Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic
Published May 22, 2013
Today, for the last time, host Alex Trebek will take the podium at the National Geographic Bee to test what our nation's stellar geography students know about Bavarian mountain ranges, borders in Eastern Europe, and Asian capital cities on the Han River, among other subjects. (Those were all questions asked during last year's heated competition. We don't actually know what Trebek will ask this year.)
The host of Jeopardy and self-proclaimed "geography lover" is hanging up his hosting duties after 25 years at the podium, with plans to spend more time traveling the very world he asked contestants about at the Bee. (The event airs on the National Geographic Channel on Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m. You can see videos made by the contestants here.)
Trebek didn't just ask questions over the past 25 years. He helped make the Bee into what it is today: a nationally broadcast contest with thousands of contestants whittled down, through local and statewide competitions, to the final ten.
"Without his assistance, the Bee wouldn't be as smooth as it is today," said Mary Lee Elden, executive director of geography competitions at the National Geographic Society. "He's been a great spokesperson in terms of knowing about our world and inspiring others to care about it."
We had the chance to talk to Trebek shortly before the Bee's finals about this year's competition—and what Trebek plans to do next. (Hint: It involves geography.)
You've hosted the National Geographic Bee for the past 25 years. This is your last one. How do you feel?
A little sad. It's been a wonderful experience. It's going to be like leaving a family because we have become a lot like a family over the past quarter century.
Do you feel like you have a better handle on geography now that you've hosted the Bee and Jeopardy for so many years?
Yes, I learned some geography from the Bee, but I was interested in the subject before I became the host and I continue to be interested in geography and continue to travel the world. (See our liveblog of the National Geographic Bee)
Have you ever traveled to a place based on learning about it in the Bee?
No. Most of the places I have visited, I've traveled to because of previous interest in that location.
What's the strangest place you've been recognized?
In the Himalayas, walking along a ridge outside of Kathmandu.
Did they recognize you because of your work in the Bee or Jeopardy?
No, they recognized me from my work at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1960s.
Have you crossed paths with some of the Bee winners after the Bee is over?
Some of the [Geographic] Bee winners have wound up on Jeopardy.
What's that like?
That's kind of fun.
Did you recognize them from their time at the Bee?
On a number of occasions, I haven't recognized them. We get them in the Bee when they're 10, 11, and 12—and then on Jeopardy when they're 20.
How do the contestants' reactions differ in the Bee and Jeopardy when they aren't doing well?
The children tend to react more than the adults. They show their emotions very readily. You see them tear up because they wanted to do so much better—there's pressure from their teachers and their parents who came with them to Washington, D.C., and they don't want to let them down. It's more pressure—and I feel for them. On the other hand, I understand that they've accomplished a great deal just by getting here and they have their entire lives ahead of them and one [day] they will put this in proper perspective.
How did you learn geography?
I learned geography by looking through geography books and [atlases] and paying attention to all of the countries and also by reading National Geographic magazines. We couldn't always afford them, but I made it a point to go to a lot of doctor and dentist appointments.
If you were in the Geography Bee, would you do well?
Why not? You've been the host of Jeopardy for decades. You must know lots about geography.
The contestants are not subject to senior moments, which I am.
Do you ever worry about the pronunciation of the places you have to say for the Bee? Djibouti is a hard word to say.
Yes, but I try to do the correct pronunciation. I look up all of the pronunciations in a dictionary in advance, so I have them.
How much time do you have to do that?
Four to five days.
Some years, the Bee goes into multiple tie-breaker rounds. Are you ever worried you'll run out of questions?
Yes. I think one year, we went to 128 tie-breaker questions. It was worrisome. I think we bring extra questions, just in case.
Do you think a show like Jeopardy, which operates at such a high intellectual level and expects a lot from its audience, could get made today?
Yes, it's a quality program and people appreciate quality. People appreciate the fact that they can test themselves against other members of their family. There's always a place for that kind of show on television.
If a question/topic seems obscure, do you ever think: What's the point?
There have been occasions when I thought that was the case, but I have been brought back to reality by extremely bright 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old kids who knew the correct answer to that particular question.
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