ready for the new season that starts on Sept. 14 — here are 12 fun facts about Trebek and the quiz show, as explained in Trebek’s recent memoir, “The Answer is ... Reflections on my Life.”
Trebek hosted ‘Wheel of Fortune’ before ‘Jeopardy!’
Before debuting as the host of “Jeopardy!” Trebek actually had a brief stint on “Wheel of Fortune.” In 1980, Chuck Woolery, the game show’s host at the time, was sick. Trebek got a call from the show’s creators asking him to fill in at the last minute.
When “Wheel of Fortune” went into syndication a few years later, the creators decided to bring “Jeopardy!” back on the air to fill up an hour block (Art Fleming had previously hosted the quiz show for about a decade, from 1964-1975). They called Trebek again.
“Will you pay me?” Trebek jokingly asked.
After they said “yes,” Trebek responded: “OK, I’m your man.”
Trebek didn’t get paid a lot at first
Merv Griffin, the show’s creator, was stingy, according to Trebek. At first, the host made more money from previous shows than what he was making on “Jeopardy!” To earn more money, Trebek produced the show’s first three seasons. In that role, he made one significant change after season 1.
When the show first came back on the air, contestants could ring in as soon as they saw the clue. This caused confusion for viewers at home, because they would sometimes miss seeing which contestant buzzed in since the camera hadn’t yet shifted from the clues to the contestants.
Now, players are required to wait until after Trebek has read the entire clue before buzzing in. Trebek said this allows viewers a better experience of playing along at home.
The first clue was...
The first game with Trebek as host had categories including lakes and rivers, inventions, animals, foreign cuisine and actors. The first clue to get selected was: “These rodents first got to America by stowing away on ships.”
(The answer: Rats).
Ratings weren’t always high
After a few weeks of low viewership, the show’s distribution company was concerned that “Jeopardy!” was too tough and people were having a hard time connecting with the quiz show. The head of that company, Michael King, asked Trebek to change up the material — but the host had already taped two months worth of shows.
The next time Trebek saw King, the host said: “Did you notice that the material got a lot easier?”
“Yeah!” King said. “Thank you so much for doing that. It’s playing a lot better now.”
But Trebek hadn’t changed a thing.
The theme song
Merv Griffin wrote the “Jeopardy!” theme song, “Think.” It was originally a lullaby for his son, titled “A Time for Tony.” Every time the song would air, Griffin got royalties. Before Griffin’s death, that song earned him close to $80 million.
Trebek said he never gets tired of hearing the theme song.
“It’s part of Americana,” he wrote. “It’s something people recognize immediately. Same thing if somebody says, ‘Hey, you didn’t phrase that in the form of a question.’ Everybody in the room knows exactly what the reference is.”
Trebek’s kids didn’t watch ‘Jeopardy!’
Trebek films “Jeopardy!” two days a week — five games a day. That’s only 46 days out of the year, leaving the host with a lot of time to spend with his family. When his two kids Emily and Matthew were growing up, Trebek said they didn’t watch “Jeopardy!” often.
“It was not must-see television for them,” he wrote. “They knew their father was the host of a television quiz show. But they’d say, ‘I’m doing my homework now, so I’m not gonna watch.’”
He doesn’t consider himself the star of the show
As the host of “Jeopardy!” Trebek views his primary responsibility to be keeping the contestants calm and encouraging them to do their best. Even though he is the face of “Jeopardy!” Trebek has always insisted that he be introduced as the host rather than the star. He views the real stars to be the contestants and show’s writers.
“You could replace me as the host of the show with anybody and it would likely be just as popular,” he wrote. “After 36 years with me, it might even be more popular. … I try to be intelligent enough with regard to my profession to know what the most important elements of the show are. Right at the top are the writing and the clues.”
Trebek sometimes helps out with clues
Trebek contributes a clue from time to time. After a category about football was a complete dud — a viral video showed that none of the contestants buzzed in on a single clue — Trebek came up with the idea to do a category about football signals indicating penalties.
For this category, when revealing the clues, he got to have some fun and act out the signals. The contestants did significantly better on this category.
On the days Trebek tapes “Jeopardy!” he goes into the studio at 6 a.m. He then grabs some breakfast — which for many years consisted of a Diet Coke and Snickers.
“Then my doctor lectured me about changing that. So now it’s a Kit Kat and a Diet Pepsi,” he joked.
At 7:30 a.m., he reads through the clues for all five games being filmed that day — 305 clues. For 90 minutes, he practices pronunciation. At 9 a.m he goes to a production meeting with writers and producers, changing the wording on some of the clues and reviewing the games to make sure clues and categories aren’t too similar.
He then gets his makeup done and puts on his suit. And then it’s showtime.
For each game, he uses a crayon to cross off clues as he reads them aloud to make sure he doesn’t repeat them (he said the crayon is the writing tool that makes the least amount of noise and can’t be picked up by a microphone.)
He takes 15 minutes between each show to change his suit.
Taping finishes around 5 p.m. It’s an 11-hour work day.
“Yes, ‘Jeopardy!’ is a game,” Trebek writes. “But to all of us who work on the show, it’s a job — one we take seriously.”
His favorite contestant
Trebek has interviewed countless contestants over the years, but one that sticks out in his mind is Dana Venator, who competed in the teen tournament in 1987. The high school junior from Georgia was learning how to play the bagpipes and told Trebek she would head deep into the woods behind her house to practice so as not to disturb her neighbors. She also wrote what she called “bad poetry.”
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Some poems rhyme
And some don’t
“What I found most endearing about her interview was how giddy and wide-eyed she was about the entire ‘Jeopardy!’ experience,” Trebek wrote. “Dana has always served as a great reminder to me to never take anything for granted and to always appreciate even the simplest things.”
Favorite ‘Celebrity Jeopardy!’ moment
Trebek recalled a “Celebrity Jeopardy!” game in 2004 featuring Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan and Tucker Carlson. During the game, Noonan buzzed in and answered the following clue: “He’s the shadowy Watergate source.”
After Noonan correctly answered with “Deep Throat,” Trebek turned to Woodward and asked: “We’ve been waiting for over 30 years for this. Who is Deep Throat?”
Woodward’s response? “How much do I get if I answer that?”
Trebek called it one of the funniest moments in all his years of hosting “Jeopardy!”
The show’s success
“You never have to apologize for admitting that you watch ‘Jeopardy!’”
According to Trebek, part of the show’s success is that audiences view it with more respect than they do other game shows. Viewers are learning something new from the show, getting real value out of it.
The show’s longevity also helps. In total, “Jeopardy!” has been on for almost 50 years, becoming a multigenerational tradition. With Americans being so competitive — and the quiz show covering trivia that appeals to different ages and generations — there’s room for everyone to impress at some time or another.
But above all else, Trebek said viewers continue to return to “Jeopardy!” because it’s familiar.
“The show has become part of the fabric of American life,” Trebek writes. “At some point — and it occurred slowly over the years — we made the transition from just being an enjoyable quiz show to being part of your daily life.”