"There's all kinds of people dying who never died before."
Some people remember Donald Trump saying this early in the COVID pandemic. Some attributed it to Joe Biden. Personally, I have a clear memory of my Nana saying it - maybe ironically, maybe not - when I was little. As I got older, I remember thinking she may have been quoting Yogi Berra or maybe a Borscht Belt comic.
The fact that none of these are true tells you a little something about how smart Ken Jennings is.
(The quote was said by none of those people, but rather written by Ernest Hemingway, that famous comedian, in a letter in 1930. He was being ironic.)
Ken Jennings is arguably the smartest guy who's ever been in my living room. Which is to say, he is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of Jeopardy, coronated after a no-holds-barred tournament earlier this year between him, James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter. I don't know if he's smarter than those guys, but he's absolutely more likable than Holzhauer, who strikes me as a grown-up version of the kid everyone knew was secretly building a bomb in his basement.
As Alex Trebek finally succumbed to his battle with pancreatic cancer this week, some have begun to discuss who should replace him as host of Jeopardy. I find it odd, that grooming a new host wouldn't have been high on Alex's bucket list in between chemo and taping live episodes. He was so universally loved (and continues to be) and so personally invested in the quality and longevity of the show, I can't imagine how the simple task of finding and endorsing a successor could have slipped his mind. Carson did it, and without the benefit of a cancer diagnosis to remind him.
An article in Variety cited a survey of fans regarding who they thought could replace Alex as host. The overwhelming favorite, with 50% of the vote, was: no one. People loved this guy so much, half of those asked can't imagine watching the show without him.
I'm calling bullshit on that one. People may love Alex Trebek, but they also love Jeopardy. And they can't be entrusted to see past their own stubborn beliefs, especially today, in 2020. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, "F--- them, they will know it when I show it to them!" Or something like that.
So one of the favorites suggested to replace Alex was Ken Jennings, the aforementioned Little Egghead That Could. After all, If Alex Trebek is Mister Incredible, certainly Ken Jennings could be Incrediboy. But no one ever moved to make that a reality while Alex was alive. Jennings hasn't weighed in on anything other than he is done competing in Jeopardy. (Which may be the best qualifier for him to host it.) Why, you ask?
"(But) in this case I had noticed myself slowing down – mostly [in the way of] recall, no longer automatically quick to remember names and facts like I used to. And I notice it every day; it’s like living inside ‘Flowers for Algernon’ – you feel a tiny bit dumber every day, as I move into my 40s."
Et tu, Ken Jennings? Et tu?
Flowers for Algernon is the famous science fiction short story by Daniel Keyes, about a dull boy and his mouse - both of whom are granted extraordinary smarts through chemical intervention, only to lose it, and ultimately their lives, as the "treatment" ultimately fails.
I may be stupid, and Ken Jennings would obviously agree, but I think what he means is that, as we age our brains start to slow down and, um...you know, words don't - they don't, like, you can't find the right words as soon as - I mean as fast, as fast as you used to be able. To.
F--- you, Ken Jennings.
When I sat down to write this, I confess my headline was just that. Yes, the line right before this paragraph. Thankfully I found something more positive I could add to the conversation.
I think it's important we find a new host for Jeopardy. I think that because one New Year's Eve we - my wife and I, my daughter and her boyfriend and my son and his girlfriend - played Jeopardy on the Wii as a family. The bloodshed was massive. My daughter was formidable, but ultimately I left her lifeless husk on the living room floor and ordered pizza. Everyone else fled. It was glorious.
No, seriously, Jeopardy is awesome and I feel like Alex would want it to continue. The trick is - and this is important - we can't start by looking for someone who's going to be a discount Alex Trebek! You think it's going to be some kind of homage, but it's not. It really just ends up being sad.
I have two examples.
One, think about Family Feud. Do you think about Steve Harvey? No, of course you don't. You think about Richard Dawson, kissing all those middle aged ladies on the lips and yelling, "Survey says!" Dawson was iconic, so much so that he actually played a demonic version of himself in the movie adaptation of Stephen King's The Running Man.
The second example is Aflac. Full disclosure: I work in insurance, for an insurance company that competes with Aflac. I am not commenting on their business model, clients, rates, plan designs or any intellectual capital owned by my company or theirs.
I am speaking solely about the Duck.
We can talk about the wisdom of the Aflac duck another time. For the moment what's important is this: Comedian Gilbert Gottfried was the original voice of the Duck. His easily identifiable voice (think Iago in the original Aladdin) was part of their brand, part of the undisputed success model. Then in 2011 there was a tsunami that killed thousands in Japan. Gottfried is a standup comic. To call him irreverent would be an understatement. Clearly SOMEONE at the ad agency saw him perform before recommending him as the spokesman for the insurance brand. Right?
But after the tsunami, Gottfried did something very bad, and very predictable. He began to tweet jokes. Because that's what comedians do. Only his jokes were...in bad taste. My favorite one was:
"I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, 'There'll be another one floating by any minute now.' "
Full disclosure: I work for an insurance company that is owned by a Japanese insurance company and I have thousands of colleagues and dozens of friends living and working in Japan. Loss of life isn't funny, ever. It wasn't just a natural disaster, it was a disaster. And in comedy, like in life, timing is everything.
Gilbert's timing was clearly off, because Aflac, while an American company, had a huge business interest, with even huger growth potential, in Japan and Asia. And so they needed to say goodbye to the comedian or risk looking like, well, like an ugly, heartless American behemoth company bent on world domination at the expense of other people's cultural heritage.
When they canned Gilbert, the big question was, "Who's gonna replace him?" And I had the perfect idea. It's been eight years now, and my company doesn't have a mascot and doesn't do television advertising so I'm going to let the statute run on this one and tell you my great idea:
My idea was to hire a different star for every commercial to voice the Duck. Stars with VERY recognizable voices. Like in the first one, it could be Christopher Walken saying "AFLAC!" Then Jack Nicholson. Then Morgan Freeman. The goal wouldn't be to sound like a duck: that was already played out. Now the duck had his own brand, and the hook would be, guess the duck's guest-voice!
Think of it, millions of people would lean in toward their television every time an Aflac commercial came on, straining to hear who the celebrity was! The talk of the water cooler would be, "Oh my God, did you hear the duck on the commercial last night? WILLIAM SHATNER!"
Having A-list stars say literally one line from the comfort of their home studio would not be cost-prohibitive at all, but after the novelty wore off Aflac could have quietly subbed in professional voice actors, impressionists, to save a few bucks. There you go, the Big Idea, and of course they did something so much better.
They got someone who sounded vaguely like Gilbert Gottfried to say "AFLAC!" Some schmuck, a nobody.
Opportunity missed. I'm just saying.
So yes, they need to replace Alex Trebek and they need to make it someone completely non-Trebek-ish. That pays appropriate tribute to the importance of the brand and Alex's legacy. It reaffirms what we leave in this world is more important than who we are. It increases the likelihood that Jeopardy will go on ad infinitum rather than fade out, wheezing and sad. Alex left at the top of his unparalleled game; we owe Jeopardy the same chance.
Here are a few of my favorite suggestions, gratis, off the top of my head:
Robert Downey, Jr.
- He doesn't need the money, and think of the fun he could have, and us along with him, channeling his inner Tony "Snark."
- Come on, he's the smart guys' antihero. He's already the steward of the smartest comedy - or the funniest journalism - on the airwaves. Let's build on that.
- She's cute and quirky. The millennials love her. Who doesn't love her?
- You would watch it. Yes, you would. We would all watch it.
I think I may be on to something.