By Juan Rodriguez
For hours and hours in this transfigured night, Monk and Coltrane jump from my stereo and The Dictionary of 20th Century World Politics, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, and War Slang litter my table. Cigarette smoke snakes its way into the steam drifting from a fresh cup of tea. My ears survey the parallel careers of two jazz greats in the 50s–what was Trane doing the month Monk recorded “I Surrender, Dear”?–and, having eclipsed my daily quota of writing Trivial Pursuit questions (40, half of which won’t make the final cut), I wonder how much further I can go. It’s a good night. I’m wrapped in an incandescent interior cocoon. The music feeds my soul. The questions keep knocking on my door.
It seems like only yesterday that I started writing Trivial Pursuit questions. Of course it wasn’t yesterday. My life over the past 13 years seems like a never-ending stream of questions. I struggle with them morning, noon, and night (where am I going to find the next one?). I have nightmares about them (am I sure this is accurate?). I constantly question the questions–for historical value, interest, topicality, degree of difficulty. I question them for posterity (Trivial Pursuit is lodged in a time capsule, along with the likes of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, as an artifact of our times). I wonder whether or not only a Mensa member can answer them. I fret over the potentially libelous irreverence of some questions (Trivial Pursuit traditionally having a flip attitude toward life). I agonize over exactly just what facts, ma’am. I fret over and double-check the veracity of sources. I plunge headlong in an oft-futile search for new ways of stimulating the “hidden” obvious, the arcane, the nostalgic, the trick question. I wonder whether I’ve mistaken the kid in The Wonder Years for the one in Doogie Howser MD (it gets to be a blur after a while). Or am I confusing Heather Locklear with Pamela Anderson (it’s late), as in “What Melrose Place babe divorced a Motley Crue drummer and got engaged to a Bon Jovi guitarist?” Vicissitudes: The Baywatch babe just married the Motley drummer–or was it guitarist? At this point in time–what Watergater coined that phrase?–I am reminded of a question I wrote about Ross Perot running mate Admiral James Stockdale: “What vice presidential candidate asked in a debate, “Who am I? What am I doing here?”‘
It’s way past midnight and only perceived momentum is propelling me. Maybe I should quit for the night. My brain warns me of the Trivial Pursuit dreams that turn into nightmares of my brain becoming a big computer screen with green-lettered questions, one correct, one incorrect, battling it out like Pac-Men, the incorrect one seemingly zapped until it returns. I thought those nightmares were aberrations, but they occasionally return, unannounced, after I’ve pushed the envelope too far. Sometimes the questions become billboards with no answer at all.
The music comforts me like Linus’s security blanket. I know it’s time to quit when I start scribbling a question about Monk’s middle name (Sphere). Gee, I wish we could do an all-jazz edition, but, alas, I must content myself with Elvis, Beatles, Madonna, Michael. I close the books. I decide to wind down by watching tonight’s taped editions of Beavis & Butt-head.
It’s a dirty job–no it isn’t, it’s just screwy–but somebody’s got to do it. Like it or not, there’s a weird tradition to uphold.
Questions and answers. Facts, minutiae, nostalgia. According to one dictionary the word “trivia” was coined in 1920, another says 1905-’06. It’s defined by Webster’s as “unimportant matters: trivial facts or details; a quizzing game involving obscure facts.” Bottom line: Trivial Pursuit has sold more than 60 million copies in 33 countries and 19 languages.
How many editions of Trivial Pursuit have been released in North America? Genus (affectionately known as “Big Blue”); Silver Screen; All-Star Sports; Baby Boomer; Young Player’s; Genus II; RPM: A History of Music; Disney Family edition; Pocket Player Set” (actually two: TP’s People and Boob Tube); Mini Packs (six: War & Victory, Rock & Pop, Flicks, Sports, The Good Life, Wild Card); the 1980s edition; the Vintage edition (spanning the 1920s to 1959); the 1960s edition; the TV edition; the Family edition (one card set for kids, another for adults); the Country Music Mini Pak; the All-American edition.
There are three new editions currently getting a big push: Puzzle Pursuit edition; CD-ROM edition; and Genus III (hyped in ads: “You can’t make this stuff up”).
The maximum number of characters per question line is 45, no more than three lines per question. Two-liners are preferable to three-liners, because they look better on the card.
Q: What are the most common physical injuries one encounters while writing Trivial Pursuit?
A: Neck and back pain. Paper cuts.
