Last week, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek announced that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a heartbreaking bit of news that was only somewhat softened by Trebek’s typically confident delivery and well-practiced deadpan sense of humor. Trivia fans all over the world quickly began to offer comments on how much Trebek and his many years on Jeopardy! have meant to them, but there’s arguably very few people who are more qualified to talk about Trebek’s value to the TV world than iconic Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, who won 74 straight games in 2004 and developed a playful banter with the host as his time on the show went on—especially as Trebek’s tongue-in-cheek frustration with Jennings’ apparent invincibility gradually appeared to grow less and less tongue-in-cheek.
Jennings has now touched on what Trebek means to him—and to generations of TV viewers—for The New York Times, writing that he’s the closest thing the modern entertainment world has to an iconic broadcaster like Walter Cronkite or Johnny Carson. Jennings says in his piece that he doesn’t want to write an elegy for Trebek, as he hopes he’ll still be hosting the show “for a long time to come” (something he’s maintained for a while, even as some websites suggest that he’s the natural choice to follow Trebek), but he just wanted to make sure that we don’t all take him for granted and that we “appreciate the man as long as we have him.”
It’s an interesting essay, if only for the window it opens into just how much a Jeopardy! contestant gets to interact with the Jeopardy! host, but Jennings does succinctly hit on what makes Trebek such an iconic host, explaining that Trebek’s whole persona is built on the simple fact that “Jeopardy! itself, not he, is the star of the show.” Trebek is crucial to the entertainment value of Jeopardy!, but he allows the clues and the categories and the players to take more of the emphasis than him, retaining the sense of prestige that Jeopardy! has over some of its game show contemporaries. In the end, though, the most important point that Jennings makes is that Trebek “knows how much he means to people,” and Jennings hopes that it comforts him to know “that so many people are pulling for him now.”