‘SNL’ Writer Steve Higgins Remembers ‘Celebrity Jeopardy!’ Origin and Pays Tribute to Alex Trebek

Celebrity Jeopardy Alex Trebek

We always watched “Jeopardy!” in my house when I was growing up. We watched Art Fleming do it when Don Pardo was the VO. We used to play the home game. Later, when Alex Trebek hosted, my brother was on the show and lost, which was hilarious. He’s a comedian, and the Final Jeopardy! category was “Comedians.” And he lost.

So it was always a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Trebek was a great host because of his confidence. You could easily be a smug jerk in that job, knowing all the answers and reading them off cards. But so rarely did he do that. He was so unassailably nice. That’s what was fun about Sean Connery and Burt Reynolds hating him so much in the “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketch on “Saturday Night Live” — not really hating him so much as just wanting to fuck with him. People would talk about the sketch and say that the celebrities were dumb. But that wasn’t it. It was that they didn’t care. They just wanted to burn Alex Trebek. And why? Because he’s so unassailably good.

The idea for the sketch came from my wife. She said to me, “You should write a ‘Celebrity Jeopardy!’ sketch, because these celebrities don’t know that much.” So I took it to Adam McKay. Norm Macdonald already did a Burt Reynolds impression, and I loved Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery. Martin Short was hosting that week, and Martin Short’s Jerry Lewis is one of my favorite impressions that he does. So we just put those all together. And then later that season John Goodman hosted and said, “We’ve gotta do that sketch.” So we wrote another one — Goodman was Marlon Brando and Darrell was Phil Donahue. Norm as Burt Reynolds was the first antagonist, and then Darrell as Sean Connery took over when Norm left the show. Then McKay left, and I wrote them with Mike Schur and Robert Carlock and Erik Kenward. I always wrote them with someone. The last one I wrote with Seth Meyers for the 40th anniversary show.

I’ve always liked word puzzles. The fun of writing the sketch to me was the formula — you go through the categories, and the category that has the dirty word hidden in it is always going to be a joke for Sean Connery. And then you have to figure out what the Final Jeopardy! is, and what the reveal is that people won’t get in advance. It’s third-grade humor, which is the best kind of humor. But also Will Ferrell, one of the greatest comics in the world, playing the perfect straight man in Trebek. I’m just lucky that I got to be a part of it. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

Trebek told Lorne that he loved the sketch. I was always very happy about that. That would have been terrible, if he’d thought it was anything but love. You really can’t parody something if you don’t love it, or else it’s just mean. Norm and I used to play “Jeopardy!” in his office. It’s just one of those things that is pure goodness. The show is about knowledge and gamesmanship. No one cheats.

Trebek was almost Carson-esque in his confidence. The show wasn’t about him. He was just the leader of it. He would guide you through the show effortlessly. He was probably the best game show host in the history of game show hosts. And he kept that same spirit with “Jeopardy!” that he had with his earlier show, “High Rollers.” He was just so Canadian-nice. He was just the best — the best there was.

— As told to Daniel Holloway

Steve Higgins is a “Saturday Night Live” writer and producer and the announcer for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Alex Trebek died Nov. 8 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.