You can chalk this blog post up to the spirit of the holidays, and perhaps me imagining something that isn't really there.
But it seems apparent to me that while in the midst of his major battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Alex Trebek is doing some of the best television of his career. (In the face of his health battle, maybe he is truly living his best life.)
I am not a “Jeopardy” fanatic, although I was watching the show when Trebek's predecessor – Art Fleming – hosted the show. Fleming was charming and witty, but Trebek's debut in 1984 was when the show made its revival. Today, it is one of the most amazing television stories, along with the venerable “Wheel of Fortune.” These are shows that have not just stood the test of time, but defied the odds as broadcast TV has been rocked in recent years by on-demand video platforms like Netflix.
Interestingly, I came back to “Jeopardy” this year in the midst of James Holzhauer's amazing winning streak. He won 32 consecutive games, netting more than $2.7 million and created a new paradigm of “Jeopardy” play. I blogged about it back in April (“Is Radio In Jeopardy?”) during the middle of Holzhauer's run, which almost coincided with Trebek's revelation of his cancer diagnosis and first round of treatment.
Oddly, I actually met Trebek a couple years back at an NAB award ceremony honoring Harry Friedman (pictured above), executive producer of both “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” since 1999. Sitting with Friedman two tables away from us were Vanna White, Pat Sajack, and yes, Alex Trebek, all there to share the honor. After the dinner and the ceremony, Buzz Knight kidded me about walking over to introduce ourselves to Trebek. I don't do that kind of thing with celebrities, and instead, we began our stroll from the Encore ballroom back to the Wynn to call it a night.
As we were walking, Paul, Buzz, and I were chatting about composer Paul Williams, who was also a featured speaker at the event. And as I was blathering away about Williams and Tiny Tim, a familiar voice came out of nowhere – correcting me.
It was Trebek and his wife.
And from there, we enjoyed a lively conversation about the event, Paul Williams, wine, Tiny Tim, wine, “Jeopardy,” and more wine. It was one of those odd brushes with fame that turned out to be more memorable than the entire NAB Convention – at least for me.
So, I have found myself tuning in “Jeopardy” more routinely in the ensuing months. And maybe it's me, but since receiving his cancer verdict and undergoing tough rounds of chemo, Trebek seems more lively, caring, and engaged. In the past, I couldn't help but notice that he was so smooth, it seemed at times he was sleepwalking through the show, the interviews with the contestants, and the outcome of each night's game.
That's not how it feels now. Trebek is displaying a new warmth, he's smiling more, he's more physical, and he seems genuinely interested in who his players are and what they do. As it is sometimes said in sports, Trebek seems to have newfound “jump” – a more upbeat, energized approach to a TV game show he's hosted thousands and thousands of times.
I have no particular insight about what has changed – or if anything has changed – in Trebek's performance or his mind. But it seems that since learning his life is literally in jeopardy, he has discovered a new appreciation for his job, even the small, trivial parts that perhaps he took for granted before.
Clearly, Trebek's fans are seeing and feeling different emotions, too. Recently during a round of the always suspenseful “Final Jeopardy,” a veteran winner, Dhruv Gaur, with no chance of besting either of his two competitors used the opportunity to scrawl a very different message that choked up the usually unflappable Trebek:
It was a moment you don't often see on a game show, much less broadcast television.
Trebek's audience seems to have become more invested in the health and well-being of their favorite host. Holzhauer made a contribution to a cancer research association in Trebek's name, something that has very likely been repeated hundreds if not thousands of times in recent months by fans all over the world.
As many people who have experienced a terminal disease come to learn, one of the odd “side effects” is thankfulness for being able to simply do a job and living a life they're been routinely doing for more decades. It certainly appears to be what I'm seeing in Trebek's performances since getting his bad news.
So, the challenge is how the rest of us – especially those of us not stricken with illness or great misfortune – can capture that same sense of joy and appreciation for the little things Trebek has now had to confront losing. Whether we're behind the mic, selling time, running a major company, or consulting radio stations, how can we stop the grind for a few moments and glean a sense of appreciation before something terrible befalls us?
Engaging with the audience, embracing the uniqueness of a job in radio, serving communities, impacting others, and making people happy – perhaps those are all things Alex Trebek has become profoundly aware of in recent months. Yes, contract renegotiations, vacation time, talent fees, and getting our way are all part of the media routine. That is, until life happens.
But as we're hopefully learning from Alex Trebek, none of that stuff amounts to a whole lot if we suddenly find ourselves unable to do our jobs. He may be learning some of these lessons the hard way.
He recently explained to ABC's Michael Strahan how his entire point of view has been changed by his cancer, his diminishing treatment options, and his prognosis moving forward.
“Most of us have open-ended lives. We don't know when we're going to die. Because of the cancer diagnosis, it's no longer an open-ended life, it's a close-end life because of the terrible statistics, and survival rates for pancreatic cancer. And because of that, and something that is operating here, people all over America and abroad have decided that they want me to know now, while I'm alive, about the impact that I've been having on their existence.”
The rest of us – with our open-ended lives – have a much easier road.
If we're smart enough to appreciate it.
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