Tonight I am making corrections, based on comments received via E-mail from my two compatriots in crime, David Walbert, an Alabamian Spanish guitarist (loves Segovia) with a sly sense of humor and copious memory for anecdote, and Richard Blewett, a Boston computer whiz who is the only person I know who’s equally up to snuff on science and pop culture (loves Led Zeppelin). Making corrections is a lesson in humility, involving eating crow and, if you’re spending too much time trying to get it right and making no headway, being quick to drop the question. Kill it before it spreads is our motto.
What’s the main ingredient of chocolate? (Cocoa). Blewett warns: “Whoa!! First listed ingred. in choc. is sugar (even in bittersweet flav.). Not sure how to fix this, either.” What’s the most important ingredient? What could chocolate not do without? It all still leads to sugar. I meant pure chocolate–I think–but kill it.
What disease did Muhammad Ali contract after years of catching blows? (Parkinson’s syndrome.) Seems innocent enough, but Blewett’s in his what’s-wrong-with-this-picture mode: ‘Develop’ might be preferable to ‘contract,’ which implies ‘catching’ it from somewhere. Columbia Encyc. calls it ‘Parkinsonism’ but allows ‘Parkinson’s disease.’ ‘Disorder’ might be preferable to ‘disease.'”
What element is slightly heavier than air? (Oxygen.) Seemed simple enough when I wrote it, but here’s Blewett with a science lesson: “Flag in my brain went off. Oxy usually goes around in compound O
Wording is a tricky thing (and a mind is a terrible thing to waste). What G word is defined as the science of inheritance? (Genetics.) Blewett: “My mind went to banking terms & wills here. P-word is probate.” What winner of a record 17 Triple Crown races lost his first 250 mounts? (Eddie Arcaro.) Blewett: “This sounds like he fell off them all.” You see the answer to a question, and you think there could be no other. It can get embarrassing, as in: What are wandering people with no fixed home defined as? (My answer: nomads.) Blewett: “Homeless?” Walbert: “Bums? Deadbeats? TP writers?” Then there’s the case of the nomadic missing comma. What’s the main mode of transport for nomads who make up half of Somalia’s population? (Camel.) Zinger from Walbert: “As opposed to nomads who don’t make up half of Somalia’s population.”
What cola had a 1.5 share of the U.S. market by 1993, trailing even Royal Crown Cola? (New Coke.) I add my own caution here: “There may be others, so we might want to refine this.” Walbert’s riposte: “Why not just refine some oil instead?”
Often when you can see the answer in advance, a question looks better than it is. I was very proud of this one, with its cute irony–What Greek U word means “nowhere”? (Utopia)–until Walbert threw a wet blanket over it: “Does anyone know this? Does anyone care?” Or: What are the only two values in a form of algebra called Boolean logic? (True and false.) DW: “Should we save this one for the Boolean edition?”
While I like to include some easy questions to keep players in the game when they’re brain-dead at one in the morning, some are deemed too easy: What was Elvis Presley’s character’s occupation in the movies Speedway, Spinout, and Viva Las Vegas? (Race car driver.) Walbert wisecracks: “Duhhh! Does a hobby horse have a hickory dick?” What Italian actress once noted: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti”? (Sophia Loren.) Walbert: “Name an Italian actress is a choice of two–Gina or Sophia.” Hey, what about Anna Maria Alberghetti, Virna Lisi, Claudia Cardinale, Giulietta Masina?
What’s reduced by adding a few drops of Beano when cooking beans? (Flatulence.) Ever vigilant, Blewett explains: “You’re missing a step in the evidence trail. Have to cook, then eat beans with Beano to reduce flatulence. You’re reducing the temperature of the beans by a few thousandths of a degree, thus reducing its ability to steam whilst cooking.” I’m sorry I asked!
Q: How did you come to write Trivial Pursuit questions?
A: That’s a long story.
Q: Can you make it snappy?
A: Read on.
