Ken Jennings


From Chapter 7: What is Composition?

[Image of Trivia Almanac book cover]

The more trivia facts and questions I examine, the more I see that they do tend to fall into distinct categories. I don't mean categories of topic—the blue wedge of Geography vs. the orange wedge of Sports & Leisure—but a whole new taxonomy, based on the styles of the questions themselves, what it is that makes them askable and interesting. In each of these styles, one could write questions on any subject, from the Pet Shop Boys to the sunspot cycle to Haitian voodoo rituals. The nine most common styles would probably be as follows:

The Plain Vanilla Recall. Your basic garden-variety trivia question. Either you have the answer in your memory bank or you don't, period. What did the "M" stand for in Richard M. Nixon?1 What was the name of Captain Ahab's whaling ship?2 What football great was nicknamed "Sweetness"?3

Plain Vanilla with Hot Fudge. Plain vanilla is pretty boring call-and-response much of the time, but since that's what most trivia is, sometimes you need to disguise it, to tart it up with nonessential (but more interesting) facts. Jeopardy! does this all the time. It's boring to ask "Which state is nicknamed the Golden State?" time and time again, so you add another California clue that's not helpful at all, but which gives the home viewer an extra, interesting tidbit. "This 'Golden State' is named for a mythical island from a 1510 Spanish romance," or "This 'Golden State' produces 90 percent of America's broccoli."

The Superlative. It's obviously more trivia-worthy to be the first or best or most of something than a runner-up. "What U.S. national park is both the first alphabetically and the easternmost?"4 "What land mammal has the longest tail?"5 "What's the world's bestselling copyrighted book?" In their crudest form, these are a particular favorite of young boys who have just received a copy of the world's best-selling copyrighted book, the Guinness Book of World Records, and want to quiz you on that book's semi-famous superlatives—the crazy guy in Nepal with the four-foot fingernails, for instance, or those fat twins on the motorcycles.

The Unique One. Even more superlative than the Superlative. "What's the only planet of the solar system named for a goddess, not for a god?"6 "What's the only mammal that can't jump?"7 "What's the only TV-series-turned-movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?"8 The word "only" has a refreshing, authoritative ring that gives you the impression you're learning something important. The questions visibly crumple when the answers are no longer unique. "Which seven planets of the solar system have moons?" "Name all the types of mammals that can't use a TV remote control." "What twenty-six boring corset movies have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars?"

The problem with the Unique One is that determining uniqueness can be incredibly labor-intensive. That damn question about the only mammal that can't jump? I've seen it dozens of times, and yet I'm still skeptical. Did a crack team of Trivial Pursuit researchers track down every other species of mammal on the planet and ask them politely, one at a time, to do a little jump, so that they could tick off a little box on a form and move on to the next species? "All right, thank you, Chihuahua, you can stop jumping now. Call in the chimpanzee, and tell the chinchilla and the Chinese water deer they'll be next!" I tend to take questions like this with a grain of salt, or, as I like to call it, a grain of "the only mineral directly consumed by man."

The Huge Number. It's apparently been decided that any fact with an eye-poppingly big number makes for fascinating trivia. You see them everywhere. There are eight billion jillion tons of concrete in Hoover Dam. There are eleventy thousand different words for "hockey" in the Canadian language. It would take you 37 zillion years to get to the sun on a Segway.

I always feel like I'm missing out on the mind-blowingness of facts like these. First of all, how do you even visualize nine-zero numbers like that? "What, you can't picture a trail of Starburst wrappers going around the earth 60 million times? Okay, just picture something so big it goes around the earth 30 million times. Got it? It's pretty big, right? Now double it!"

But the real problem comes when quiz rookies try to turn these exorbitant numbers into trivia questions. "How many tons of concrete are there in Hoover Dam? Oooh, no, I'm sorry. You were four tons off. The answer is eight billion jillion." Interestingly, questions like this do come in handy in at least one scenario: they're often used as the tiebreaker in British-style pub trivia, where nice big numbers about the area of the biggest waffle ever baked are pretty much guaranteed to eliminate ties at the top.

The Meaningless Coincidence. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on exactly the same day in 1809, just hours apart. Buzz Aldrin's mother maiden name was "Moon." The four Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners from 1978 to 1981 all had the initials M.S.

These remarkable facts are clearly not the result of any kind of design or meaningful pattern. Baby Abie and young Charles Darwin were not the subjects of a sinister hospital baby-swap; they were born an ocean apart (though Darwin would probably find it interesting that Lincoln was once called "a well-meaning baboon" by no less an authority than Union General George McLellan). And unless NASA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had some strange selection criteria for Apollo astronauts and Oscar winners, the other facts are equally coincidental. They may not be important or meaningful, but they're fun and they're rare, and they remind us that truth can be stranger than fiction.

The Elusive Everyday Detail. How many rays make up the Statue of Liberty's crown?9 What color are the two G's in the Google logo?10 Which Beatle is barefoot on the cover of Abbey Road?11

These little stumpers are a particularly malevolent and irritating form of the art, the Pauly Shore of the trivia kingdom, if you will. You've seen the Statue of Liberty, the Google logo, and Abbey Road hundreds of times, and yet memory doesn't always give us the photographic specificity that these (usually visual) trivia questions demand. And so questions like these are inevitably followed by groans, hair-pulling, and forehead-thumping. When Elusive Everyday Detail questions deal with currency, as they often do ("What building is pictured on the back of a twenty?")12 there's also the bonus fun of watching the quiz players try to surreptitiously fish coins and bills out of their pockets without anyone noticing.

