Friday, April 24, 2009

Why do you think they call it trivia?

Last weekend, I took part in something called CultureQuest, which has nothing to do with yogurt or strep throat.

Instead, it is a 90-minute test of "cultural literacy" (a term for people who are too prissy to call it trivia) among teams representing Mensa chapters across the U.S. and Canada. Do you know the eight countries in “The Group of Eight”? Or what characteristic makes the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl ferruginous? Do you care?

I have played on CultureQuest teams for two different Mensa chapters over the past few years, and we have, more often than not, managed to earn a few bucks for the chapter—which is good, because all this knowledge should be worth something.

It’s fun, it’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon—but with every passing year it means less to me.

When I was younger, trivia contests were what I was all about. I was a terrible athlete, had no real talent that went beyond the high school marching band—but I never met a state capital that I couldn’t name.

So, I was a natural for “In The Know.” You might know it by a different name in your town, but the principle is the same—a TV show where teams from two high schools answer trivia questions.

I was always pumped for each game, because it was my chance to shine. The results were all too predictable. My school would win one or two games each year, and then lose to a school where people besides me took the game seriously.

Since there are no professional trivia teams, my spotlight disappeared once I left high school (although, for several years afterward, I would often overhear kids in my neighborhood mumble something about “In The Know” whenever they saw me), but that didn’t stop me from wanting to reclaim it. I would play along with “Jeopardy!” whenever it came on. People in the room would usually say one of two things. One was “Shut up!” The other was “You should get on that show.”

I had my chance to get on a quiz show a few years ago when tryouts for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” came to Pittsburgh. I made it all the way to the final interview, but was not chosen.

Why? I think it might have had to do with my answers to a questionnaire where I was supposed to tell the producers about myself, recount interesting things I’ve done, tell them about my most embarrassing moment, and so on. It was then that I realized that I’ve led a pretty boring life.

You’ve seen the interviews with game show contestants where they tell the host about the time they were almost thrown in jail in Mexico or climbed a mountain in the Alps. My most embarrassing moment involved pissing off a state driving examiner. Not exactly something that’s going to keep people from switching over to SportsCenter.

The contestants may be lying through their teeth, but their stories are interesting, so they make for good TV. TV game shows aren’t about being smart. They’re about being entertaining.

Which is just as well, because life is no longer a trivia contest for me. I would like to see a game show full of information that is truly relevant. “If you had to be late with one of these payments, which one would it be—house, car, or credit card?” Now that’s important information. How about, “In a job interview, what is your response to, ‘What is your greatest weakness?’”

Forget being a millionaire. I’m just glad I’m not a slumdog.

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