Louis Menand recently reminisced at length in The New Yorker (23 November 2020) about the late Alex Trebek, longtime host of the television quiz show Jeopardy!, with this aside: “By his own account, offered in his brief and cheery memoir, The Answer Is[…] Reflections on My Life (Simon & Schuster, ), and confirmed by other reports, including McNear’s [Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive Guide to Jeopardy! and Its History (Grand Central, 2020)], when Trebek was off the air he was more laid-back and salty, less like your eighth-grade math teacher.” And that sounds about right. I’m pretty sure Mr. Fuller didn’t swear, though my eighth-grade algebra class gave him plenty of reason to do so — there’s plenty of swearing at algebra, even among eighth graders, but no swearing in it, and Mr. Fuller’s life was a veritable story problem.
I don’t do social media, and here’s why: just the other day, I watched my first TikTok. It rocked my world. Miami news anchor Frances Wang (@franceswangtv) posted a montage of Alex Trebek swearing like a salty seadog fishing herring in the Bay of Fundy. My wife thought I needed to see it, damn the psychological consequences.
Wang introduces her sixty-second feature as
ALEX TREBEK JEOPARDY PROMO BLOOPERS
ALEX TREBEK CURSING WHILE SHOOTING PROMOS FOR JEOPARDY … 🤣 🤣
STILL WHOLESOME 🤨 😭
And Trebek is already away and swearing while the captions run across the top of the screen.
Mind you, it’s not creative profanity. The shock is in hearing it from someone usually so measured and serious, though Mr. Trebek’s swearing has a notably modest demeanor. Some of it expresses frustration, and we can forgive him that, surely, since it accounts for a good bit of our own profanity:
For $100: “There’s a daily cash prize of one thousand dollars and fuck.”
What is profanity you might use when you’ve flubbed your line?
For $200: “No shit. Call now and play Phone Jeopardy.”
What is profanity you might use when you’re surprised by what you didn’t know?
Some of the outtakes, however, seem less forgivable:
For $300: “… watching Jeopardy twenty-four hours a day, and call this number — you dumb son-of-a-bitch, you don’t watch it twenty-four hours a day …”
What is profanity you might use out of pity for your own audience?
Then, there’s the inexplicable final blooping profanity, which begins normally enough but erupts in Trebek’s strange falsetto “Tinkerbell” and is interrupted by someone suggesting, I believe, though I can’t understand a word he says, that the audience might not appreciate that “Tinkerbell,” to which Trebek has a full-on sweary response:
For $400, and it’s an audio Daily Double: “She drank the poison that Captain Hook intended for Peter Pan … Tinkerbell. [comments I can’t make out …] Fuck ‘em.”
What is profanity you might use when you don’t have any more fucks to give about what your audience thinks about you or the show you host, or Tinkerbell for that matter?
Trebek’s sweary behavior is perhaps less surprising because he’s Canadian. On which, we once again turn to @franceswangtv:
Turns out, Canadians swear a lot, more than Brits, more than Yanks — I checked on the Internet. Recently, some Canadians have tried to convince us that they aren’t as polite as we all think they are, not as friendly and nice. Sorry, you pretend mean Canadians, but my lifetime of experience visiting your provinces and their people says otherwise. I guess all the swearing could confound their niceness — I’m sure that’s how some people would work the equation. I take a different lesson from it: nice people — even an icon of niceness like Alex Trebek — swear a lot. Swearing and wholesomeness constitute a true paradox. Frances Wang admitted it. QED.
None of this makes much difference to me, though I find it interesting, how media today expose the personification of decency as something more complicated, and reasonably so. It sounds wrong, I know, but I’m glad my mother died before Alex Trebek. She watched Jeopardy! every evening for decades and valued public decorum, though I could tell a couple of stories about her profanity unleashed that would raise and whiten your hair. She’d have been disappointed in Alex Trebek, not to mention Frances Wang, and no less displeased with me, I’m sure, for posting this.
Ah, well. Things are what they are and, it seems, there’s always just a little bit of profanity clinging to the hindquarters of our sacred cows. And we all meet our personal Final Jeopardy. Abbreviated good afterlife wish for a beloved game show host. What is RIP, Alex Trebek?