As we mourn Alex Trebek, I think of the great ease he appeared to have as the game show host of Jeopardy these past 38 years. We miss his good manners and cordiality to the guests that he would always treat fairly and equally. His civility and good humor are lost virtues in today’s political nastiness that has divided our country. He had what the Italians have called sprezzatura.
Although the word did not appear in William Butler Yeat’s poem, Adam’s Curse, he spoke about it when he wrote:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Yeats is saying it may take hours to compose just one line of poetry but to the reader it must have a spontaneous, almost effortless, flow to it. Sprezzatura is the apparent nonchalance that conceals the effort of a great artist. In the cinema, the late Sean Connery, played the role of James Bond, with great ease and aplomb, in tossing movie villains to their inevitable deaths. Magicians of any great worth by definition must have sprezzatura as a means of captivating their audience. No doubt they spend hours on end refining their technique to assure us that no detail is left out of their act.
Alex Trebek, as host on Jeopardy, performed his own magic without us noticing by inviting his guests on the show, in the audience, and at home to feel completely comfortable for 30 minutes a day. He had the verbal skills of an acrobat, in not condescending to his guests when conversing and correcting them, with the ability to always maintain his own genuine warmth. Game show hosts that overdo it look corny and, sometimes, even obsequious. This was not Alex. When he suffered from his cancer in the midst of taping an episode of Jeopardy, he was quoted as saying: “The level of pain went from 3 to 11.” Of course, this is when 10 signifies the worst pain one can feel. Yet the show went on without any of us having the slightest idea of what Mr. Trebek was experiencing. In this current very turbulent time, Alex brought us the tranquility we all craved. We will miss him dearly.