Way back when I was on my last legs as a newspaper pop-music critic, I worked with the future inventors of Trivial Pursuit. Chris Haney was photo editor of Montreal’s Gazette, and Scott Abbott was local sports bureau chief for the Canadian Press wire service. Though best buddies, they were opposites. Chris was tall, rumpled, bleary-eyed, and wore a handlebar mustache. Scott was short, balding, battling a bulge, and sharp-eyed with a rakish, tightly trimmed mustache. Inveterate quipsters, they had nicknames: Chris was “Horn” (for horny), Scott was “Scooter” (for the way he approached work). They lived by trademark slogans. Chris: “You’re not here for a long time, you’re here for a good time.” Scott: “Speed, force, and accuracy” (he spent two teenage years in military school). Chris was vaguely liberal; Scott was archconservative long before it became trendy. Chris was into music and movies (his mother and sister were actresses, his father was a newsman). Scott’s concept of culture was sports (his master’s thesis in communications was a survey of over 600 pro athletes’ attitudes toward the media; the conclusion: “about 60 percent negative”). Chris loved to cook, Scott couldn’t crack an egg. Both had anecdotal memories. Both believed in iconoclasm and irreverence as a way of life. Both drank at the hole-in-the-wall American Tavern (no women) on Montreal’s rue Saint-Jacques. Their idea of work was getting the newsroom job done as quickly as possible to conserve valuable drinking time. They were very good at both. So was I.
We were a rowdy and motley crew–mucho drinking and yakking and laughing and run-ins with management–bitchin’ and moanin’ about editors missing this angle and that. There was a sense that the newsroom was a glorified prison that had little to do with the real world. “Lifers” was a word Chris and Scott often belched between belts to describe their colleagues.
During happy hour on December 16, 1979, Chris surreptitiously sidled up to me at the bar. “Don’t tell anyone this,” he said. “We invented a board game last night. We’re gonna be rich!” He told me the story: He and Scott had settled down over a few Carlsbergs to play a best-of-seven, $100-a-game Scrabble tournament (they’re experts). Chris had reflected on the fact that, due to his persistent loss of tiles, this was his seventh box of Scrabble, prompting the question: “Why can’t we invent something as good as this?” “What could it be about?” Scott had asked. Attuned to factoids–disconnected info that had a life of its own in newspapers and media–they had quickly decided on trivia. Within 45 minutes they had outlined the basic rules and categories, and had the circular board mapped out on a couple of Scotch-taped tavern place mats. They had even thought of a name: Trivia Pursuit (Chris’s wife Sarah later added the “l” because “it sounded better”). Soon afterward Chris took me aside at the bar and bellowed, “Lookit, if you take this crap so much you must like it! Lookit, if you quit now I will too! If you have trouble finding work, once we hit the jackpot we’ll hire you!”
First, though, they had to hit the jackpot. They enlisted Chris’s older brother John (nicknamed “Clone Horn”), the Shaw Festival Theater manager in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Ed Werner, tough labor lawyer (dubbed “Doberman”). Chris termed their grand venture “a crash course in capitalism, pure on-the-job training.” Added John: “In our case ignorance really was bliss.”
After investing their first $700 for a patent lawyer to investigate the existence of circular board games devoted to the recall of trivial facts, they turned up at a toy trade show in Montreal in February 1980, posing as journalists. While Chris clicked away with an unloaded camera, Scott, notebook in hand, furiously picked the brains of industry honchos. “We got about $10,000 worth of information,” crowed Chris.
Upon their return they offered $1,000 shares to raise the $75,000 required to produce the test-market edition which, if all went well, would give them the credibility to march into a bank for financing. Only two media colleagues bought in–a copy boy who compiled the Gazette’s entertainment listings, (he cashed in his Canada Savings Bond) and a Canadian Press financial reporter whose intellectual savvy made him the “nerd” of the newsroom. A nasty newsroom campaign warned lifers not to throw away good money to pay for another drinking binge. Scott proudly admitted Trivial Pursuit was a “scam” that could work big-time. Eventually, of course, the lifers became big-time losers. Meanwhile many of John’s theater friends invested. (As for me, although I was convinced the scam would work, I didn’t have ten bucks to my name, let alone a thousand. I, uh, think about this from time to time.)
Chris and John (and Scott on the occasional vacation) went to the south of Spain to write questions and drink cerveza. Snapshots show them bleary-eyed on the beach, with “getting-away-with-murder” grins. “On a good day we could do a hundred questions,” said John, “yet we might argue for a half hour over the accuracy of a certain answer. The difficult thing was finding enough offbeat questions that make you laugh or say “Oh yeah, I knew that!”‘ Aiming at a 45 percent success ratio to keep the game both accessible and challenging, they tested the fruits of their labors on other itinerant beach bums–Australians, Germans, and Americans, including my future pardner Walbert. Returning to Toronto in May, they organized a “Kill Committee Weekend” with friends to ferret out mundane questions from the 6,000 they’d accumulated. That 72 hours became five weeks as they rejected 2,500 questions and generated more. Burnout reared its head. Once John asked, “Is the earth a planet?” No one knew.
