In a nation filled with people who will rip each other’s head off about anything, there is one fact that simply isn’t up for debate: Alex Trebek, who died on Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, was the GOAT.
It’s so universally accepted that as a Quizzo host for the last 18 years — aka someone who hangs out constantly with Philly’s nerdiest game-show fans — it never even enters the conversation. If someone at the bar tried to pipe up with something like, “Well, I like Chuck Woolery better,” they wouldn’t even get an argument, just a table of blank stares, a complete loss of respect, and a quick transition into the next topic of discussion.
When I attended my first Quizzo in 2002, the host was beloved Philly legend Irish John. John was salty, profane, and hilarious. Quickly, the thought formed in my head: “I could do this, but make it more like Jeopardy!.' So I created my own quiz, with point values going up, like on Jeopardy!.
With wild sportcoats, like Alex (and other game-show hosts) wore in the 1970s. With “Weekly Doubles” in place of Daily Doubles. Trying to emulate the stately mien of Trebek, I recited the same rules, in the same order, every night. I made small talk with the players. I tried to walk the fine line of “serious but fun” that Trebek and Jeopardy! mastered.
Alex’s greatness and importance have really been on display in the past few years. We live in a country where people agree on nothing. These aren’t disagreements about opinions. These are disagreements about facts. There seems to be no final arbiter anymore about fact: Not the New York Times, not America’s smartest scientists, not government officials.
And yet, as arguments rage about whether the sky is blue, there is only one thing we as Americans all accept: the answers on Jeopardy!. Once Alex says, “Ooh, we would have accepted the Hawley-Smoot Tariff,” well then that’s final, the answer is “the Hawley-Smoot Tariff.” You may claim that Hillary Clinton is running a prostitution ring through a pizza shop, sure, but if you try to argue that the answer on Final Jeopardy wasn’t really “the Hawley-Smoot Tariff,” I suspect they kick you out of QAnon for being out of touch with reality.
The funny thing about Jeopardy! being on each night in our house is that it’s not my doing. At 7 p.m., I’m typically headed to or preparing for work, doling out questions and answers to Philly’s most ardent trivia teams.
But my wife — who has never been a particularly big trivia fan, and who I don’t think has ever actually played in one of my Quizzos — watches it religiously. Every. Single. Night. For a schoolteacher, a mom, and the house chef, those are her few moments of zen in an otherwise hectic weekday. I asked her last night why she liked Jeopardy! so much, even if she didn’t care much about trivia: “Because it’s like having a family member talking in the background.”
That’s comfort. That’s home. And that’s what Alex Trebek was to so many of us, from aspiring quizmasters to the numerous Philadelphia Quizzo players who have appeared on the show to the people who simply liked his soft voice in the background. He was indisputably the best at what he did, he was America’s final arbiter of truth, but more than anything, he sounded like home. That’s a hell of a legacy.
Johnny Nottingham — also known to legions of local trivia fans as Johnny Goodtimes — has been hosting Quizzo in Philadelphia since 2002.