I've always wondered what it would be like to be someone like Alex Trebek. He's on television every night, and every night he marches through the same unchanging quiz show format. He's a virtual automaton of suave unflappability, night after night. Does he have an actual personality? Is he half as intelligent as the authoritative character he plays on television?
I unexpectedly found myself groping with these questions last month at Raleigh's RBC Center. On a soundstage built over the hockey ice, I watched the taping of a few episodes of College Jeopardy! Ten episodes--two weeks worth--were taped Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 1-2. Fifteen contestants, chosen for cognitive excellence and geographic diversity, were vying for the top prize of $100,000. Representing the four Triangle universities were Malisha Butts of N.C. Central, Chris Chilton of UNC, Peter Ellis of NCSU and Chelsea He of Duke. (College Jeopardy! week began Monday. Ellis will appear Wednesday and He on Thursday.)
Trebek himself worked the crowd between episodes, occasionally directing well-practiced, extremely wooly barbs at his announcer/straight man. He waxed nostalgic about a chocolate milkshake he had on his last visit to North Carolina, in Asheville when he was a teenager. He also revealed himself to be rather tightly wound, even prickly as he answered questions from the crowd. When someone asked him how he gets along "with that Pat Sajak fellow," Trebek took a stab at saucy humor that came off as a charmless leer. "I get along with that Pat Sajak fellow just great, but I really get along with that Vanna White lady."
My turn to talk with Trebek came early in the day, before the taping. One of the show's overbearing publicists steered me into a line with other reporters, where my caffeine-deprived brain groped for a conversation topic beyond "How do you like North Carolina?" Before I was quite awake or ready, the publicist ushered me up to the lectern on the soundstage, where Trebek waited for me in his stage makeup and suit, complete with pocket handkerchief.
I start by mentioning that I write about movies. He smiles and takes control. "What is your all-time favorite movie?" A question I can never answer, but I tell him I've always liked the work of John Ford, particularly The Searchers and Stagecoach. Trebek seems unimpressed, but then proceeds to reveal an astonishing command of John Ford trivia, telling me about Ford's brother Francis and the time he met Hank Worden, a regular player in Ford's films.
We're halfway through the interview, and he's still Alex Trebek, smoothly knowledgeable about absolutely everything. I finally decide to ask my one big question, which I preface with an appeal to his vanity by mentioning that he studied philosophy in college.
"To me, your nightly presence on television is very reassuring. Your show is one in which there are right answers and wrong answers and it's actually an asset to be intelligent," I begin. "But when you change the channel to the news, all you see is spin. Facts don't matter. For example, it's hard to find a straight answer to whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction."
A flicker of interest passes across Trebek's face, but he isn't going to touch this subject. After a smile and a pause, he comes up with a Clintonesque answer, in the form of a question.
"I guess it really does depend on what the meaning of 'is' is."