Trivia, Trebek and the Game

Interesting fact – Trivia is the name of the Roman goddess of the underworld, also known as the Queen of Ghosts. She’s considered to be more of a counterpart to the Greek Hecate rather than Persephone, but myths and legends change shape over time. 

Current usage defines trivia as small, perhaps obscure facts, and our culture gives a remarkable amount of respect to those whose brains hold on to this kind of odd information. 

The death of Alex Trebek, the host of the game show “Jeopardy,” has reverberated through the news in the last week, giving many an occasion to say how much they like the game, what a great tv personality he was, and how much he will be missed. As “Jeopardy” films at Sony Pictures Entertainment on Washington Boulevard, it’s local news as well. 

As it was through my adventures as a “Jeopardy” contestant that I became a local, I thought it could be an occasion to have some fun with trivia, or even, with Trivia. 

Celebrity in America is a powerful and strange status. Trebek was beloved for decades as a television presence, and so low key and modest that he often remarked that while he enjoyed it, he didn’t quite get what the fuss was about. The most controversial thing about him was the occasional mustache or beard. 

There could not have been a better match for the job. He was not just reading the teleprompter, he really knew a lot of facts, large and small, and the game had to be played with precision. 

I had the good luck to be a contestant on “Jeopardy,” the extreme good luck to win a game, and used my winnings as the central part of a down payment on a modest house in Culver City. My show was broadcast on Dec. 30, 1999 and escrow closed on Dec. 24, 2001. I think every weekend in between was spent at open houses. It’ s like trying on clothes, only a thousand times more expensive and permanent. 

Appearing on “Jeopardy” was a lot of fun, and more than a little terrifying. I was married at the time, five months pregnant with my first daughter, and on ‘bed rest’ to ease the stress of a collection of complications and health issues. Even taking on the excitement and risk of the game was a challenge. I had passed the contestant exam before my condition had really gotten serious, but I did feel quite like I was playing hooky to show up and play “Jeopardy.” I had been too excited to sleep, forbidden to drink coffee, and using my yoga breathing exercises to keep my blood pressure stable. 

Trebek was solicitous, off camera, of my condition, and he assured me that standing behind the contestant’s podium is the perfect height to hide a ballooning belly. He also paid me the compliment “When my wife was five months pregnant, she couldn’t remember where she’d left the car keys, let alone the religious practices of the Aztecs. You will be just fine.”  

Because the game is part of my family mythology, my children adopted Trebek as kind of cultural uncle, a Dickensian sort of benefactor without whom our life here would not have been possible. I have laughingly reminded that that I won the game, he didn’t gift it to me. But their joy in this connection was not to be dampened. “Your friend Alex Trebek,” as if we’d gone to school together, rather than spending a day on a soundstage. 

Interesting fact – There is a book called “How to Get on Jeopardy and Win” by Michael Dupee, a 1996 Jeopardy champion. Best advice from Dupee – study opera and flags. Two frequent categories that trip people up. Both of them were on the board the day I played. 

Telling people you are a “Jeopardy” champion gets a reaction like telling them you won gold at the Olympics, or graduated summa cum laude from some Ivy League university, only better. It’s a daydream that millions of people have had over many years – who doesn’t want to win at Jeopardy? and interestingly, I’ve never had anyone grudge my success. Tell someone you won on “Jeopardy” and they are just impressed and pleased for you. It’s not a game where you can cheat – it’s just about how fast you can articulate a question to respond to an answer that often has the needed info coded into the clue. It’s a skill so weird, it borders on being bizarre – but on “Jeopardy,” it’s highly valued talent. 

I doubt that the game could have been as successful without Trebek. His sense of relaxed but earnest competition, his charming playfulness with anxious, nervous contestants; he was unique in the world of game shows.

I’m sure that the Queen of Ghosts has made him welcome. He will be missed. 

Judith Martin-Straw

The Actors' Gang

1 Comment

  1. That was a beautiful remembrance, both of your journey to Culver City, and to the man and his gift to American culture. Thank you, Judith!

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