‘Jeopardy!’: How Alex Trebek Got into Hot Water with Irish-Americans in 2016

by Amy Myers
(Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage)

It’s hard to imagine the late Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek ever offending someone—on-air or otherwise.

However, in 2016, Trebek ran into some trouble with Irish-Americans. Time and again, Trebek was adamant about how much he cared for contestants and rooted for them to win. His quick wit and good humor have left us with great examples of how well he connected with people. And almost always, he made us laugh with some trivia-related joke. But, no game show host is perfect, and five years ago, Trebek unintentionally upset the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Founded in 1836, the Ancient Order of Hibernians is an organization of Irish Catholic males in the U.S. The AOH is the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the country. Originally created to protect the Catholic churches from anti-Catholic movements in the mid-19th century, today the organization connects men of Irish heritage all over the country.

AOH Reprimanded ‘Jeopardy!’ Host for ‘Drunken Irish’ Joke

The 2016 episode of Jeopardy! started innocently enough. As always, Trebek took the opportunity to get to know his contestants better. The late host found himself standing in front of Shannon Dillmore and inquired if he was Irish. As it turned out, Dillmore had been to all 26 Counties of the Republic of Ireland and summitted all of its highest peaks. 

That’s when Trebek saw the opportunity for a joke.

“Were you sober when you did it?” The Jeopardy! host asked.

Of course, as most fans of the trivia show will know, Trebek meant no ill will. However, in trying to make his audience laugh, the show’s host made a joke that, according to the AOH, spoke to the stereotypical image of a drunken Irishman. After the episode aired, the organization demanded Trebek apologize on-air.

Neil Cosgrove, AOH National Anti-Defamation Chairman, spoke to the organization’s concerns in a statement on October 21, 2016.

“Given the sad history of the negative stereotype of ‘Drunken Paddy,’ a creation of bigotry and a tool of marginalization used to justify imperial policy in Ireland and discrimination in America, many Irish Americans understandably took offense to this (Trebek’s) comment,” Cosgrove said.

He continued, “Our Hibernian Oath calls us to ‘not countenance any performance that may reasonably be interpreted as caricaturing or debasing the Irish people, whether in public or in private, in song, recitation or story, on the stage or on the screen.’ In fulfillment of that pledge, the Order issued a statement condemning the comment by Mr. Trebek and called for an apology.”

Trebek Responded to AOH’s Statement

Regardless of his initial intention, Trebek agreed that he needed to apologize. However, instead of doing so on-air, the late host called the organization directly and offered his atonement. Since the show was currently facing a hiatus, he was unable to deliver the apology on the show, as the AOH requested.

Thankfully, though, the private conversation was enough to earn the AOH’s forgiveness.

“The fact that Mr. Trebek reached out personally to express his regrets for the unintentional offense given we believe betokens his sincerity as well as his integrity,” Cosgrove said. “In taking the time to offer a personal apology, the regard which Mr. Trebek and ‘Jeopardy!’ are held has been justified, and we commend them both for acknowledging and rapidly seeking to make amends.”