British quiz veteran Rob Linham once told me that the best trivia question he ever wrote hinged on an Elusive Everyday Detail, though with the added plus of temporary humiliation for anyone who dared to answer it correctly. The fatal question was simply, "What color is Viagra?"13

The Trick. The trick trivia question comes from a rich schoolyard tradition, going all the way back to gems like "Is it legal in California to marry your widow's sister?" or "If a rooster lays an egg on the top of a peaked roof, which side will it roll down?" You're frantically combing your brain for esoteric knowledge about marriage laws and poultry, but the questioner is just waiting impatiently to ridicule you. "Ha, made you think! Anyone with a widow is already dead!" Or, "Roosters don't lay eggs, idiot! Hens do!" It may be dumb, but this kind of trivia question has really caught on. Jeopardy! goes back to the well of their "Stupid Answers" category altogether too often. When the makers of a recent edition of Trivial Pursuit had to choose one question out of 4,800 to put on the back of the game box, they chose a Trick: "What fitting name was given to a dinosaur discovered near Muttaburra, Australia?"14

That said, I actually like trivia that, in addition to requiring real knowledge, makes the listener think about the question in an offbeat, unexpected way. "Other than Germany, what nation currently has a head of state who was German-born?"15 Easy enough if you happen upon the right angle, impenetrable otherwise. Ray Hamel's favorite trivia question requires both esoteric knowledge and an eye for tricks: "What two U.S. presidents were named Thomas?"16

The Puzzler. Not overtly deceptive like the Trick, but just as diabolical. The goal of this kind of question is to ask something nobody knows the answer to, but to include just the right clues so that, with a little bit of common sense, deduction, or lateral thinking, the listener can have a sudden "Aha!" flash of insight and get to the answer. When you ask "At what university was Gatorade invented?" you don't expect the listener to know the corporate history of Gatorade, Inc. You're expecting their train of mental thought to go down this track: Gatorade...Gators...University of Florida!

These don't work on Millionaire or in other multiple-choice formats. If the correct answer is an absolute this-one-must-be-right "Aha!" moment, it's hard to come up with three fake answers that deliver the same convincing blast of certainty. On Millionaire, all four choices should sound equally plausible...or implausible.

Jeopardy!, on the other hand, loves the Puzzler, especially for Final Jeopardy questions, where the contestants have a full thirty seconds to try to duplicate the writers' deductive process. Sometimes coming up with the right response in Final Jeopardy is a matter of reframing the clue in the right way. When I hear, as I do in my seventh game, "This title character, who debuted in 1999, was created by former marine biology educator Steve Hillenburg,"17 I'm supposed to mentally rephrase this to, "What pop-cultural icon is an obscure underwater creature?" Sometime it's a matter of following the chain of clues: when they ask, "Experts believe that 16th-century Dutch growers, through breeding, gave this vegetable its color to honor their ruling house,"18 they expect you to begin by figuring out the right ruling house, then moving on to the color, and finally to vegetable. And sometimes it's just hard work and good luck. When Jeopardy! asks a doozie like, "Of the Social Security Administration's top ten boys' names in 2000, the two, ending in the same letter, on a list of the twelve apostles,"19 there's clearly no way to know that fact off the top of your head. Instead you have three overlapping lists to mentally compile in thirty seconds: apostles' names, popular baby names, and names ending with the same letter. It's a race against the clock to see if you can find the one place where the three circles overlap. The question rewards speed more than skill, though you do need factual knowledge as well. If you're unlucky and attack the names in the wrong order, you will answer "Who are James and Judas?" (as I almost did) and lose a ton of money.

* * * *

Those nine templates show how trivia writers choose and shape top-notch trivia. Some are ways to frame facts so that the listener has a more interesting time digging out the answer. Some are ways to pick facts that have something uniquely question-worthy about them, so that listeners feel satisfaction instead of who-cares? apathy. Maybe the best test of a well-composed trivia question is how you feel when you don't know the answer. Anybody can enjoy getting a question right, even if it's poorly written or dull. It's fun to show what you know. But the ideal trivia question is so good that you even enjoy getting it wrong: you liked the mental exercise of rooting around for the answer, and you like the surprise of hearing the right answer after you gave up.

Ancient philosophers and medieval alchemists believed that, in addition to the obvious four elements making up the universe (earth, air, fire, and water), there was a fifth essence that permeated all creation and lent nature its highest power. This theory never really had anything going for it in the way of supporting evidence, but before it went the way of disco, it did give us our word "quintessence"—"fifth essence," get it? It also gave us the awesome French sci-fi epic The Fifth Element, but that's beside the point.

I took apart trivia questions and interviewed trivia writers hoping to find the "quintessence," the life-giving force, that made trivia tick. I wanted to hold in my hand the mysterious Element X that differentiates a humdrum run-of-the-mill fact from the kind of sparkling, brilliant memorable fact that spawns trivia questions, the hidden factor that separates trivia from minutiae.

Well, defining "good trivia" turned out to be elusive, but the more trivia I look at, the more I realize that, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about porn, I know it when I see it. And at least you don't need to hide trivia under your mattress so your mom doesn't find out.

2The Pequod
3Walter Payton
4Acadia National Park
5The giraffe
7The elephant
8The Fugitive (note to show-offs: Marty was a special and Traffik was a mini-series)
11Paul McCartney
12The White House
13Light blue (um, I hear)
14Muttaburrasaurus, of course
15Vatican City (of which the sitting Pope is always head of state)
16Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Woodrow Wilson
17SpongeBob SquarePants
18The carrot
19Matthew and Andrew
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