The pursuit of trivial knowledge is no passing fad.
They call themselves the Benedict Arnolds—“traitors united”—because they all came together from different teams. They’re an “eclectic mix” of young and old, seasoned and new, and that’s the strategy, says Jonas Parker: “a wide variety of knowledge.” His wife, Stephanie, says their team does well among the competition. “We’re usually fighting for free pizza every week!” she laughs.
It’s Tuesday at Double A’s Pizza in north Peoria, and Trivia Night is about to begin. As host Josh Eshelman gets on the mic, there’s not an open seat in the house. The place is loud—with teams ranging from couples to groups of ten or so—and gets louder as he distributes the trivia sheets. Teenagers sipping soda, young professionals still dressed for the office, and astute-looking older adults fill the ranks.
“We have three very important rules that we like to follow here,” Eshelman begins. “First and foremost, no cheating is allowed. That means no cell phones may be out during a round.
“Also, please do not yell out the answer. We want to be fair to those around us, so just discuss quietly with your teammates. And last but not least, for the next hour and a half, I am the smartest man alive. If you want my points, you have to have my answers. I research all my questions,” he assures newcomers.
Since its humble three-team start, the weekly event has grown to encompass a full house every Tuesday. When co-owner Katie Smith started Double A’s Trivia Night nine years ago, the concept was fairly new to Peoria, she recalls. Today, you can find trivia at a different bar every night of the week.
What sets Double A’s apart, Eshelman suggests, is their game’s style. “We’ve got a different format, as far as the way we ask the questions and the types of questions we ask.” Each of the four rounds consists of five questions on an assortment of topics, plus a bonus question. And then there are the prizes—Double A’s offers prizes to the winners of each round and to the top three teams overall. Tonight’s first-place team will receive a free large pizza on their next visit; second place, a medium pizza; and third, a small. Correct answers to the bonus questions earn a complimentary order of cinnamon dunkers. And so begins the first round:
- What famous motorhome brand took its name from a Native American tribe in Nebraska?
- Who became the first player in NFL post-season history with multiple games with at least three rushing touchdowns?
- What form of facial hair was named after a Civil War general?
- What artificial TV sound effect made its debut in 1950 on NBC?
- Bonus question: How long would it take to watch every episode of The Simpsons and The Simpsons Movie back-to-back without interruption?
The room falls to a hush with each question.
Today I Learned…
“A hundred years ago, trivia in its current form did not exist,” begins trivia expert Jeremiah Warren’s informational video on the topic. He recounts a brief pursuit of trivial knowledge, tracing the roots of the Latin word trivium—literally, the “place where three roads meet”—to the early 20th century, when the word trivia, meaning “small factoids of information,” came into general use. TV quiz shows exploded in popularity in the 1950s, notes Warren, and the first trivia contests were organized at Columbia University the following decade. In the early ‘80s, Trivial Pursuit hit retail shelves and quickly became a best-seller, with 20 million copies sold in 1984 alone. The same year, Jeopardy! with host Alex Trebek debuted to similar accolades; it’s now one of the longest-running game shows of all time. Meanwhile, the late-‘90s launch of Who Wants to be a Millionaire proved that Americans had not lost their appetite for trivial knowledge. Today, that pursuit is perfectly suited to the Internet, as the answer to virtually any question can be found in seconds. And then there are the sites devoted to frivolous knowledge.
“You learn something new every day; what did you learn today?” asks the todayilearned (TIL) forum at reddit.com. With nearly 7.5 million subscribers, the “subreddit” is a smorgasbord of random content, with users submitting “interesting and specific facts that they just found out,” and readers voting those submissions up or down. Reading the casual headlines is addicting:
- “TIL cashews, pistachios and mangoes are all in the same family of plant, meaning people with nut allergies often react to mango as well”;
- “TIL the band Aerosmith earned more money from ‘Guitar Hero’ than from any of their albums”;
- “TIL the collective term for ferrets is a business.”
And the list goes on and on.
Inspired by the TIL subreddit, todayifoundout.com features another maze of links to curious, trending facts. An e-newsletter sends daily factoids to subscribers, while a “Surprise” link generates articles on arbitrary, yet fascinating topics, such as “how thousands of Japanese Kamikaze pilots were chosen during WWII.”
Similarly, the Amazing Fact Generator at mentalfloss.com produces a random factoid with each click: “Mozart’s ‘Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman’ might well be his most popular melody—it’s the tune used in both ‘The Alphabet Song’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’” And then there’s Trivia Crack, an app that’s been climbing the charts. The highly-addictive game has users answering questions from six categories—art, entertainment, geography, science, history and sports—and allows them to challenge a friend or a random online opponent.
Without a doubt, trivia is here to stay. But trivia in the flesh is a different beast.
At Peoria’s Fox Pub & Cafe, it all started when a couple of British patrons proposed the idea to owners Matt and Cortney Rixner. Back in England, quiz nights were very popular, and some of the trivia nights they’d attended in the States reminded them of home. As proprietors of a British pub, the couple jumped on the idea in the fall of 2010. They’ve diligently held Quiz Night every Tuesday since, barring holidays. Cortney does the legwork—scouring for interesting tidbits and questions from “anywhere and everywhere”: books, current events, subscriptions to online databases, things their kids have learned in class, and more. This gathering process, Matt says, sets their trivia apart. “A lot of other places hire the trivia out. We have more control over the game and the questions… because my wife spends quite a bit of time, week in and week out, putting it together… She tries to make it so there’s… not a lot of argument about the answer.”
For the Rixners, trivia is no passing fad. Each week, they see new teams filling the bar to capacity—on average, 70 people come every Thursday night—“a great mix” of young and old, “from early to mid-twenties to sixties.” What’s more, each week a different team wins.
“Is it competitive? It is,” Matt declares. “But it’s not crazy. I do sometimes [hear] that ours is more difficult than other places, but that also brings in people who are really passionate about trivia… We have a lot of great groups… a lot of smart people, so it’s a different winner every week.”
At the other end of town, Blue on West Main Street has hosted its own form of trivia, dubbed “Smart Ass Trivia,” on Wednesday nights since last June. Known by many as their neighborhood bar, trivia at Blue is the icing on the cake for some patrons. Here too, the night is competitive, says owner Jessica McGhee, and it’s sarcastic. “Our trivia host tends to tease people mercilessly.”
The host, Dr. Ed Burmila, is a professor of political science at Bradley University. According to McGhee, he approached them about hosting the night, which has been very popular, in large part due to his engaging personality. Aside from the weekends, it’s the bar’s busiest night of the week, with standing room only on most Wednesdays.
“We have our own thing, and a good group of people coming in who really, really like it,” McGhee notes. While there are no actual prizes—instead, guests play “for the glory”—she says what they have is working. “If you do bad trivia, it’s absolutely awful—and we’ve accidently wandered into a few of those!” she laughs.
Back at Double A’s, Josh Eshelman has tallied the teams’ scores for the first round. He returns their answer sheets and gets on the mic:
- LeGarrette Blount;
- Laugh track;
- And the bonus question: 12,231 minutes long—roughly eight-and-a-half days.
The restaurant sighs in unison with the reveal of the bonus question. No one is even close—the prize goes to the team whose answer was closest without going over. Across the restaurant, the Benedict Arnolds laugh over their missed answers. Another set of fleeting knowledge secured, they look to Eshelman, hungry for the next round. a&s