Op-Ed
Op-Ed

Choosing questions for trivia is not a trivial task

Any 10-year-old with a smartphone has access to exponentially more information than even “Jeopardy!” legend Ken Jennings can call to mind. Yet bar trivia games, which demand that people put away their devices to test their analog library of knowledge, are more popular than ever. So after years of writing for the World Almanac (what's an almanac, grandpa?), I put my factoid-finding skills to more entertaining use. I started a 20 Questions Trivia show at Trip, a bar in Santa Monica.

Although it's not the most difficult gig on the planet, it does take a while to master the art of inquiry.

Only a tiny percentage of the facts in an almanac make good trivia questions. The population of Luxembourg may be trivial, but it isn't trivia, because few people would care to know or share the answer. Trivia-suitable facts are usually superlative in some way: “Luxembourg is one of only two countries with an “x” in it. What's the other?” “[1] First, highest, longest and only are adjectives that populate the best questions.

Initially, I tried to craft questions that couldn't be Googled, like “In what three cities do the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams all play their home games within the city limits?[2] But I found that almost any question that can be asked has already been asked, if not on “Jeopardy!”, then on some other game show, app or airline seatback. Online sites like Ask.com, Cha Cha and Sporcle seem to exist solely to answer people's burning questions, from “Who was the first black astronaut?”[3] to “Who was the last actress to win an Oscar for playing a prostitute?”[4]

Popular culture questions require broad appeal, a task made more difficult by the balkanization of our culture. When there were only three major networks, we all watched the same TV shows, and viewers of a certain generation could name all six “Brady Bunch” kids [5] as well as the actors who played them.[6] Today, with hundreds of cable and online outlets, our shared cultural experience is largely limited to “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons” and the Super Bowl.

Questions about any single TV program often draw blank stares, because if you've never seen “Saved by the Bell,” you have no way of knowing who played Screech.[7] I much prefer questions you can figure out, like “What is the only number whose letters are in alphabetical order?”[8] or “What Belgian herding dog breed includes the last names of two Simpsons characters?”[9]

On occasions when I do ask a “know it or you don't” question, I turn it into a puzzle, planting clues that steer contestants in the right direction. Sometimes the clue appears in the question itself: “The main character of the 1995 film “Clueless” shares a name with which one-named singer/actress?”[10] Or I'll hint at the answer with the song that plays while teams contemplate their answers. Madonna's “Papa Don't Preach” accompanied the question “All six of the words in this novel's title have three letters.”[11]

Musical clues are critical to Garfunkels, a category in which I name the artist(s) left behind when one band member went on to solo stardom. If you're old enough to remember Wham!, Andrew Ridgely is easy,[12] but only true music geeks could suss out Tom Dumont, Tony Kanal and Adrian Young without Blondie's “Heart of Glass” as a clue.[13]

Each week's game also has a theme, which often provides an additional clue. “What character has Ted Giannoulas been performing as since 1974”[14] is a hard question until you know the week's theme is “Chicken or the Egg.”

Once I find a factoid I like, I may recycle it by tweaking the information provided, and concealed. I'll ask “Who was the first Asian person to win a Best Director Oscar?” in one week's game, and then, a week or two later: “Ang Lee was the first Asian person to win Best Director for what 2005 film?”[15]

Because so many bargoers are millennials, I don't expect them to know much about history — at least not the history I've lived through. Deep Throat and Squeaky Fromme (Google them, millennials!) are as ancient to 25-year-olds as the Bonus Army or the Enola Gay were to my generation. Nevertheless, I'm dismayed when they're flummoxed by evergreen questions about geography (“What three world capitals start with the letter O?”[16]) or civics (“When is Election Day?”[17]).

To accommodate patrons who've never heard the sound of a broken record, I've added questions about Kardashians (“Which is the oldest sister?”[18]), social media (“What were the two most Instagrammed places in 2014?”[19]) and video games I've never played (“Majora's Mask 3D is the 17th game in what series?”[20]).

Some questions fall flat, but the show is always heartening to a journalist who worries that facts are losing their currency. For two hours, contestants engage in spirited conversations, and stop staring at their phones.

[1] Mexico

[2] Philadelphia, Denver and Chicago.

[3] Guion Bluford

[4] Anne Hathaway

[5] Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Greg, Peter, Bobby

[6] Maureen McCormick (Marcia), Eve Plumb (Jan) Susan Olsen(Cindy), Barry Williams (Greg), Christopher Knight (Peter), Mike Lookinland (Bobby)

[7] Dustin Diamond

[8] Forty

[9] Bouvier des Flandres (Patty or Selma Bouvier, Ned Flanders)

[10] Cher

[11] “The Old Man and the Sea” (by Ernest “Papa” Hemingway)

[12] George Michael

[13] (The extremely blond) Gwen Stefani

[14] The (San Diego) Chicken

[15] “Brokeback Mountain”

[16] Ottawa, Oslo and Ouagadougou

[17] The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

[18] Kourtney

[19] Disneyland and Dodger Stadium

[20] “The Legend of Zelda”

John Rosenthal is a contributing editor to the World Almanac and host of 20 Questions Trivia every Friday at Trip Santa Monica.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 10, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Mastering the trivial arts - How to write the perfect trivia question? Hint: Use a lot of superlatives." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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