Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Trivial Matters

Having just been to another Basement Bowl, I’ve been ruminating on a blog entry about what makes a good trivia question. And I do want to write that, but first I’d like to address those of you who may be saying, “another Basment Wha?”

Let me say: this is going to be long. Consequently, I’m breaking it up into a series of posts. This first one is the big lump of backstory that’s required to understand my personal trivia history. Your eyes may glaze over. This is normal.

I can go back quite a ways with my connection to trivia — I remember having books like Fred L. Worth’s Trivia Encyclopedia sitting around the house as a kid, and playing Trivial Pursuit with my family. (My dad dominated, though really he was only competing with one other adult.)

Meanwhile, the University of Colorado, my alma mater two times over and now my employer, started hosting an official Trivia Bowl in 1968, sponsored by a professor who’d just led a CU team to victory in the GE College Bowl. The difference was that while the College Bowl focused on various academic areas, the Trivia Bowl was dedicated solely to pop-cultural ephemera: music, movies, TV, sports, and “garbage”, which encompasses things like comic strips, theater, radio, etc.

The games follow a standard “quiz bowl” format. Two teams of four array against each other. Each team member has a buzzer. The moderator reads a “toss-up” question worth 10 points. At any point during the reading of the question, an individual may buzz in with the answer. If she interrupts with a wrong answer, her team incurs a 5-point penalty and the other team can listen to the entire question. A wrong answer that doesn’t interrupt incurs no penalty. No conferencing or teamwork is allowed on toss-up questions — if the judges see a conference, that team is automatically disqualified for that question, and the other team has a chance to buzz in.

A correct answer on a toss-up earns the right to a “bonus question”, worth anywhere from 20 to 40 points, and on these, teamwork IS allowed. (It’s usually essential, in fact.) These are usually multi-part questions, often with some kind of theme tying them together.

Example of a toss-up question:

James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot were the writers behind what song medley, which won Record Of The Year, topped the charts for six weeks in 1969, and was the biggest hit in the 5th Dimension’s career?

Example of a bonus question:

I’ll name a fictional computer from a movie, you name the movie, for ten points each.
1. MU-TH-R 182 model 2, the ship-board computer on the space ship Nostromo, known by the crew as ‘mother.’
2. Deep Thought, a computer created by a pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race of beings who look to us exactly like white mice.
3. EMERAC, a room-sized computer recently acquired by the Federal Broadcasting Network, whose worth is advocated by inventor Richard Sumner and doubted by reference librarian Bunny Watson.
4. WOPR, or War Operations Plan Response, a military simulator housed at NORAD.

Teams compete against each other in a long tournament — at the height of the trivia bowl, it started with 64 teams and narrowed down to two. The game consists of two ten-minute halves, though later in the tournament these periods are sometimes longer. There’s multimedia fun too — audio and video for both the tossups and bonuses.

The Trivia Bowl got quite popular, playing to packed houses in the Glenn Miller Ballroom throughout the 70s. A version of it was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports at one point. Teams tried to outdo each other with silly, funny names (e.g. “Children Of A Lesser Godzilla”, “Bill Clinton Sings ‘Devil With A Blue Dress On'”), and the level of competition was impressive — there are people out there with some frighteningly encyclopedic knowledge about pop culture. The matches lasted through the week, and on the Friday before the finals there’d be a concert by some oldies act — Del Shannon, The Guess Who, Bo Diddley, etc.

The Bowl’s popularity endured a slow decline through the eighties, and by the early 90s attendance was sparse indeed. CU finally pulled the plug on the event in 1993, with a brief revival from 2001-2002. The year after that, a guy named Paul Bailey continued the Bowl in diminished form — people gathering in small conference rooms to answer questions, no audio or video, and no audience. But still fun.

Okay, that’s all for now. Next post will explain my personal history with all this, and give answers to the questions in this post. If you don’t want to wait that long, I will be happy to confirm or deny any answers that appear in the comments.


Game As Life, Life As Game


Trivial Matters 2: Electric Boogaloo


  1. Anonymous

    Alas, these days, google makes such questions mostly trivial. I’ll guess the answers without my hindbrian though:

    I do know deep thought from hhgttg, wopr from war games, and emerac only because of the clues of “advocated”/”doubted”, and “reference librarian” as being from the katherine hepburn/spencer tracy romantic comedy about a computer replacing the reference desk. I’ll be damned if I can remember the name, though. Office Something?

    Hmm… “mother” reminds me of that hacker/cracker film dan aykroyd was in, but it wasn’t a computer with that nickname, it was aykroyd’s character. Maybe it was the one in Alien?

    (Also, I don’t know the 5th dimension’s hits off the top of my head)

    • Alas, these days, google makes such questions mostly trivial.

      I see what you did there. 🙂 Yeah, it’s obviously a different experience to answer these questions in a blog post than live and in person. No extra-cranial sources are allowed! You have the right movie on #3, and Alien is correct on #1.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén