Alex Trebek Q&A: How Pulitzer Prize Winner Thomas Friedman Lost on ‘Jeopardy’

Plus: Trebek's Cheech Marin imitation, complete with fake toke

Media watchers are having some laughs today over New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman's loss on "Jeopardy" last week. He lost to Anderson Cooper during the show's visit to Washington, D.C. for Power Players week. 

But speaking to TheWrap on Monday, Alex Trebek said the loss shouldn't cause us to doubt the intelligence of Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. (MSNBC's Chris Matthews also fared poorly last week, while Fox News' Chris Wallace won. On Friedman's episode, NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell came in second.)

At the Peabody Awards ceremony, where "Jeopardy" was one of the winners honored, Trebek told us why intelligence doesn't always equal a "Jeopardy" win. He also did a solid impression of Cheech Marin — complete with a pantomimed marijuana toke — and talked about his possible retirement.

TheWrap: You said recently that you may retire after 30 years of hosting "Jeopardy." Say it ain't so.

Trebek: I said I was thinking — I had given some thoughts to retirement, which is perfectly normal for someone who's been in the business for 50 years and has hosted the same show for 28 years and who is going to be 72 this summer. It does not mean that I am retiring. It just means I've given it some thought. … I haven't given it any extra thought.

We saw recently that some people who are considered very intelligent can't necessarily translate that intelligence to "Jeopardy." Thomas Friedman is thought of as a great intellectual, but didn't do particularly well on the show. Why does intelligence not always translate to the format?

I don't think it's a question of intelligence not translating to that format. I think it's a question of the contestants — in this case the Power Players — not being familiar enough with our format and our rhythm to be able to perform very well at that time. But if we were to have had them for a little while, working with them and perhaps practicing with them, they would have done much better. It's just completely alien to them. They're used to asking questions and getting an answer. We give answers and they have to come up with a question. And looking at the categories sometimes, they're a little mystified. But once they get into it — Chris Wallace was a perfect example. Once he got into the rhythm of it, the signaling button always works a lot better and you relax and you enjoy yourself. And that's what it's all about.

One of my all-time favorite "Jeopardy" wins was by Andy Richter, which I don't think most of us saw coming. [He trounced Wolf Blitzer.] Do you have higher expectations for the celebrity contestants or the news contestants?

We have no expectations beforehand because you never know what the celebrities are going to bring to our tournaments. Cheech Marin won the very first celebrity tournament. Who would have expected it? [Imitating Marin] 'Hey man, let's [pantomimes smoking a joint] get some more, huh? Hey, yeah dude." And all of the sudden you say, wait a minute, this guy knows art, he knows history, he knows about technology, he knows about economics. He won the championship. That was a surprise. We didn't anticipate that. We had no preconceived notions. We just take 'em as they come and we're pleasantly surprised sometimes.

Pat Sajak said recently that years ago, he and Vanna White would go drink a few margaritas between tapings of "Wheel of Fortune." That doesn't seem like it would fly on "Jeopardy."
No, I usually drink during the show.