The test-run edition of 1,130–costing $60 per unit to produce and wholesaling at $15–sold out fast. In February 1982 the boys confidently rolled into Montreal in their Dodge van (dubbed “Tricky Dicky”) for the annual toy show. They’d left nothing to chance. Chris had a Gazette photographer (a protege he’d hired) sneak into the studio for a fancy shot of the game for a flier (“Trivia. It’s like the weather–everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Until now”). The Gazette cartoonist turned out three posters that are now rare collectibles (one had Casablanca’s Rick telling Sam, “You played it for her–you can play it for me”). I finagled a Gazette article, which Scott, who edited the proof page downstairs at the bar, gleefully dubbed a “full-page ad” (quote from Chris: “People in the business told us two years ago that it couldn’t be done, that it was too expensive to produce. Big companies move like elephants. Well, we’re becoming successful by breaking the rules”). Scott called a favorite flack from O’Keefe Breweries and got him to donate cases of Carlsberg for their “hospitality suite.” They enlisted me to sit in their booth and play the game all day long. A game plan like this couldn’t miss! They made bar bets as to how many orders they would receive: estimates ranged from 2,000 to 20,000. Then the bitter truth: They wound up with fewer than 200 orders. A similar fate awaited them at the New York toy show.
Things got desperate. Game companies returned boxes unopened. Banks wouldn’t touch these wackos. Around the newsrooms cynics shook their heads with I-told-you-sos. If they went bust, they’d be in the hole for a quarter of a million dollars. Finally they got lucky. An Ontario bank manager named Al Petrie took the game home with him and played it with his daughter. She loved it. He offered to loan them a limit of $75,000, provided they put up $50,000 in personal liability. Scott asked his father, a 91-year-old retired real estate agent, to back the loan. The spry, white-haired gentleman became their knight in shining armor. They could now mass-produce 20,000 units.
Two weeks before the May 15 delivery date Chris suffered what looked to be a heart attack, winding up in intensive care. Stress, compounded by booze, was the diagnosis. Told to take it easy, he went back to work. Two weeks later he was found blathering away in the fetal position. He was shipped off to his father-in-law’s farm, where he spent the next six weeks chopping wood, cooking, and speaking to no one. Scott quit his job. “Don’t tell anyone over in the newsroom about Chris,” Scott warned me sternly. John and Scott wheeled “Tricky Dicky” into action again, delivering most of the 20,000 games themselves, eventually putting the poor van into a scrap heap. Meanwhile, there was the matter of thinking up 6,000 questions for the Silver Screen planned for a November release.
You know the rest: In the summer of ’83 Trivial Pursuit was the rage of Toronto, netting a Canadian distribution deal. The happy crew flew to New York to negotiate with Selchow & Righter (makers of their beloved Scrabble and the company that originally turned down Monopoly). “Ghostbusters meet Lawrence Welk,” Chris dubbed the powwow. “Doberman” Werner fought such a hard bargain that, said Scott, “at one point I felt like strangling him for fear that Selchow would pull out.” They agreed to an unheard-of 15 percent royalty (in an industry where royalties from 5 to 7 percent are the norm). On Christmas Eve Chris was able to laugh when the bank confiscated his Visa card because he was late with a $50 payment.
“It’s funny,” said Chris, “you need a cynical attitude to work in the news biz. Journalists have contempt for people who do well. There were only a few who said “Congratulations, we’re proud of you.’ They usually make snarky comments about how we’re big-shot millionaires now.” Two years later Chris carried a Trivial Pursuit card that he would flash quickly and promise, “I’ll give you $10,000 if you can answer any of these questions.” The card was from the Japanese edition.
I’ll come clean: I’ve thought about this more than I care to admit. Writing Trivial Pursuit is a not-so-magnificent obsession. I spend much of my life in Trivial Pursuit mind-set, always “on,” antennae out for possible questions. I keep a clipboard next to my big TV chair, so as to catch any potential nuggets on CNN or talk shows or commercials. Do people remember catchy 800 numbers on TV ads? “What motel chain can be reached at 1-800-800-8000?” (Super Eight, and you’ll kick yourself if you don’t get it, heh-heh.) Keeping track of the celebrities of our times means keeping tabs on People and Vanity Fair. When no one’s looking I’ve been known to buy the odd National Enquirer–Jeanne Dixon celebrity predictions might yield some offbeat questions, and gossip can be trivia (What’s the least-sued major publication in America?).
I’ll do anything for a question. Told we needed some Rambo questions, I sat through all three movies twice to get 30 questions (What movie saw Sylvester Stallone ask, “Uh, do we get to win this time, sir?” [Rambo: First Blood Part II]). I’ve bought heavy-metal fan mags to get those all-important Motley Crue and Metallica questions. Round midnight, in desperation, I’ve wandered down the aisles of Safeway, jotting down the minutiae of canned goods labels, who’s on cereal boxes, slogans and ingredients lists on candy, desserts, and junk food, liquor labels, anything for the “Sports & Leisure” category (where junk food and booze questions are spirited). These are especially good for visually oriented questions, where answers are figured out by picturing them in the mind’s eye. What rum label features a man with an eye patch? (Captain Morgan.) After I answer the inevitable question–What’s my line?–people automatically say, “Gee, you must know a lot of stuff.” To which I glibly reply, “In one ear, out the other.” Giving the player a decent chance to answer a question is not a matter of what I know but how I pose a question.
Most of this is routine work. Once I gather momentum on any given day, I don’t want to give it up. Like the player trying to figure out the answer, I try to figure out new ways of exploring familiar material. I try to grab some fun where I can get it. After all, I can’t have fun playing the game–all the answers are familiar. So I step into the players’ shoes, imagine what they go through to attempt an answer or a guess. There’s something schizophrenic about my modus operandi. Something Zen or psychotic.
When I find a new way of asking a Q on something we’ve done a dozen times, I feel all warm and fuzzy and proud. What player did the Boston Celtics draft between win-loss seasons of 29-53 and 61-21? (Larry Bird.) He made a big difference to the Celts then; he makes a big diff to my psyche now. Or: What was the most successful product flogged by a cast member of Three’s Company? (Thighmaster.) Since then she’s released the Butt-Master, but I’m betting–well, praying–it won’t be as successful.
Sometimes, with a personality in the news, we ask how to spell his or her name. We did it with Schwarzenegger. Now: How do you spell “Buttafuoco”? The thought of millions of seemingly smart players scratching their heads trying to visualize the moniker of the Long Island Lolita’s liaison perversely appeals to me.
Silliness counts, too. “What did boxer Nelson Azumah change his name to?” (Azumah Nelson.) Or: “What British university boasts an endowment called the Jackie Mason Lectureship in Contemporary Judaism?” (Oxford.)
There are brisk periods when questions pop out of every page and fly into mind. But mostly it’s plodding work. The hours, weeks, months crawl by as I thumb page after page alphabetically of large reference books and encyclopedias, science volumes, travel guides, movie and music and television books. One excruciating period saw me thumbing, dazed and confused, almost each of the 3,000 pages of the Random House Encyclopedia, looking for familiar words that could cue to Qs, scanning its many illustrations for visual questions. Like I say, you could go nuts in this line of work. You’ve gotta be attuned to potential burnout signals: nightmares over accuracy mean taking a couple of days off. Sometimes, at the end of the day, the only thing left to hold on to is being right. Who was the youngest person to have a chart-topping single in 1970? (Michael Jackson.) Comment: “MJ did not “have’ the single, he was singing on it with Jackson 5!” No-o-o! When he took “Ben,” the tune about the movie rat, to the top, he did it alone. Gotcha! What flower family is the apple a member of? (The rose family.) Comment: “I don’t believe this for a second.” But there it is, in all the books. Nyah-nyah.
Q: At the height of Trivial Pursuit’s popularity, what was the one merchandising item the boys refused to stamp their logo with?
(Hmm, let’s see. There were Trivial Pursuit T-shirts, sweatshirts, golf shirts, glass and plastic barware, paper plates and napkins, ceramic coffee mugs, beach towels, sheets, and jigsaw puzzles. Random House put out calendars, date books, notebooks, diaries, portfolios. Bantam published four cartoon books. Bally brandished coin-operated video game systems. There were gourmet fortune cookies, and dietetic gourmet cookies. Fourteen-karat-gold electroplated playing pieces, game tote cases of vinyl, canvas, and ultrasuede, and a brass presentation case. What’s left?
