The late Alex Trebek’s final appearance as the host of Jeopardy! will air tonight. Columnist Carl Cafarelli wrote this piece in 2018, and we reprise it here in tribute to a beloved personality. What is courage? Alex Trebek.
I’ve never spoken much about my love of game shows. It’s not a secret, and I’m certainly not ashamed of it, but it doesn’t come up much in conversation, nor have I ever really been inspired to write about it. When I fell hard for the old What’s My Line? via black-and-white reruns on Game Show Network, I toyed with the idea of slappin’ together a piece about that show’s status as a unique and captivating time capsule of the entertainment world in the ’50s and ’60s. I found What’s My Line? utterly fascinating, and I may yet write about that at length some day.
My favorite game show is Jeopardy!, and I still watch it faithfully. I also watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, though I’m a Johnny-come-lately on that one; I never watched it much when it was in prime time, and only began following its afternoon airings a few years ago. Most of the prime-time game shows fail to interest me. When I say I love game shows, that love is not indiscriminate. Jeopardy!, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, and the music-oriented Beat Shazam are the only current game shows I watch regularly; the latter is between seasons right now, and I haven’t quite forgiven it for using Shazam in its title but not even bothering to reference the original Captain Marvel, the bastards. (In Beat Shazam‘s favor, though, it’s difficult to be mad at a show which uses “Let’s Groove” by Earth, Wind & Fire as its theme song.)
One of my earliest TV favorites was a game show, specifically a kid’s game show called Shenanigans! hosted by Stubby Kaye. Man, I loved that show. On 1960s afternoons when I was home sick from school, I delighted in all manner of sitcom reruns, the occasional soap opera (The Edge Of Night and Secret Storm), and games shows from Concentration and Hollywood Squares to Let’s Make A Deal, The Newlywed Game, and The Dating Game. To Tell The Truth was a particular favorite, and I always loved Jeopardy! I’m not certain, but I think my brother Art may have tried out for the old Jeopardy!, when it was hosted by Art Fleming.
In the ’70s, I continued to watch game shows: The Match Game, The Wizard Of Odds (with some guy named Alex Trebek billed as the man with the money to make a dark day sunny), Musical Chairs (a short-lived musical game show hosted by Adam Wade, featuring a then-unknown Sister Sledge, and probably the first U.S. game show with an African-American host), and Beat The Clock!, among others. I never liked Name That Tune. And nothing ever touched Jeopardy!‘s status as my favorite. Still, I probably didn’t even realize when it went off the air in 1975, concerned as I was with surviving high school and maybe finding a girl willing to share some lovely parting gifts and a copy of her home game or something.
When Jeopardy! returned in 1984, I wasn’t impressed. I missed Art Fleming, thought Alex Trebek should go back to wizarding his odds, and probably figured the revival was doomed. I…uh, revised my opinion. I’m not kidding when I say the only reason I haven’t cut the cable is so I can keep watching Jeopardy! and Who Wants To Be A Millionare? at the convenience of me and my DVR. Don’t judge. I am as God made me.
I tried out for Jeopardy! once, in the late ’80s. There was a traveling open call for contestant try-outs, and it stopped in Syracuse. Well, what the hell, right? Well, the hell indeed. The try-out was a written test, give to me and a large number of others gathered at a hotel conference room. We weren’t informed of our individual test scores, but I was among that vast majority of prospective contestants whose names were not called to move on. Alex, what is frustration? The only bright spot for me and my fellow losers? A somewhat obnoxious applicant, bragging throughout the pre-test milling period about how he was a MENSA member and a sure-fire future Jeopardy! champion, was sent home right with the rest of us. What is schadenfreude?
Watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with my wife and daughter over the past few years, I occasionally think about what a kick it would be to get on there and try my luck and vast repository of utterly useless trivia. I don’t actually think I’d do all that well. When the show relocated from the East Coast to Vegas, I gave up any fanciful notion of wanting to be a wannabe millionaire.
I’ve only ever tried out for three game shows in my lifetime. Jeopardy! was the biggest name I ever attempted. Around 1989 or ’90, a proposed music trivia game show (if I ever knew its title, I don’t recall it now) was, I guess, going around different places trying to put together a presentation to sell the show. One of its stops was Camillus Mall in Syracuse’s Western suburbs. A game show? Music trivia? I couldn’t resist that!
And I did pretty well. I sailed through the written test (though another audience member had to give me a helpful nudge when I couldn’t remember the name Billy Joe Royal), and was chosen to compete in the actual game. My opponent was a much younger girl, a teenager I think, though she seemed to have a decent command of older rock ‘n’ pop trivia. The show’s host kept exhorting us (the contestants) and the audience to display the proper giddy level of over-the-top enthusiasm. I was in my mercifully brief laid-back phase–I was a mature adult of thirty years, after all–but I did my best to seem, you know, breathless and in-the-moment. I was in the lead pretty much the entire game, but ultimately lost on the final question, failing to name the common trait among Percy Faith‘s “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’,” The Ventures‘ “Hawaii Five-O”,” and Paul Mauriat‘s “Love Is Blue.” They’re all themes!, I blurted out. NO, YOU FOOL! The host didn’t really say that, but he was surprised I’d missed it; he’d made the mistake of believing I was competent. My young adversary knew they were all instrumentals, and she won the gazillion dollars and the life-time supply of Turtle Wax. I won a set of headphones. No one got a copy of the home game.
I vaguely recall that we were all invited to come back the next day for another go at the same location, but I already other plans. I was, in fact, going to try out for another game show.
The day after almost winning but finally self-destructing on this would-be musical game show, I was set to participate in open auditions on the Syracuse University campus, with a chance to appear on what was then my favorite of all game shows.
I was going to audition for MTV’s Remote Control. That story unfolded in a previous Boppin’ Pop-A-Looza (https://popalooza.art/2020/04/10/remote-control/) But don’t touch that dial! The MENSA guy would be so disappointed with you.