I spent this past Friday night in the company of friends and family, proving that I, a relatively informed and somewhat knowledgeable person, am, in fact, incredibly stupid. That’s right, I attended a trivia night. I would say I competed in a trivia night, but that just wouldn’t ring true.
Now it has come to my attention after living on the West Coast for a while and talking with folks who have lived in others parts of the US, that “Trivia Night” is somewhat regional. So let me give you a quick rundown in case you’re not from around here.
Trivia nights are set up as fundraisers for, well, any kind of organization that might need to raise funds, like PTA, scouts, or even a local political party office. The one we attended was for a church youth program. To participate, you purchase a table and call up to seven of your quirkiest friends. The well-read guy, the film buff, the sports expert, and that one girl who can rattle off an exhaustive list of famous circus performers of the 19th century might be a good place to start.
It might also be wise to invite the friend who will supply the best snacks. It turns out that the only reason to call up your friend the practical historian is because she’ll bring cupcakes.
Typically there are ten questions in each of ten themed rounds. The top scoring two or three tables at the end of the evening are awarded a cash prize. These fundraising events have swept through the Midwest the last several years (so take that, all you trend-setting coastal cities), even sometimes inspiring traveling teams of trivia junkies (which you can be sure will include an expert on 19th century circus performers) that spend every weekend raiding the KC halls of sleepy little farm towns making sure those of us with lives go home with nothing more than a few extra cupcakes.
In its earliest uses, the word “trivia” or the singular trivium referred in Ancient Rome to a coming together of three roads. Later it referred to the Artes Liberales, the studies of grammar, rhetoric, and logic that form the basic learning that is important for all students (which is why college freshman still have to suffer through rhetoric & comp).
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term was applied consistently to bits of information that are of very little importance to the majority of the population. With the emergence of television came the rapid rise of the trivia game show. And though trivia on television nearly disappeared after it was revealed that the results of several of the games were fixed, the US had been bitten by the trivia bug.
College quiz bowls popped up across the country, started by Columbia University students Ed Goodgold and Dan Carklinsky whose book Trivia became a New York Times Bestseller probably because even though it had nothing to do with grammar, rhetoric, or logic, I’m guessing there was an entire chapter devoted to famous circus performers of the 19th century.
The 1980’s brought us Trivial Pursuit, arguably the most popular board game of all time, and a second, much more successful run at the game show Jeopardy!, now the longest running game show in television history. So really the rapid growth in popularity of Trivia Night (one day soon it may even reach culturally starved places like New York and Los Angeles) shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Because every now and then we all like to think of ourselves as relatively informed, somewhat knowledgeable people and, frankly, we need to be taken down a peg or two. So in our arrogance we recruit our friends and put together teams to subject ourselves to questioning in categories such as: “Identification of State Capitol buildings from Aerial Photographs,” “Nominees who failed to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the 1930s,” and “The Life and Times of 19th-Century Circus Performers.”
Then we wonder how on earth the team at the far end of the room that is averaging a score of 8 on every round has managed to sneak their smart phones past the judges. We’d probably say something about it, but our mouths are full of cupcake.