A: Ashtrays. Chris and Scott, smokers, didn’t like the idea of the Trivial Pursuit logo besmirched by butts and ashes.
While it’s become a way of life for me–an antidote to weightier matters of life and love–Trivial Pursuit has crept into the American lexicon. Athletes, upon setting a record or committing a memorable gaffe, routinely tell the press, “I hope I make it into Trivial Pursuit.” (You bet.) When the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debate raged on, Congressman Bob Dornan asked CNN’s Crossfire, “Isn’t this just going to wind up on a little Trivial Pursuit card?” (As you speak, sir.) Pat Buchanan blasted Michael Kinsley: “Take a look at the real world instead of your trivial pursuits!” “Trivial pursuit” is a favorite catchall for leads in newspapers and TV news reports. “Trick question” has become part of the vernacular.
One of Late Night With David Letterman’s lead-in graphics was a Trivial Pursuit-styled card with all the answers having to do with Dave. In the otherwise forgettable movie Men at Work, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez miss a murder opposite their window because they’re playing Trivial Pursuit. Paul Peterson, locked in child-star time warp on Donna Reed Show reruns, told Premiere magazine: “A friend called the other day and said, ‘Guess what, Paul? I just got your name on a Trivial Pursuit card.’ That’s an unpleasant notion.” Pauline Kael, describing the storytelling games in Out of Africa, snorted: “It’s a mandarin form of Trivial Pursuit.” Meg Tilly on her Oscar nomination for Agnes of God: “It means a lot to me, but next year it’s going to be a Trivial Pursuit question.” (Not quite, Meg–unless you’re Al Pacino, nominations don’t cut it like actual wins.) The game made it onto Seinfeld: What group conquered Spain in the 11th century, according to a misprinted answer on a Trivial Pursuit card in a Seinfeld episode? (The Moops.) The coffee table item in the Oakland Museum’s California “Dream House” is–you guessed it.
“Facts are stupid things,” Ronald Reagan said at the 1988 Republican Convention, after logging thousands of miles aboard Air Force One playing Trivial Pursuit. (How many times did Ron publicly mention the savings and loans crisis while president? [Zero.] Facts? Nancy is two years older than the birthday she celebrates. Young Ron provided play-by-play of baseball games on radio by embellishing what came over the wire; when the wire broke down he just made stuff up. The day Reagan was sworn in as president, the first Trivial Pursuit questions were being concocted.) Reagan came of age in the 1980s–the previous decades were merely a foundation for final self-invention (Whose final screen role was the villain in 1964’s The Killers?)–when the name of the game was winning at all costs. The New York Times headlined its big end-of-the-80s story, “Full of Trivial Pursuits.” (Who sported the campaign slogan “It’s morning in America”? What company invented the slogan, “Every American is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of trivia”?)
Trivial Pursuit was the first baby-boomer board game. Bill Clinton was the first boomer president. A week before his inauguration Prime Time Live’s Diane Sawyer was in Little Rock breathlessly reporting that the “well-worn box of Trivial Pursuit” was being packed for the trip to Washington. When she asked if the first couple expected to find time to do normal things, Hillary answered that they hoped to gather with friends on weekends to play Trivial Pursuit, as usual. We know much about Clinton through trivia. Who wore shades on Arsenio to honk “Heartbreak Hotel” on sax? Who did Clinton shake hands with in a 1962 Washington receiving line? Who did Clinton say sounded like a mafioso in a phone call with Gennifer Flowers? What’s Bill Clinton’s favorite board game? We know that on the big philosophical issues Clinton is a flip-flopper–he can’t decide on the correct answer. (What did Alex Trebek say contestants must master to stand a chance at Jeopardy? [The buzzer.]) He came of age in the 1960s, but still can’t define himself. (On MTV a young lady asks him an easy question: “What do you prefer–boxers or briefs?” Without flinching, Clinton replies, “Briefs.” [It figures.])
The main reason given for the tight ensemble acting of The Big Chill is that the cast spent every waking hour playing Trivial Pursuit (“If ever there was a natural connection,” noted Esquire, “it was the one between the game and the film about Sixties kids living in the ’80s”).
