Last week, I analyzed what I consider a nigh-perfect trivia question, discussing what I feel makes it such a sterling example of the quizmaster's art. Strutting my peacock feathers, sure. But to keep it fair and balanced, I promised to look at the opposite side of the coin: lousy trivia questions, and what makes them so bad.
I've written thousands of questions over the years, and some were just flat-out rotten. Perhaps the worst were the ones with which I failed due diligence; for whatever reason, on rare occasions, I just plain didn't do my homework, and ended up asking a question that is factually wrong. (Really? The first female U.S. senator was elected in 1986?!?) There are a million moving pieces to every Big Quiz Thing event, so it's inevitable that every now and again something slips through the subway grate. But the truth should never be one of those things, so it kills me when it's happened, as rare as it is.
But as soul-crushingly crappy as baldly wrong questions can be, that's not what I want to look at here, because I think their badness is self-evident. I want to dig a little deeper into what can make for a piss-poor trivia question. And rather than examine one shining example, as I did when looking at the perfect question, let's examine two that are varied in their suckitude. "Enjoy"…
I actually said that when I asked the question: "This is the essence of trivia." And I suppose I was right, if you adhere to the traditional definition of trivia, which is "useless knowledge." But over the years, I've come to prefer working with a different definition, which is "interesting information." (Plenty of trivia questions are about dumb bullshit, but just as many other deal with knowledge that's well worth having. There is literally no topic that can't produce a good trivia question, under the right circumstances.)
There are several major problems with this golf-ball question:
(1) It's not easy to verify. Search the Internet and you will find many answers to this question, none of them passing my reliability test. Moreover, I gather that there's no official number of dimples for regulation balls, so it's perhaps ultimately unverifiable.
(2) It's impossible. Not even remotely figureoutable (all right, fine, I suppose some incredible, ultraevolved physicist or mathematician might be able to take a stab at a designing a model that will give him an educated guess, but come on, we're trying to enjoy ourselves here). Also, I don't know what school you went to, but you were most likely not taught this as a youngster, so there's no digging-through-your-memory element here.
(3) It's cliché. This same question has been asked a million times in a million places, judging by ye olde Interwebs; my little "essence of trivia" disclaimer hints at it. I essentially ripped this question off from various anonymous sources. I mean, geez, if I'm going to be a thief, I should be more discerning, shouldn't I?
And perhaps most importantly, (4) it's just not very interesting. The answer is 360 (or at least that's what I declared it to be when I asked this at the BQT). Big fucking deal. An impossibly difficult question might be worth something if, at the very least, a player feels they've been enlightened once they hear the (verifiably) correct answer. (Really? The Mr. Men books were the U.K.'s best-selling kids' series of the '00s after Harry Potter? Hm.) But with something like this, the audience is left with nothing. This question provides neither fun nor victory nor knowledge, just a big pile of boring, obscure, squishy information. Terrible.
And this stinker:
This was actually the very first question asked at the very first Big Quiz Thing, and it's terrible. (Though in hindsight, a lot was terrible that night.) Spinal Tap is easily among my favorite films, and many others would agree, so it is definitely prime trivia-question fodder—it was an answer to a great four-parter about fictional rock bands (the Thamesmen!). But this query doesn't qualify. It relies on one's memory of a minute detail from the movie (a funny detail, but small)— not figureoutable. Moreover, it's a bit of a trick question, isn't it? Everyone remembers the drummer spontaneous combusting, and many others recall that another drummer "choked on vomit." But yes, the very first drummer (played in a cameo by Ed Begley Jr.) died in "a bizarre gardening accident." So it's a bit of a swerve to put this little-known aside front and center. And, perhaps most importantly, I asked this as the very first question of the night! Of the first BQT!
This gets at a very important yet overlooked element of quizcraft: Question order and placement is nearly as important as the content of the question itself. Sure, I could've asked about the bizarre gardening accident in a later round, perhaps at a movie-specific quiz. It would've been a toughie, but fair-enough game. But as my opening salvo of my quizmaster career, it was a bad move, indicating that perhaps I subscribed to the dicky you-have-to-know-everything-ever-to-succeed school of trivia, rather than the, you know, actually fun one.. Thankfully, the nerds there that night forgave me, I recovered, and went on to my glory as the greatest quizmaster who ever strode the face of this world.
What do you think? Are these questions really so bad? What do you consider the hallmark of a trivia clunker? Share your discerning voice!