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Alex Trebek Is Here To Tell You, 'The Answer Is ...'

Simon & Schuster

Alex Trebek usually asks all the questions, so we turned the tables and asked him one for a change. What would the Jeopardy! clue be for the question, "Who is Alex Trebek?"

"He's the avuncular host of a popular quiz show who has been around, it seems, forever," Trebek replies.

Trebek, who turns 80 on Wednesday, has been hosting Jeopardy! since 1984. When he was offered the position back then, he had no idea he'd stay with the show for the rest of his career. "It was a job," he says.

Trebek has long resisted writing an autobiography. "I always felt that I had nothing particularly relevant to say to our viewers," he explains. "I'm just a quiz show host who's been doing the same job for 36 years."

But in March 2019, Trebek announced that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. "The outpouring from our viewers after I revealed my diagnosis ... that caught me by surprise and that humbled me a great deal," he says.

It also factored into his decision to agree to write an autobiography after all. The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life comes out on Tuesday. Trebek says all the proceeds will go to charity. And, it turns out, writing an autobiography wasn't so bad in the end.

"I started recollecting things that I had not given any thought to in many, many years," Trebek says. "And it felt good. It was a way of reviewing my entire life, and that just brought me a great deal of satisfaction."

Jeopardy! fans will find plenty of old photos, an entire chapter on Trebek's mustache, and may learn for the first time that the mild-mannered host actually curses quite a bit.

"I'm not going to give you any examples in this interview, but just be aware that I do it and I'm not particularly proud of it," he says. "But, hey, we have to live with who we are."

Interview Highlights

On trying to keep the spotlight on his contestants

Although I'm funny on occasion, I'm not a stand-up comic. I don't try to force the spotlight to be on me when I'm hosting these programs. I'm very conscious of the fact that my job is to work it so that the contestants are able to demonstrate their skills to the best of their ability.

I seem to be, you know, your uncle, your friendly neighbor, and people react to that in a positive way.

I'm fairly well organized in front of the cameras in that I can guide the show. If it's lagging a little bit, I can push it. If it's going too fast, I can slow things down. I have a good sense of pacing with regard to the competition that's underway and I'm not an offensive personality on camera.

I seem to be, you know, your uncle, your friendly neighbor, and people react to that in a positive way. They feel comfortable with me. And so when you combine all of those things, it makes for a pretty pleasant experience for the television viewer. They don't feel, oh, gosh, you know, this is a good game, but that host, he's really obnoxious.

On whether it was therapeutic to write his book

No, not really. Even though I recollected stories that go back, you know, 60, 70, 75 years. But it was just a reasonably pleasant experience — I say reasonably pleasant because we were under pressure. We put it together very quickly in about six weeks. ... The written part came about fairly easily. I would sit at my desk talking on the telephone ... to the editor in New York and just begin thinking about episodes in my past. ... It flowed, and it flowed quickly.

On reassessing his toughness

I guess as a male figure of a certain age — one who belongs to a certain generation — the idea was when we were growing up that men were tough, women were delicate. And all of a sudden I realized maybe that concept of toughness, that way of looking at toughness, doesn't apply to me — because I'm a bit of a wuss. And that bothered me for a while.

And then it ceased bothering me because I came to the conclusion that, hey, maybe you're wrong in looking at toughness the way you have in the past. Maybe toughness is just dealing with life, dealing with what is handed to you, and trying to make the very best of it without falling apart, without denigrating anybody else in the process. Just doing what you can to keep things going in a positive way.

On confronting his mortality

If I were 25 or 30, I'd be fighting like mad every day to overcome this diagnosis. But age does influence you. I'm 80 years old and I've lived a great life. I have a marvelous family. I've had a fantastic career in terms of finances, in terms of acclaim within the television community. I have no reason to complain, whatsoever. So I think that does influence a person's outlook. ... You just say, boy, I've got to be thankful for what God has given me so far.

On Jeopardy! contestant Cindy Stowell, who competed while undergoing treatment for stage 4 colon cancer

She appeared while she was undergoing chemotherapy; she had stage 4 cancer, but she didn't want us to let the other contestants know. The only people who knew were our producers and myself. And while we were taping, she had a few bad moments and we had to stop tape and she would go backstage and be ill. And yet she succeeded and earmarked her funds for cancer research. ... She was just a gem of a person. There are degrees in terms of likability for Jeopardy! players, and she ranked very high in terms of likability.

On trying to reply to the many fans who reach out to him to share their own health struggles

I receive hundreds and hundreds of letters each week. ... There are times when I feel overwhelmed because people are sharing intimate secrets about their diagnoses. ... My heart goes out to them. And yet there's nothing I can do except give them a few words of encouragement. And there's a lot of pressure in my mind that comes with that. So I try to do the best I can, but I am very much aware of the fact that I am not able to necessarily make their lives that much better, or that much different.

On his message to Americans right now

Be kinder to each other. I see America in a crisis situation right now in so many ways. And I want people to open up their hearts, and open up their hands, and open up their wallets to help each other. Because if ever there was a time when we needed to do that, that time is now. ...

We can get through the pandemic if we follow the suggestions, the rules, laid out by the CDC, by the doctors, the epidemiologists, by the scientific people. If we follow what they want us to do, and if we are assiduous in doing that, we can get a grip on this pandemic. And if we get a grip on the pandemic, then the economy will follow right behind.

But, hey, this is a time where we have to come together. ... These are the United States of America, and yet we're so far apart in so many ways. And that, that upsets me. Let's come together. Let's be united. We've got nothing to lose.

Danny Hajek and Ashley Westerman produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.