Why in the 80s was it more satisfying to know who played Beaver Cleaver than to grapple with the big issues, people, and events? (What beer asked in ads “Why ask why?” [Budweiser.]) The 80s were crammed with facts so disconnected from reality that people could do nothing but stand in awe of them. Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, James Keating, R.J. Reynolds-Nabisco, Imelda Marcos, Leona Helmsley. Who penned the number-one best-seller The Art of the Deal? Who wrote the questions on Donald Trump et al? One-upmanship became something everyone could identify with in the 80s–in the cutthroat real world and, within the locus of Trivial Pursuit, the fantasy world.
It’s one thing writing questions about events and people in the headlines during your formative years. It’s quite another writing trivia about those years in the presence and aura of someone you loved but hadn’t seen since then. Writing the 1960s edition on my first stay in Berkeley was like being caught up in Dylan’s simple twist of fate. It was a strange and sweet situation I’ll never forget–even though it’s left me with no correct answers. In February 1989 I published a magazine piece on my wacky rock critic career in Montreal, with my mug listening to a Discman impressively displayed on the cover. Someone sent a copy to my very first sweetheart from my teen years, who, after a modeling career, happened to live in Berkeley. (What university town saw a record 88,000 people attend a speech by JFK in 1962?) I hadn’t heard from her in 23 years, since the apocalyptic Bob Dylan concert at Place des Arts in February 1966. (Who backed Dylan on his first all-electric tour?) She wrote to me (“After my Madison Avenue MIS-adventure, I drove across the U.S. in a VW, very much “On the Road,’ and landed sitting on the dock of the Bay, passing time, on my way to eventually becoming a mellowed-out Californian”). Three months later I sucked up the nerve to call her, out of the blue. We struck up a passionate long-distance phone thing. She invited me out for a two-week visit that stretched into a six-month stay. We became lovers. We lived through an earthquake (Loma Prieta became the answer to a question).
Two or three times a year Walbert, Blewett, and I meet face-to-face in a white room equipped with two computers to make the final cuts, haggle over unresolved questions, and check, check, check for anything, but anything, that might appear odd. The sessions are nerve-racking–this is our final shot at accuracy and wording–and we occasionally end up shouting at each other. Humor becomes an antidote. We adopt the voices of our subject matter: Reagan, of course, and Carson (“I did not know that”), Ed McMahon (“You are correct, sir!”), and Sammy Davis Jr., who would emphasize something like “You’re beautiful” with “And I mean that!” Thus, questions get an automatic “And I mean that!” in countless permutations. Occasionally, triggered by questions, we break into fractured song. (Who sang but did not write “I Write the Songs?”) Locked in TP mind-set, we develop a giddy relationship with our trivia subjects. We become stand-up comedians. What British royal was dubbed “fish face” by his wife? (Prince Charles.) “In my humble opinion that could apply to most of them. Except Ann, who’d be horse face.” Who has legal claim to any whales that wash ashore in Britain? (Prince Charles.) “No shit? The Prince of W-h-a-l-e-s?” What British royal spent some $26,460 on underwear in the 1980s? (Princess Diana.) “Is this an annual tab, or for the decade? Maybe, like Carson’s suits, she donated undies to charity!” What European country sells an amazing 550 million one-pound cans of Heinz Baked Beans, or ten per citizen, each year? (Britain.) “Awesome, dude–but what else do they have to eat?” Who greeted Sonny Bono’s election to Congress by saying, “Politicians are one step below used car salesmen”? (Cher.) “To which Letterman replied, “But isn’t that one step above infomercials?”‘ What realtor was worth $9,700,000 per pound in 1990? (Donald Trump.) “And five cents per pound in 1993.” What Greek said, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food”? (Hippocrates.) “And let your smile be your umbrella, and don’t track mud all over my nice clean kitchen floor!”
Walbert and I have written something like 50,000 questions apiece. Which leads to duplication and fierce arguments between us over whether we’ve done this or that question before (it’s a no-no to cheat the fans by repeating ourselves). Walbert has the advantage of having been with Chris and company in Spain when the questions for the original game were being concocted, a memory evidently etched in stone. I try to sell the Dodgers and Giants moving west in 1958 by saying, “It was a big part of Ken Burns’s Baseball.” Walbert ripostes: “It was a big part of Trivial Pursuit too.” What became the first prime-time TV soap opera in 1965? (Peyton Place.) “We’ve done this about 14 times, I myself just keep writing it over and over,” says Walbert. I say: “We might wanna go over my source on this.” He says: “I think it’s Genus III.” I say: “Here’s a tricky one.” He says: “It was tricky the first time we did it too.”
