Alex Trebek in Seoul, July 2001

As a feature writer for the Korea Times, I got to meet some interesting people including Alex Trebek in 2001.

YONGSAN GARRISON, Seoul—As the host of the TV game show Jeopardy! one of the things that Alex Trebek thinks has made the game so popular is that people in general want to know how they stack up against the contestants on the show.

“People want to know how they compare to bright people,” explained Trebek. “They all want to be challenged that way and particularly in the safety of our own homes.”

Trebek is in Seoul this week to meet with the troops as well as conduct a contestant search for the show at bases in Korea as well as Japan. This is his second visit to Korea. He was here 10 years ago on a similar contestant search and USO goodwill tour.

“We were here in the cold. I remember snow in the DMZ,” recalled Trebek, who also was up at the DMZ on Wednesday. “I was wearing a long trench coat, baseball cap, and gloves to try to keep warm. I was told even then not to wave at the North Korean soldiers.”

Trebek, who has been named an Honorary Ambassador for Visit Korea Year, was taken back by the enormous growth since last time he was here.

“I’ve noticed tremendous changes in the country,” said Trebek. “You have a brand-new state-of-the-art airport. Seoul has become a major, major world city. I come back here after ten years and all I can say is ‘Wow’.”

A native of Ontario, Canada, Trebek graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy. Interested in a career in broadcast news, he joined the Canadian Broadcasting Company. His transformation from broadcaster to game show host started with a high school quiz show in Canada called Reach for the Top. Later, his show Wizard of Odds attracted U.S. viewers’ interest and eventually landed him several game show host stints before Jeopardy! which had gone off the air in 1974 was revived in 1984.

Since then, the popular game show has won numerous awards. Furthermore, it is broadcast in 43 foreign countries and to U.S. service members all over the world through the Armed Forces Radio and Television Services (AFRTS). It was Trebek who first approached the United Services Organization (USO) with his idea of having service members on the show ten years ago. He thought it was a good way to get the military involved and to have more people in uniform represented on the show.

“Our mission is to get out there and meet the troops and let the folks back home know that our troops are in harms way, one way or another,” said Trebek. “It’s not easy being posted in a faraway land, particularly when you are in your 20s and you’ve never been away from home. The USO helps a great deal assisting these young troops adjusting to being away from home.”

Likewise, Trebek pointed out that it was a different kind of USO tour. Instead of sending entertainers and an orchestra, they were sending a smaller group. “It was very easy for them to do because we are a small group and it was very easy to do,” added Trebek. “We were low maintenance and high return in terms of the positive reaction from the troops and because the show is very popular, there was no downside to it.”In addition, Trebek who has also served on the Board of Governors of the USO (he also serves on the Board of Governors for the National Geographic Society) thinks that most Americans don’t know what a great organization the USO has been over the years.

“It’s like an iceberg,” explained Trebek. “They only see the tip which are the entertainment shows like the old Bob Hope shows, or today with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders shows. They don’t know about the Johnny Grants, the Alex Trebeks or the other shows that the USO puts on.”

Trebek and his Jeopardy entourage were at Yongsan on Wednesday and Camp Casey yesterday searching for contestants to appear on the show. Those interested had to first take a preliminary test. Then, if they answered all the questions correctly, they had to take another grueling 50-question test.

The top winners are then put into a contestant pool with the other winners from Korea and two bases in Japan. Then, two lucky contestants will be drawn from this pool and flown to LA with all expenses paid by the USO.

Trebek gets a kick out of doing these shows. After he warmed up the audience gathered to take the test, he spent most of the evening mingling with fans and signing autographs.

Have contestants become cleverer or smarter over the years? Trebek thinks that these days the contestants are a lot more confident.

“In the beginning they were intimidated by the show, but then as they saw other people like themselves do well they realized that ‘hey this isn’t so bad after all and maybe I can get out there and do well,’” noted Trebek. “So, they were encouraged to try out in greater numbers. They’ve become cleverer. They watch the show. They know the finesse points of the game. They know when to push when to wager more, stuff like that. In terms of being smarter, I don’t think they are any smarter than they were in the past.”

As for the show itself, Trebek believes that another one of the things that it has made it such a successful show is that it’s because it’s challenging game, not to mention one that someone at home can play along.

