Jeopardy!, now 53 years removed from its debut, has polished itself down to something close to perfection: the glossy stage, the blue squares, the hand-drawn name tags, the question format, the doo-doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo-doo …
Alex Trebek, 76, has hosted the show since 1984, and about the only sign of time passing since then is the shaving of his mustache (and then its 2014 reappearance, followed shortly thereafter by an audience-selected removal). Ken Jennings — the first real glitch in Jeopardy!’s system, who won 74 straight games (and more than $2.5 million) in 2004 after the show got rid of its five-game-streak maximum — once suggested that the real Trebek had been killed and replaced with a robot, such is the host’s unflappability. He’s not the only one to have suggested that Trebek isn’t human: A metal band from Zion Grove, Pennsylvania, has a song called “Alex Trebek Is a Robot.” Trebek only added to these suspicions when he made a fishy, mechanical attempt at mimicking dancing under a strobe light in 2006, moves that earned him the YTMND treatment.
But Trebek is not a robot. Sure, he runs a tight ship: The half-hour episodes take just that time to film, and his usual sign-off — so-and-so gets to come back and play again tomorrow; we hope you’ll join us — might as well be taped for all its variation. Thirty-three years in, his hosting is a slickly run machine, more science than art.
Yet there’s one thing that gets a rise out of Trebek: how much the winning contestant earns, or, more often, how pitifully little the pathetic mortals before him have managed to wring out of his employer. Exhibit A:
Sorry, what was that? That’s not shade? Actually he seems very polite? What a truly nice and kind man???
Listen. The Jeopardy! universe is one of nerds and repressed emotions. That quiet little “… OK” in response to a $10,399 payday is as nasty as it gets. Trebek has two settings: mildly, politely impressed and Disappointed Dad. Where, I wondered, might the line between the two lie? How much money do you have to win on Jeopardy! to impress Alex Trebek?
Game shows give away money. Sure, there’s the game part, and the 1950s glitz and taglines and all that. But the main thing that happens in your average half-hour studio contest is somebody wins some dough. So how do hosts crown their victors?
Pat Sajak, host of Wheel of Fortune, rarely diverges from chivalrous pride in his charges’ victories: Good work; bang-up job; enjoy your convertible; keep your ears clean; ta-ta.
Steve Harvey, on Family Feud, is uniformly joyful and a little bit scattered, like a golden retriever who’s just caught a ball. By the time someone wins, he’s already had the chance to do what his viewers are really there to see: let contestants walk themselves into a trap of overexuberance or accidental revelation, allowing Harvey to lean back and sputter at the camera in pantomime disbelief. He’s happy for his winners, but only as a matter of routine. Fine. Good. Congrats.
Not so with Alex Trebek. His guests, unlike so many of their game-show peers, have the opportunity to come back to his stage, since the highest earner from each episode carries on to the next one. His guests can keep earning even after a given episode’s credit roll. They have the chance to win it all, and boy, does Trebek want them to.
“Congratulations! Great game! Superb finish! Way to go!”
You can win a lot of money on Jeopardy!. It is possible, in theory, to win $566,400, assuming you get every single clue and are able to max out all available Daily Doubles. This, of course, is not a likely outcome at this particular point on the space-time continuum: The single-game record is $77,000, set by Roger Craig in 2010.
The vast majority of contestants get nowhere near that mark. Between October 4, 2004, and January 6, 2017, the average prize was $20,137. That’s a great deal of money to go home with in exchange for an afternoon of playing trivia, particularly given that the going rate is a free pitcher of PBR. Trebek does not share this outlook. He wants you to win, and wants you to win big. If you don’t, odds are good that you’re going to hear about it.
In December, after four consecutive games in which winners failed to top $17,000, Trebek sounded a gloomy note: “In case you’re joining us for the first time this week, I’ll just say it’s been a weird, weird week. Enough said.”
By “weird” he meant “low-earning.” Boring. Disgraceful. Best not to talk about it at all. Enough said.
Sometimes, though, he does talk about it. “$9,200 only for Sean yesterday,” Trebek opened apologetically during another game, recounting the previous match’s low earnings. Addressing his two new contestants, he told them, “I’ll express the same thing I said yesterday: I hope we get a big payday today! It’s up to you guys.”
“Don’t let me down!” Trebek added. You know, like all the other bozos who have let him down. Like that bozo, Sean, who is standing right there. Less than $10,000! $557,200 below what he might have made! Trebek offered him riches! He offered him glory! The whole world before him! And what did he do? He let Trebek down.
“It wasn’t easy today, was it?” he asked a $10,800 winner.
No, Alex. It wasn’t.
Or there’s this, from 2015, in which Trebek mocked the $7,800 the previous episode’s champion pulled in as she smiled awkwardly:
Trebek, renderer of justice, does offer mercy to those he feels have earned it: When the same champion won her second contest — with a more respectable $21,200 in hand — Trebek seemed soothed. “Wow,” he said. “What a way to end the week.”
But sometimes there is no mercy to be found, like in this January 2016 episode, when all three players managed to finish with $0:
His contestants laughed nervously, but Trebek remained stone-faced. Apparently done addressing the three losers — just a clinical diagnosis; Jeopardy! is a place where precision is awarded — he turned to the audience. None of the contestants, he explained, would appear on any subsequent matches. “Sorry, folks,” he said, gesturing at the failure to his side. Sorry. Sorry they weren’t better.
It is possible that three-plus decades of handing away cash have warped Trebek’s understanding of money. Sajak, guest-hosting an episode on April Fools’ Day 1992, cheerfully called the prior episode’s prize of $14,550 “a great day.” Trebek himself has called a $13,201 payday “modest”; $19,199 became, wistfully, “good enough to remain champion.” As a devoted Jeopardy! watcher, my hunch is that Trebek will settle for his winners making anything above the $20,137 average. More than that and he tends to be reasonably impressed; dip below and he’ll whip out the knives.
I do not pretend to know why Trebek so badly wants contestants to win. Perhaps it’s as simple as big victories draw big audiences. Perhaps he’s locked in a bitter contract dispute with ABC. Or perhaps he sees this as his personal mission: Redistribute funds to the world’s librarians, art-history professors, ornithologists, and otherwise go-getter nerds. One thing, at least, is certain: He will not settle for mediocrity.