We start yelling at each other. “Hey, man, this may be the same subject matter but it’s new sets of information! This is new!” “It’s been done–breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” Blewett rolls his eyes at the specter of two grown men erupting over trivia.
In November 1993 we began our foray into the brave new world of CD-ROM, which meant a major change in our approach to trivia. Instead of rummaging through books looking for possibilities, we started by choosing subjects, which were to be paired with visual properties (old newsreels, video clips, generic clip art, photos, etc) and finally writing the corresponding questions. Public-domain properties (heads of state, events over 50 years old) went relatively smoothly, but modern-day assets proved to be a painstakingly slow process. One star demanded a prohibitive $40,000 for use of his likeness, others attached similar impossible conditions for their inclusion. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Elvis were on board early, an enticement to other celebs (“If they accepted, why can’t you?”). Some celebs were in one week, out the next–which resulted in writing a lot of questions that eventually got killed.
The technical side of the enterprise was handled in Los Angeles by a group of Western Technologies employees in their 20s and early 30s who looked like something out of MTV’s The Real World, only realer and smarter. Thus, two generations of Trivial Pursuiters were meeting for the first time. Early in January 1994 we gathered to write and mold the first thousand questions to visuals. Not everything was going to pan out, but, as in baseball, we had to step up to the plate and try to make contact. Two exhausting weeks later we settled into a long celebratory meal with our three favorite techies. Later Walbert and I settled into our routine of listening to Kind of Blue (What jazz trumpeter was dubbed the “Prince of Darkness”?), going over every little detail, pumping each other up. At 4:31 AM, three hours into slumber, our Holiday Inn rocked and rolled for 40 seconds. The reference books I’d been using fell to the floor and a pipe burst. Water was leaking into my carpet, and my only thought, fumbling for a cigarette like a prince of darkness, was get those books on higher ground! It took two days, and continual aftershocks, to get our books taken to our new hotel so we could leave. Another earthquake, another question.
Through August 1994 I spent half my time in LA (not a nice place). Hours and hours of timing ten-to-twelve-second news clips (the Wright brothers hilariously trying to land, the Challenger exploding in slow-mo, a thing of horrific abstract beauty). Receiving the latest batch of permissions and trekking to the Santa Monica library in search of microfilmed info. After a slow start celebs were snowballing. Desperately we played catch-up, then handed over questions to the beleaguered art department (which by now was reduced to listening to Tony Bennett and Bulgarian folk music). The summer sweltered. Allergic to hotel air-conditioning, I kept the balcony door open and was awakened by the constant sound of car alarms. Sometimes I just gave in, put on the CD, and wrote questions. Kurt Cobain survived an overdose. Weeks later he died. Who sang “I feel stupid and contagious”?
Toward the end Scott came out of retirement for the final two-week editing session that stretched into six weeks. One morning in the cab on the way to Western, I asked Scott, “Guess who was on the O.J. hearing yesterday?” “You mean Pablo?” Pablo Fenvjes was a former Canadian Press reporter who wrote a special Welcome to America edition of Trivial Pursuit for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation in 1986 and went on to toil for the National Enquirer. Now a screenwriter in Brentwood, he chilled the nation by describing the “plaintive wail” of a dog in the O.J. trial. “Pablo’s still got the touch,” said Scott.
Trivia. Deja vu all over again. To paraphrase the Who, these techie kids were all right. Their camaraderie combined with their sense of mission was exactly what we enjoyed in newsrooms 15, 20 years earlier. While they bust butts to meet deadlines in a swirl of intensity (“We finally landed Dylan!”), we shuffled in every day to review questions-to-visuals, gazing at the screen, patiently waiting for anything odd and inaccurate to pop out at us. Deja vu.
Like my first editing experience with Scott ten years earlier, we wouldn’t leave la-la land until we’d gone over every single question. We were calmer now, but getting it right was still a magnificent obsession. As always, silly-season humor balanced the tension. Our pet question was one of Walbert’s: “What Italian’s last words while facing a firing squad were: “No. NO!!”‘ (Benito Mussolini’s.) Whenever something terribly odd struck us about a question, the cry went up: “No. NO!!”
By the end, lunch consisted of raiding the vending machine. Our favorite seemed to be Chee-tos. Which would lead to another question: “What’s the best-selling snack food to leave orange stains on furniture across America?” You can’t make this stuff up.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Peter Hannan.