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Only Ken Jennings Can Save Jeopardy!

Alex Trebek has pancreatic cancer and the world needs Jeopardy! now, more than ever.
March 7, 2019
Only Ken Jennings Can Save Jeopardy!
(Jeopardy Productions via Getty Images)

Alex Trebek announced yesterday that he has pancreatic cancer. This is terrible and my prayers are with him.

A Message From Alex Trebek | JEOPARDY!

Trebek occupies a very rare place in American society: He is universally known and universally beloved. Why? Because  he’s done a very simple job, very well, for a very long time. And that’s impressive and laudable and not something you see all that often anymore.

Trebek took over Jeopardy! in 1984 and has hosted the quiz show for an uninterrupted 35 years, during which time the most notable change was the shaving of his moustache. We know very little about his person, but this does not seem to be the result of any mania. He is private without being secretive. He has no public scandals. And he has stayed in his own lane: There is no line of Trebek! cologne. He did not try to transition to hosting Good Morning America. Aside from a guest appearance on The X-Files, he treated Jeopardy! almost as a vocation. It is difficult to overstate how wonderful this workmanlike attitude toward a task that brought pleasure to a great many people is.

And without getting grim, this feels like the end of an era.

But the show should go on.

Why do we need Jeopardy! you might ask? The triumph of Watson, the advent of Siri and Alexa, the coming dawn of at least dumb AI and machine learning all make the idea of people knowing discrete pieces of information quaint. Maybe even obsolete. At some point, someone—probably at Slate—is going to argue that after Trebek leaves the show, Jeopardy! should fade away because it’s a relic of the pre-internet age, the intellectual version of John Henry versus the steam hammer.

I would argue that we need Jeopardy! now, more than ever. When Boston Dynamics finally builds a robot that can throw a football more accurately than Tom Brady, we’re not going to retire football. And people aren’t going to stop buying cute little dogs just because we have robot dogs that do better back flips than real dogs and can open doors, too.

No, we will cling to our human endeavors until the robots eventually rebel and take over the world because these things are, on top of everything else, celebrations of what it means to live, what it means to be human.

Jeopardy! must continue and as unthinkable as it is to have the show without Trebek, I have the perfect person to be his successor: Ken Jennings.

Jennings won 74 games in a row. He was the most dominant Jeopardy! player, ever. And yet that’s probably the least interesting thing about him.

He’s Mormon. He went to school in South Korea. Following his run on Jeopardy!, he used his fame and fortune to quit his well-paying job as a computer engineer in order to follow his life’s passion and become . . . a writer.

He is wildly, insanely charming. And funny. I urge you to take 15 minutes out of your life today to read the Reddit AMA he did 8 years ago in which he took as his Reddit account name “WatsonsBitch.”

Some highlights:

austinhannah: Have you spent any time with Trebek outside the confines of the Jeopardy studio? Do you send him Christmas cards? Does he come over for dinner?

WatsonsBitch: Alex and I don’t get to hang out much due to the convoluted Jeopardy security requirements. I saw him at last year’s National Geographic Bee in DC (he hosts, I was doing research for my next book, Maphead, about geography geeks).

So I don’t know the guy real well. He’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a Perry Ellis suit. . . .

WatsonsBitch: Yeah, Jeopardy is not Price Is Right…you can’t get on just for wearing a military uniform or an “I Love Alex” t-shirt. Every night, all three contestants passed a very hard test to be there. Ergo, nearly all the contestants know nearly all the answers nearly all the time. So it just comes down to buzzer mojo. Which is why Watson won so handily…pretty hard to have better response time than a circuit board.

alettuce: My friend was on. He’s an idiot. He knew none of the answers.

Lyrad1002: Is he a celebrity?

WatsonsBitch: Is he Wolf Blitzer? . . .

TheCrimsonKing:You’re a little too funny, did you hire writers with your winnings?

WatsonsBitch:Bruce Vilanch is hiding under my desk right now. Unfortunately he’s not writing jokes for me, if you know what I mean.

For the love of all that’s holy, Ken Jennings is the man to stand for Trebek should Alex need to take some shows off while he kicks cancer’s ass.

America needs this. Let’s make it happen.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.