by Noah Tarnow
By definition, being a quizmaster is about asking questions. As host of a live trivia game show, the Big Quiz Thing, I’ve spent the past eight years asking thousands of them — many good, some lousy. And in that time, countless others have approached me with questions and comments of their own — many good, some really, really stupid. Now that you’ve met the different types of people who play trivia, learn about some of the more amusing things people say to your esteemed host:
1. “I don’t know any trivia.” Assuming you’re not a moron, this is nigh impossible. Everyone knows trivia, or at least a good quizmaster’s definition of trivia, which is “interesting information.” And personally, I tend not to write mega-obscure, you-either-know-it-or-you-don’t questions, i.e., “What’s the third-largest city in Albania?”, which aren’t particularly engaging (the correct answer is “Who cares?”). That’s not to say anyone can win a quiz game, because not everyone does, and some people are indeed better at trivia games than others. But a little lateral thinking goes a long way — e.g., “What celebrity’s name is the inverse of a popular casino game?” (answer here) — so give yourself a chance.
2. “I’m so going to come to your show and kick everyone’s ass and win, and everyone in the room is going to carry me out of the venue on a litter while servants dressed as sexy librarians feed me grapes.” A statement like this is a clear sign that someone is going to lose, and lose badly. The overconfidence gets in the way of the lateral thinking I jut described. Serious trivia nerds aren’t the most virtuous people on earth, sure, but being a braggart isn’t one of their common faults.
3. “You should buy this great trivia book I found at Urban Outfitters and use the questions in that.” Really. I mean, not that we’re the world’s most refined auteurs, but the best of us take some care in the craft, so we prefer to cook up the queries on our own. As for where we get the information, this damn world is burying us in an avalanche of information; asking a quizmaster where he finds question fodder is sort of like asking an octopus where he gets his water. The more interesting question might be how we get our questions — how we create and develop them. Expect the inevitable documentary in the next couple years.
4. “Is it the same questions every time?” Possibly the hardest part of this job is that you constantly need to come up with fresh content (though many of us have perfected recycling strategies — out-of-town gigs, private events, etc.). The entertainment, and the competition, largely hinges on surprise. A quiz game with the same questions over and over again seems among the most pointless things I can imagine; after a couple years, I’d be reduced to entertaining just one really, really brazen cheater in a Doctor Who T-shirt, me and him staring at each other from across an empty room, most likely in my apartment. Speaking of which…
5. “You should give me the answers ahead of time.” Usually, this is not a particularly dumb statement so much as a tired joke. It’s always some pleasantly avuncular older man at a private quiz party; he smiles as he reaches into his wallet to faux-hand me a $20 bill. Hardy-har; I tend to smile and let it pass. But at least two times, it’s been said to me with complete and utter seriousness (and, alas, not with any serious promise of bribery). I utterly fail to see the point of winning a quiz game by cheating, even if you crave the prizes — if you have the balls to be a flagrant, out-and-out cheat, there have to be more efficient ways to make some dough. (Similarly, I’m grateful that most live-trivia fans resist the urge to use their phones to look up answers. It saves the quizmaster from having to constantly play Whack-A-Mole, and besides, how pathetic is your life if you do this?)
6. “You totally should accept my incredibly stupid wrong answer, because I know that I read somewhere that it’s correct.” Nobody is perfect, quizmasters among them — the quizmaster who has never asked a flat-out wonky, unusable question is as rare the quizmaster who regularly got laid in high school. Errors are unavoidable. But for the love of Charles Van Doren, if we tell you your answer is wrong, it’s wrong: Shut up, sit down, and live with it. Especially if your documentation for said brilliant answer is your vague, alcohol-sodden memory. Not long ago, I was the entertainment at a bar mitzvah, and I asked a simple question about the most popular names for baby boys and girls. An adult — not a kid, mind you — insisted on grinding the entire event to a halt so that he could obnoxiously lobby me that my (correct) answer was wrong, because he had “read somewhere” that the most popular baby names for boys are “Aiden, Jayden and Kayden.” Please, just take a moment to listen to yourself.
7. “You should go on [trivia TV show of the moment].” I suspect most quizmasters have at least attempted to be on a TV game show, or — as in my case — went on a show and lost, thus inspiring them to start their own game show. I was on “Jeopardy!” I lost on “Jeopardy!” (And I hate the fact that every time I write the name “Jeopardy!,” I have to include that damned exclamation point, which makes it look like I’m constantly shouting about “Jeopardy!” Also, Alex Trebek made my skin crawl.) I was someone’s Life Line on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”; “Cash Cab” has solicited contestants at my show; and I actually won a VH1 game show you’ve never heard of. So yes, we have probably considered going on [trivia TV show of the moment], thanks.
8. “Do you wear that jacket to bed?” At every event, I wear one of several blinged-out quizmaster jackets (I like to put on a show). The most common, and logical, question is where did I get the jackets. (It’s the magical combination of thrift stores and a genius fashion-designer friend.) But I swear, at least a dozen times I’ve been asked if I wear one of the jackets while I have sex. Excessive glitter and fabric paint really chafe, and besides, these things are hard enough to clean to begin with.
9. “Do you idolize Alex Trebek?” See No. 7. I actually don’t think Alex Trebek is a very good role model for quizmasters, or really anyone. You need a serious sense of humor to deal with the slings and arrows of live trivia — drunken patrons, ornery venue owners, technical mishaps — and Trebek strikes me as way too dry a person to handle that. The better idol, to my mind, is Bob Barker. Amid all the giant checks and yodeling mountain climbers, people are constantly making jackasses of themselves on “The Price Is Right,” but in his tenure, Bob never made them feel bad, even helping them to laugh at themselves. And throughout, he kept the game moving along like a true pro. He could handle a bar full of quiz nerds on a Monday night, no problem.
10. “You’re a quizmaster? How’s that a job? Can’t anyone ask a trivia question?” Sure. And anyone can tell a joke. And anyone can sing a song. And anyone can toss a football. Well, not many trivia geeks can, but you get the idea.