It was November 6, 2018. I’d just won my third game of “Jeopardy!” and if you’d been playing the Alex Trebek drinking game, you’d have taken another sip of Chardonnay, Alex’s favorite drink.
“Yeah, enjoy the moment,” Alex said.
I was enjoying the moment, though I took the comment as a simple throwaway. It was, I thought, much like the “good for you” I’d received during another episode, that one a Trebekism so common that it spawned a Reddit thread at the beginning of my season in which the poster wondered how often Alex would say it.
That, in turn, provoked a fierce discussion as to the best of Alex’ frequently used fillers — “oh no,” “boo hiss” and “uh oh!” were fan favorites — and whether such lines were meant to be condescending or empathetic.
I’d always assumed they were neither. Let’s face it — how many things are there to say to game show contestants to fill the spaces between questions, especially after one has hosted some 8,000 episodes of the same show?
But “enjoy the moment” had always seemed to me to have a certain subtext. Contestants come and contestants go. Even the mighty Ken Jennings lost eventually. Only Alex was a constant — all-knowing; iconic; seemingly immortal.
So it came as a shock to wake up to the news yesterday that he had died, though, of course, it shouldn’t have been shocking at all. We’d known the odds were against him. According to the American Cancer Society the overall five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just nine percent, dropping to three percent if it’s diagnosed at a late stage.
My Facebook feed soon exploded with expressions of grief that left a friend of mine from my rock ‘n’ roll days baffled. “Was he a friend of yours?” she asked when I told her of my own sadness.
“No,” I told her. “He was our David Bowie.”
Like Bowie, Alex hadn’t been the type to complain, though unlike Bowie he shared with us the changes he was going through: pain so bad it had him doubled over in his dressing room between episodes; depression from the chemotherapy. We’d never have known if he hadn’t told us. All you saw when you watched the show was the consummate professional keeping the game moving, following along with contestants when they bounced around the board hunting for Daily Doubles and offering them encouragement when they faltered or gentle ribbing when he thought they could handle it.
It’s strange to think that he must already have been sick when I taped my episodes two years ago, though he hadn’t yet been diagnosed. I can’t help thinking that much like my cousin, who passed away from pancreatic cancer shortly after my episodes aired, Alex would have shrugged off the early signs of his disease — a little back pain, a little weight loss, nothing that couldn’t be chalked up to his work schedule or his frequent insomnia or the home improvement projects that kept him busy in his spare time.
And yet just half a year later I would be in the audience when he taped the last episode of the season, still bantering with us between episodes and answering the same old questions audiences must have asked him a thousand times — what did you want to be when you were growing up? (Prime Minister of Canada) — and choking up with emotion only after delivering his final message of thanks to us after the final episode had completely wrapped.
The rest of the time, Alex was his usual off-camera self, funnier and earthier than what you see on the show, an Alex who could wax poetic on topics as wide-ranging as his crush on Ava Gardner or the woodpecker that had taken up residence in his attic.
What not even the studio audience could see, however, was the subtle kindnesses Alex offered the contestants. Him taking my hand and asking me how I felt after I’d had a hypoglycemic scare during my fifth episode. His explaining to one of my competitors who’d gotten off to a blazing start, only to falter in the second half, that it was her buzzer technique and not her knowledge that had been her downfall. How he’d made us feel that it was cool to geek out over “Star Wars” or to collect Barbie dolls or to be interested in whatever we were passionate about. And, above all, that the desire to acquire knowledge is a trait to be admired.
Approximately 200 episodes of “Jeopardy!” have been broadcast since my episode aired. I’ve seen most of them. I’ve heard Alex say “enjoy the moment” and “good for you” dozens upon dozens of times.
But it wasn’t until this evening, when I re-watched the Final Jeopardy from my third show, that I understood that these weren’t just throwaway lines. When Alex told me to enjoy the moment, it was because he was sharing my own enjoyment of it. I don’t think that ever got old for him, and it explains, in no small measure, why he wanted to keep doing his job when most of us would have curled up on the sofa and watched other people’s game shows.
I made a nice sum of money appearing on “Jeopardy!” I made lifelong friends, which was even nicer. And I remembered some things, courtesy of “Uncle Alex,” that I already knew but that it’s always good to be reminded of. That knowing things is nice, but being nice is nicer. That most people want to root for you, not against you. That you should live your life as if you aren’t going to be there tomorrow because someday it’s going to be true.
In other words, enjoy the moment.
Jackie Fuchs, known as Jackie Fox when she played bass for the Runaways in the 1970s, is an attorney in Los Angeles. She spoke with Variety about her experience competing on “Jeopardy!” in this 2018 story.
More from Variety
Best of Variety