Where some dream of fame and fortune, the student master minds behind Lawrence University’s annual Great Midwest Trivia Contest aspire to writing questions to which even the smarty pants Internet can’t provide answers.
That playful push-pull to the obscure and offbeat resumes Friday, Jan. 26 for the 42nd edition of the nation’s longest-running trivia contest, a 50-hour mental marathon dedicated to the most difficult — and least important — questions imaginable.
“The term ‘trivia contest’ is, unfortunately, a hopelessly inadequate label for the kind of madness that emanates from Lawrence University every January,” said James Hall, a senior from Omaha, Neb., who is entrusted with this year’s esteemed title of Grand Trivia Master. “To call this event a trivia contest is like calling the Super Bowl a football game, or calling Elvis Presley a singer, or calling a 1961 Lafite-Rothschild a wine. While technically correct, that description captures none of the mystique, excitement or significance of the weekend.”
Or perhaps more accurately, insignificance. Mix funky music with mountains of minutia, serious sleep deprivation and first-place prizes such as a bathroom scale covered in orange shag carpeting or a big o' bag of human hair and it becomes obvious the Lawrence trivia contest is anything but a dull weekend.
Beginning at its usual inconsequential start time of 10:00.37 p.m. Friday evening, the first of some 325 weird and wacky questions will be webcast via www.lawrence.edu/sorg/trivia to dozens of on-campus and off-campus teams near and far. Last year 11 on-campus and 62 off-campus teams squared off and hunkered down for the contest. Teams have three minutes to phone in answers worth varying degrees of point values to the WLFM studio phone bank.
Following trivia tradition, Lawrence President Jill Beck will start the insanity by asking the contest’s first question, which, also by tradition, is always the final question of the previous year.
Since its debut in 1966, Lawrence’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest has seen 12 presidents (eight in the White House, four at Lawrence). It has weathered the evolution from reference books and almanacs to the Internet world of information-at-a-computer-mouse click. And it even withstood the loss of its broadcast license (it was sold) when the campus radio station, from where the contest originates, was converted from an over-the-air medium to an all Web-based broadcast format in late 2005.
Despite the sweeping changes, the contest has remained true to its credo for more than four decades: “trivia is meant to be entertainment and should be perceived solely in that light.”
“Though the downfall of the contest was predicted by many with the unprecedented change from an FM broadcast signal to an Internet-only format, last year’s contest proved as exciting and competitive as ever,” said Hall. “Participation last year was comparable to what we had in recent years. It’s definitely still going strong.
“As any Trivia Master will tell you,” Hall added, “the trivia contest is as resilient and transcendent as any other of the world’s great traditions: the Olympic Games, the Hajj and the running of the bulls come to mind. Of course, none of these other traditions can boast what The Great Midwest Trivia Contest can: anybody, anywhere can play.”
What was once viewed as potentially devastating has in fact turned out to be a boon. No longer restricted to the coverage area provided by an outdated transmitter and a shaky FM signal, which forced teams to assemble within a 20-mile range of Lawrence’s Appleton campus to hear it, trivia fans around the globe were able to log on and dial in.. Last year calls with answers arrived from as far away as Prague and Tokyo and many points in between.
Rich Bennett, a production manager for an advertising agency in Maryland, was one of those who enjoyed playing from afar. He stumbled upon the contest last year while surfing the Internet. He was intrigued enough to convince several friends to set up camp in his basement as “The Baltimorons.”
“Early on it became apparent that most of this trivia wasn’t what you knew, but how well you could mine information,” Bennett wrote in an email following last year’s contest “baptism.” “Not that knowledge wasn’t needed, just that knowledge was only part of the game. After getting over that initial learning curve, we were okay with how to get the answers we needed.
“I managed to fight sleep late into the game, but didn’t make it to the end,” Bennett added. “Having to be to work on Monday was too much to keep me from sticking it out. Final analysis -- it was fun.”
While Bennett was among those who were first-time “trivia converts” last year, Kristopher Koroch found trivia religion accidentally in the mid-1990s. He learned of the contest as a frequent listener to WLFM’s alternative programming while still a high school teenager. It took him another two years to assemble his team, but in 1998, Koroch and his “wide-eyed and ambitious high school friends” launched “Too Much Trivia in the Pants.”
This year’s contest will mark the team’s 10th straight year of participation, with a collection of 15 players converging on an upstairs Appleton apartment from across town as well as from as far away as Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
“The contest has really become a family reunion for us,” said Koroch, the only member of TMTitP who has played all 10 years since the team’s founding. “Everyone makes a point of getting together for this one exact weekend every year.
“We all enjoy the thrill of trying to answer a question in the allotted time and avoiding a dreaded busy signal, but the contest is also about the camaraderie and the relationships we’ve established with some of the other teams. We’ve built some friendly rivalries over the years. I usually meet a few members of other teams for a beer on Friday night before the contest starts.”
Nearly every trivia team has a ritual of some sort and TMTitP is no different. While the exact “why?” remains cloudy, two years ago team members began setting aside at least one hour of the contest to play “pantsless” — nothing below the waist but boxers and socks.
“It’s a sight to behold,” said Koroch, who holds a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University.
Another TMTitP stable of trivia weekend is at least one round of “40s” — 40-ounce bottles of beer.
While adapting to the changing technological landscape of the contest, Koroch said he’s not interested in turning their team headquarters into a mini NORAD the way some teams have.
“We’ll have five or six computers at our disposal, but we can’t compete with the ‘big boys.’ We just do what we can. Our goal is to have fun. As long as we have fun, we don’t care where we finish.”
Finishing first has become a habit for John Brogan and his Kaukauna collection of brainiacs, the 500-pound gorilla of the contest for most of the last decade. In 2006, “The Holy Brogan Empire” captured its six straight trivia title and eighth in the last 10 years.
In 2006, in an attempt to answer the contest’s final question — the virtually impossible 100-point “Super Garruda” — asked just before midnight on Sunday, one team managed to track down WGN radio personality Spike O’Dell for help, drawing his wrath in the process.
There should be no need to bother Spike this year. When the contest begins by again asking about the Door County museum that features cups signed by celebrities that have been on O’Dell’s show, anyone who was paying attention last year should know comedian Tracey Ullman scribbled “To Spike, I don’t have herpes — love Tracey Ullman” on hers.