QUIZ SHOW HOSTS FOR $100: Trebek wants to set the record straight. "Jeopardy! is not a game show," he intones. "It's a quiz show."
Trebek may not want us to confuse Jeopardy! with The Diamond Head Game, that short-lived 1975 TV quiz show set in Waikiki Beach in which contestants dived for dollar bills that spewed from a papier-mâché volcano. Or with Mike Wallace's Who Pays?, a 1959 production on which contestants matched butlers, chauffeurs and maids with their celebrity employers.
Among that dim tribe of telegenic creatures known as M.C.'s, Trebek clearly considers himself the best and the brightest. A French-Canadian with a degree in philosophy from the University of Ottawa, he dazzles viewers with his ability to pronounce such difficult French words as coup de grace, trompe l'oeil and buffet. "Every morning when I wake up I look at my pillow to see if any gray matter has been leached out," he says.
Trebek's precisely snipped gray-black mustache is the most distinguished on television. His hair is shot with gray. too. He's always nicely turned out in a low-button single-breasted suit or a long double-breasted one, all supplied by Mr. Guy of Beverly Hills. Trebek is, in fact, better dressed than his contestants.
At 48, he is a contemporary virtuoso of the television manner: His style is restrained and underplayed, all unthreatening surface. He has a raised-eyebrow quality that makes you think he's not taking things quite seriously. Yet he's a fastidious fellow who puts all his light clothes on white hangers, puts his dark clothes on brown ones, and arranges all his spices alphabetically. The buzz in Hollywood is that Trebek once threw a fit when someone switched the basil and the oregano.
"When I was younger, I knew everything," he confides. "Not only did I know everything, but I remembered it. Now that I'm old, I remember only things that never happened."
That last line was borrowed from Mark Twain, a mother lode of Jeopardy! nuggets. "You learn something by watching Jeopardy!" says Trebek, who says he knows about 10% of the correct responses on the show. "One of our prime purposes is to reinforce the learning ethic in this country. Educators have touted Jeopardy! as a centerpiece for literary motivation. It's the kind of show that appeals to your higher principles and your loftier intellectual aspirations."
And your sense of greed. Still, though champions typically win about $10,000 a show. Trebek insists the contestants are not in it for the money. "They're in it to show off," he says.
OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVES FOR $300: "I used to memorize trivia to impress people, to act knowledgeable." says Dave Traini, a Jeopardy! contestant in 1986. "It's a way to control your environment—if you know everything. People think I'm a genius, but I'm really not. I just know a lot of material. It's dilettantism taken to the nth degree. In our society, people mistake knowledge for intelligence. If only facts could be distilled to wisdom.
"I harbored a dream to get on Jeopardy! for 20 years. Every night I'd come home from work—I was an eighth-grade science teacher—turn on the game shows and keep score. I kept telling my wife. Betty Ann. 'Hey, I'm doing as well as these boobs.' I kept working on her, kept working on her. "If I get on, I'll buy a new car, a new dishwasher." Finally, she said. O.K.