Trivial Pursuits: An Interview With the Guys Behind Portland’s Geek Trivia Night

29 Mar

Awhile back I set the goal of attending every trivia night in Portland. To me it’s an ambitious but worthy goal, and I intend to see it through. My favorite event so far has been Geek Trivia at the Kennedy School, though I did very poorly in my first showing (does that mean I’m not a geek? Wait…am I cool, guys?).

Masterminded by Andrew McIntire in 2009, this event brings together hundreds of geeks fortnightly for friendly, nerdly competition. I had the chance to ask Andrew, along with current co-hosts Bobby “Fatboy” Roberts and Cort Webber, some questions about the behind the scenes goings-on at Geek Trivia. Read on for a healthy dose of insider knowledge about the makings of a great trivia night.

Everybody’s Invited!: How did Geek Trivia start? Did you feel the useless knowledge competition needs of geeks weren’t being met?

Andrew McIntire: I have always enjoyed quiz nights at the pub, but was having difficulty convincing my friends to join me. For the most part their complaints were based on the not inaccurate notion that the questions were primarily about sports, current events, and other topics that they were either not interested in or uninformed about. So I was sitting in my neighborhood bar lamenting the absence of nerdy comrades, and got in an alcohol fueled argument with another patron about which heroes were in the Super Friends. The ensuing feeling of geek pride upon crushing this would be contender to my knowledge of nerd ephemera got me thinking “We could channel all of Portland’s nerd rage for good, or at the very least for our mutual entertainment” and lo, Geek Trivia was born.

EI!: Nice. What do you provide that other trivia events don’t?

Bobby “Fatboy” Roberts: The prizes are pretty damned nice, for one, thanks to Things From Another World. Regular Geek Trivias routinely feature over $200 bucks in combined prizes, and Special-Edition Geek Trivias have featured prizes that include trips to San Diego Comic-Con, an original Pong machine, the Doctor Who box-set with all 11 doctors, etc.

It’s also probably one of the comfiest Geek Trivias, in that it’s located at the Kennedy School’s theater, where the seating is largely old, soft couches and sofas.

Also, Geek Trivia incorporates some game-show elements here and there, with visual puzzles, audio clues, video questions, that sort of stuff. We settle tiebreakers via Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, which then completely transforms the event from a pub quiz into a sporting event, complete with impassioned geeks leaping to their feet, lustily shouting for KO’s, Fireballs, and Fatalities.

Cort Webber: I would agree with Fatboy and add that we also offer something a little more entertaining, less serious, more raucous and more interactive. We try to write the questions in such a way as to get a laugh or tap into some deep-seeded fanboy sentiment. Also, we typically allow a considerable amount of good-natured heckling.

But what really sets us apart is the concept of “mob rule.” Most trivia hosts put themselves in the position of arbiter to decide whether someone’s marginally correct answer is right or wrong. But we decided the best way to end the argument was to turn it over to the crowd. If the people say your answer is good enough, it’s good enough. But the crowd rarely thinks your crappy answer is good enough.

EI!: What’s your definition of geek? What’s your definition of trivia?

BR: Geek is getting sort of increasingly hard to define, and that’s largely due to the numbers of geeks consistently growing. It’s hard to create, or stick to, a hard definition of what Geek is, because it’s constantly churning and roiling as new geeky things become beloved and obsessed over. Basically – if you treat pop culture with reverence, in the same way that Batman reveres the concept of justice, you’re a geek.

Trivia is simply stuff that you probably shouldn’t know, but you do know because you care so much about whatever your geeky pursuit may be, and you’ve somehow absorbed the knowledge behind it.

CW: A geek is someone intensely interested in any something. You can enjoy watching Star Wars, but once you get to the point where you’re going out of your way to discover the names of the other bounty hunters in Empire, you’ve drifted into geek territory.

We cover everything from the more traditional sci-fi and fantasy aspects of geekdom to movies, music, gaming, internet trends, books, science and more. Pretty much, if it’s something we’re into, it’s fair game for questions.

EI!: What’s the process for coming up with questions? How much time do you put in before each event?

BR: Cort and I come up with the questions the Saturday/Sunday before the upcoming event, and for my part, it consists basically of putting on some music, sitting in front of the computer, and letting my brain just wander. A topic will pop into my head eventually, and at that point, it’s just a matter of asking myself what random facts I know about that topic, and then forming it into an amusing question.

CW: I typically stare at my bookshelf and DVD shelf and trawl Reddit looking for something to spark in my head. We try to steer away from questions that are too obvious, but also from questions that are impossibly hard. We know we’ve hit that “just right” sweet spot when we there’s an audible “oooo” after we ask the question.

Cort and Fatboy doing their thing.

EI!: What do you think makes a good trivia night host?

CW: I think the key is remembering to keep it entertaining. Most of the 200+ people in the room won’t win anything and a lot of those won’t even come close. The idea is to give those people a reason to come back every two weeks regardless. If they’re laughing and having fun, they’ll forgive the fact that they’ve never even come close to the top three.

BR: A sense of humor, and patience. Someone in the crowd is going to want to claw at your questions, revealing a mistake or a loophole that will let them score that one extra point that might put them over the top and get them a spot in the top 3. You’ve also gotta admit when you’ve goofed up, so humility comes into play as well, as does an ability to be self-deprecating.

EI!: I love trivia, but I can’t explain why. What, in your opinions, makes trivia so appealing?

CW: It’s validating that something you spent so much of your time learning is valuable after all. Sure, it won’t get you a college degree or a good job, but it might get you some really cool comics or a t-shirt.

BR: I think its appealing because it’s a way to turn a bunch of otherwise useless knowledge rattling around your brain into a reason to celebrate. For a lot of competitors, they never really got into sports as kids. Trivia nights are a way to scratch that competitive itch while using a completely different set of tools. Knowing the difference between a Cardassian and an Andorian MEANS something here, and my proficiency at setting someone on fire with a dragon punch in Street Fighter will earn me a theaterful of cheers.

AM: I also think that, at our event in particular, sharing your trivia knowledge is a means of self-identifying yourself as belonging to a community of like-minded individuals. At each event, I look out on the audience and see rival teams and complete strangers joking, laughing, and bonding over their shared love of these ridiculous bits of pop culture knowledge. That’s pretty special.

EI!: Some people hate trivia. Who’s right?

BR: Those people are weird, and I distrust them.

Geek Trivia happens every other Tuesday from 7-9pm at the Kennedy School in Portland, OR. Show up early to get a seat. It’s free.

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