Alex Trebek is a do-it-yourself host. On a lunchtime break from his duties as chief interrogator for National Geographic’s National Geography Bee on May 20 and 21, he picked up a dictionary and got busy. He had his list of questions (and answers) in a binder. If he saw a name he wasn’t sure how to pronounce—like Jengish Chokusu, a mountain peak on the China-Kyrgyzstan border—he’d look it up and insert diacritical marks to guide his tongue (the accent goes on the middle syllable of Chokusu). A consummate multitasker, he agreed to be interviewed while juggling questions and place names and sipping a glass of wine. “I have to work, so I must be half-tanked,” he joked.
Have you learned a lot of geography from hosting the Geography Bee for 20 years?
I’ve learned some stuff. But I’m not likely to retain the information. Keep in mind I have another program I do based on information that takes up a lot of my available random access memory. [Hosting the Bee] has taught me that many of our young kids are very well informed about the world. But I get to see the crème de la crème.
How would you do in the Bee?
Not particularly well. Any of the kids could beat me.
Most Bee contestants are male – as they are on Jeopardy, right?
There are now more women on Jeopardy than men, though that’s not always been the case. I think we’re about 55/45 women to men. Maybe it augurs well for the Geography Bee.
You’re Canadian. If you had to write a question about Canada for the Geography Bee, what would it be?
Most people don’t realize that this Canadian city lies directly south of a major American city.
Is it … Windsor?
Yes, it is Windsor … and Detroit!
Will there ever be another Jeopardy contestant like Ken Jennings, who won $2.52 million on 74 consecutive shows?
How do you even begin to dream that there is the possibility of another Ken Jennings? There might be, but it took us, what, 20 years to get Ken, and it might well take 20 more years to come up with somebody who will achieve or surpass Ken’s mark. Unless we find some contestant on steroids.
Do you have any favorite place names you get a kick out of saying?
Some names just sound great. Samarkand. In Asia. You cannot say Samarkand without thinking of something exotic. Just the sound of the word: Samarkand.
Any favorite North American place names?
Piscataway, New Jersey. Pis-CAT-a-way. Not PIS-ca-tawee. You drive through New Jersey and you want to exercise your pronunciation skills, just try to correctly pronounce a lot of the Indian place names. Your normal approach to pronounciation is thrown a curve. What’s the one in Florida? Kis-SI-mmee. Looking at it you’d think Lake KISS-a-mee!
It’s impressive that Jeopardy has become such a part of the fabric of people’s lives.
I got a letter recently from someone who told me about his mother dying. She went into a coma. They knew she was on her last hours. And his sisters went in and spent time. And because she had always watched Jeopardy, they turned on the program. One of the clues came up. She opened her eyes, and gave the response. And died. Came out of a coma and said, you know, “What is Panama … whatever.” Boom. Gone. I thought it was an amazing story.
Are you always being recognized by fans who go, “Alex, I’ll take potpourri for $100?
A lady recognized me on the street here in D.C., and she said, “Pat Sajak!”