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Article

I’ll Take “Totally Fucking Losing It” For $400, Alex

content warning: mentions of death, allusions to mental illness

 For Sylvie, and for Alex Trebek

On the 30th of March in 1964, a daytime quiz show made its grand debut to the masses. A man named Art Fleming stood at the helm, announcing with gusto each ultra-niche category through his muffled, mid-century microphone.

 This is Jeopardy!

You see, these were the days they actually tried to riff off the show’s name, regularly over-explaining to, and awkwardly waiting for, the audience and contestants to bask in the wit of being in ‘double jeopardy’, among other court-related japes. Alas, the black-and-white house that Art built is a relic of the past. It was Alex Trebek, the dashing, technicolour Canadian with a charm akin to that of the friendliest dad chaperoning the school disco, who was the star of my dalliance with Jeopardy!

You of the quiz show laity may be confused—but for me, this is more than just television. Sometime last year, it felt as if sanity was escaping me. I sat at my desk and tried desperately to distract myself with books, music, old journals, old films, all in vain, until I broke. I found myself unable to see past any and all mild inconvenience. The mere suggestion (MY suggestion) of a hypothetical issue in a possible near-future was enough to send me spiralling. What followed were a frantic few days of filling notebooks with eighty or so pages of scrawled, sorry nonsense and trying to keep my cool as I poured pints of beer at my job. This wasn’t about the early lockdown blues; I wanted to be on my own. In fact, I felt an intense longing to be erased from the minds of all those who I had ever met.

I let it wash over me and tried to go about my day.

Before I continue, let me indulge you if you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the show which dominated my life for a small while. In Jeopardy! there are three rounds, each filled with strange (and often punny) trivia categories which require you to give your answer in the form of a question. For example, on the episode aired May 1 2019, there was a category called ‘Before and After’, wherein the two responses required flowed seamlessly into each other. The host Alex Trebek, dapper as ever, gave the answer worth $400.

“Nature Valley Crunchy Oats 'N Honey Snack that's a rite of passage for a Jewish 13-year-old.”

James Holzhauer, Jeopardy! wunderkind (okay, so he’s 37, but keep in mind that trivia is the domain of the weathered and wise), chimed in:

            “What is granola bar mitzvah?”

 That was an especially good episode.

As any casual trivia lover likely has, I had encountered a bit of Jeopardy! before, here and there. Though it would still come as a surprise even to me to find that I became completely consumed by it after I made my way back to Springwood, to my mother’s house—the suburban palace I now associate with both the terrors of teenagedom and the comfort of Polish food. Day after day, I commandeered the television and played—yes, actually played, Jeopardy! Had you been a fly on a wall in the leafy streets of NSW’s lower Blue Mountains, you would’ve heard me at all hours, yelling all sorts of pithy or otherwise random things to the suited man on the screen,

            “WHAT IS PRE-RAPHAELITE?!”

“WHO IS RICHARD THE LIONHEART??!”

“WHAT ARE THE CARPATHIANS??!”

In a time of (what felt like) great crisis, my couch-bound Jeopardy! winnings felt like small victories. And even the smallest of victories are no laughing matter when only a week or two earlier you found yourself sobbing into a McFlurry. A McFlurry which your elder sister had to buy you in the small hours because she knew something was wrong. You’re in her car. Under the murky yellow of its light. Sobbing, and you can’t quite figure out why.

 Taylor Swift plays softly from her phone in the background. There have been prettier pictures than this.

 But I digress. Back to Alex.

 George Alexander Trebek was born in Ontario, on the 22nd of July, 1940. He hosted Jeopardy! for 36 years. He spent longer on one single program than I’ve even been alive, and then some. Every other week, he would arrive on set and tape five episodes a day over two days-he’d study the questions and answers beforehand. He was a professional, after all. Everyone adored Alex Trebek. Whether he was in his John Oates lookalike phase (or rather, John Oates was in his Alex Trebek phase) or his more mature, white-haired-shaman-of-daytime-television phase, ‘beloved’ is an understatement.

It’s worth noting that during all of this, I knew full well that Alex was both old and ill. My elder brother would visit every now and then and took note of my viewing habits, broaching the topic of his death with me one morning. I told him half in jest that when the Trebekinator went, so did I. He frowned and told me that Alex was eighty years old and suffering from pancreatic cancer. I told him I knew that, obviously, I spent most days with this man. I also told him that I’d devised a similar pact between me and Louis Theroux some years ago, too. Of course, I didn’t really mean it, but you get the gist. These sweet, Sunday moments of banter over potato pancakes would make the dreaded day all the more grim.

My mother, being as doting as she is, and I would guess as wary of my fragile state as she is, brought me coffee in bed almost every morning. This morning, however, the morning of November 9th, 2020, she also brought me flowers. She had picked them from the garden herself. I remember sitting up in bed and seeing that look on her face. The sort of look one would give to a small child so as to say, “your favourite toy is broken.” Such was the importance of this ridiculous, yet sacred routine in my life.

I remember breaking the news to my dad, as he would often reluctantly watch with me (and play incorrectly, mind you). I remember laughing and crying at the same time, aware of the fact that this entire thing was either pathetic or insane, or perhaps a bit of both. For a long time afterwards, I genuinely could not bear to watch the show. If it was an old episode with Alex hosting, the sight of him made me too sad. If it was a new episode with some new host who came to honour his legacy, his glaring absence made me even sadder. There was a Trebek shaped hole in my heart, and no amount of University Challenge, as wonderful as Jeremy Paxman is, could possibly fill it.

If I’m being honest, I still can’t watch Jeopardy! When I look back on those months, I try to reason with myself and explain just why this show was so fixed in my orbit. Trivia is great, yes, I’ve always loved it—but I still don’t think that’s the answer. Once, I thought, maybe it was because here was a kind old man who fulfilled my one wish as I made the shameful pilgrimage to the comfort of my mother’s home. He didn’t know me. He didn’t see me. He couldn’t hear me go on at length about every worry I had ever had and ever would have. He didn’t see me cry over the small things and laugh at the serious things. He couldn’t sit and watch me cooped up in hiding, only wearing an endless rotation of pyjamas. Only eating Babybel cheeses and only drinking coffee and gin for weeks on end. I just played the game, that’s all.

 And for a while, I got really, really good at it.

 

 

 
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