“There’s no fun playing alone if you’re bright because there’s nobody to impress. You can sit there and we can play games with ourselves, like ‘oh, I knew that,’ or ‘he got it just ahead of me.’ Seldom when we are watching would we say, ‘gee, I didn’t know anything about that’,” said Trebek.

“We always rationalize or mitigate somewhat for ourselves. So, it’s a very involving game. You can’t do other things while you’re watching Jeopardy! You can’t vacuum the floor or do the dishes because of all these clues. We deal with about 60 clues in half an hour. You don’t have time to get depressed. You miss one. Tough. Here comes another one.”

Trebek also likened the game to golf.

“It’s like golf. Five bad shots and you’re ready to throw your clubs into the river,” laughed Trebek. “Then you hit a great shot, and you think you can do this. There’s always that allure that sucks you in. We operate on optimism.”

Over the years, the show has offered various tournaments and special formats like ‘Teen Week’ and ‘Celebrity Week.’ Of all these special formats, ‘Teen Week’ has always been Trebek’s favorite, though. He pointed out that the kids are very bright and have a good sense of humor.

Similarly, there have been many special moments on the show since 1984, but the one that sticks out most in his mind is the one when a blind contestant won five games and $70,000.

“He was very impressive because he had overcome a physical handicap,” said Trebek. “It was so heartwarming to have him on the show, especially how he remembered the clues and the categories that had been used, not to mention keeping track of the clues. That was fantastic.

“As host of the program you treat everyone with fairness, but you can’t help but have some favorites that your heart goes out to. That works with the kids. You want them to succeed and when they do, it touches your heart. You’re touched emotionally as well as intellectually.”

Surprisingly, Trebek doesn’t do much preparation for the show. He reads the games in advance so he knows the clues. He looks up certain words, so that he pronounces them correctly. Most of all, he tries to keep abreast of current events.

“I always said that if I were a contestant on the program a good 30-year old would clean my clock,” laughed Trebek. “My reflexes are not as fast as they used to be; I can’t recall things as quickly.”

Trebek believes that being a good TV game host is a lot different than it was in the past. One has to be able to ad lib, run a game, be in control and be comfortable in doing that. Most importantly, the host must want the contestants to succeed and that has to be demonstrable to the viewers.

“They have to know you are there to help the players. You have to be unselfish,” said Trebek. “You don’t want to be taking the glory away from the contestant. It’s not your show. You are there to help them. They are the stars of the show. The game is the star. You are just there to facilitate. You are a facilitator.”

He also added that if one keeps this in mind and you’re lucky to be a good game show, you may get to be around a long time like Bob Barker, Pat Sajak and he has been.

“Then, you become so associated with the quality of the show you can bask off that for a long time,” added Trebek.

Despite the intensity of the show, no one has lost it on the show. According to Trebek the contestants are pretty sharp and have good control over their emotions. Of course this doesn’t mean that after the show they might lose it and complain about a ruling, which has happened. On the other hand, if the show made a mistake about a ruling, they’ll bring the contestant back.

“We don’t have that kind of ego that says ‘tough’. We try to be fair and we want to appear fair,” said Trebek. “However, if we bend over backwards on the ruling for one contestant, we are at the same moment depriving the two other players of an equal opportunity. So, we have to be very cognizant of that. You have to work at achieving that sense of fairness that will be perceived as such by the viewers and I think we’ve achieved that. I think people know that whatever else we are, we are certainly fair to the contestants.”

Now, preparing for its 18th year, Jeopardy! continues to be one of the most popular game shows on American television. Its appeal has not been lost on the multitude of fans at home that are thrilled to come up with the right answer before the buzzer sounds. And if you don’t come up with right answer, there’ll be another question that you might get.

Of course, no one wants to lose, especially on a TV game show in front of millions. Losing on Jeopardy! was parodied in a song by popular songster and parody king Weird Al Yankovic a year after the show had started its second run. Yankovic took the song “Jeopardy,” by the Greg Kihn Band, and turned into “I Lost on Jeopardy.” Trebek had the last laugh, sort of.

“We invited him to our year end party, and he came,’ recalled Trebek fondly. “Later on, he invited me to appear on his kid’s show. He’s a sweet guy. Has a great sense of humor and he’s also a great entertainer.”

This first appeared in the Korea Times on July 26, 2001