Presenting, the further adventures inside the trivial mind of Big Quiz Thing quizmaster Noah Tarnow…
Today, let's talk about the trivial firmament of nearly every BQT event: the questions. Where I keep them. How they're organized. And how Microsoft Word is the single greatest invention since the spatula.
In preparation for a typical Big Quiz Thing event, I must equip myself with 60 questions. At least 20 of those bring the multimedia fun (the video round and the audio round), but they are their own exotic zoo animals, so let us focus instead on the verbal questions. Typically, I require 40 of those: Ten for Round 1 (including a Four-Part Question and a two-pointer), ten for Round 3 (likewise), ten for the Lightning Round, and ten for the Three-Way Finale. Damn, I crank out a lot of material.
People very often asks how long it takes to assemble a quiz, but I never have a coherent answer for that, because the work has no beginning and will have no end: I maintain a Microsoft Word file of original trivia questions that I add to (and, in rare critical moments, subtract from) on a daily basis. (Actually, there are two versions of my question file: One is full of questions I've never used before—or haven't used in at least six years, wink wink—and the other collects ones I have used, which are still valid for out-of-town shows, private events, Twitter, all of my multifarious other trivial outlets. Hey, whatever, it's new to them; I recycle because Al Gore told me to.)
So when I sit down and begin constructing one specific event, I have a convenient storehouse to draw from, hundreds of questions, broken down by 17 categories, arranged alphabetically…
Celebrities: There's often a lot of overlap here with Movies, Music and Television, but it's a handy delineation. Really, where else can I cover celebrity fragrances?
Commerce: A rather highfalutin name for all those queries about fast-food restaurants and breakfast cereal spokescharacters.
Food: Often some overlap with Commerce, but more in the food-snob realm. It also tends to share territory with Language, since—not being a big fan of food myself—a lot of my cuisine questions are about how various dishes got their amusingly idiosyncratic names.
General: Everything that doesn't fit everywhere else, or perhaps straddles the line between two other categories. I tend to toss a lot of current-events subjects here, since it feels wrong to call it History, and it also inevitably becomes the repository for my myriad wacky questions about comic books (I love 'em, but it's really "Literature" when you're asking about the Flash and Ant-Man) and pro wrestling (call that Sports and you'll catch hell from the world's most insufferable sports snobs). This is also where I keep questions in categories too small to merit their own delineations; art, dance, other things that don't especially interest me, and aren't screamed for by the trivial masses.
Geography: All that fun stuff with state capitals, foreign boundaries, rivers and mountains, etc. This was my favorite trivial category as a child (in the early '80s, I leaned on the blue Trivial Pursuit questions hardcore), so I feel a somewhat-insane fondness for this one.
History: A natural standby, recent or ancient, foreign or domestic. This is where you'll find all of my trademark presidential-trivia delights.
Language: Fun with words! These tend to be the most figureoutable of them all.
Literature: I'm not a huge book guy, but hey, what kind of former Reading Rainbow fan would I be if I neglected this one. Within this section, I keep a link to Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest novels of the past century. Anytime I sort through my Lit questions and feel like I need more good stuff, this list comes in handy.
Movies: Of course. I mean, how could I not?
Music: Double of course. The reason I got into the quiz business to begin with.
New York: A very useful category lo these many years ruling the NYC trivia scene. Not something I get a lot of use out of in Boston and other cities, though. Does the top quizmaster in, say, St. Louis have a "St. Louis" category?
Politics: Some crossover with History, but this feels essential for all the political horse-race puzzles that run through my mind, particularly during campaign season.
Religion: The smallest category. I go months with adding to (or drawing from) this one. I could probably fold it into General, but inertia is a bewitching mistress.
Science: I have to force myself to keep this one well stocked, not being a science guy. But it's necessary, especially for the nerds I so love.
Sports: Similar to Science; an Achilles' heel. Except my crowd doesn't seem to demand it as much. Nonetheless, I'm fairly diligent about keeping this larder well stocked, which is why si.com is bookmarked on my computer (as if it's hard to type in).
Television: The no-brainerest of all.
Theater: Another one that has less currency outside of NYC, since I deal in Broadway a fair amount. But it's hardly useless elsewhere: Everyone loves Shakespeare, if not Eugene O'Neill. Serious overlap with Literature.
Thus, in assembling a quiz, I move methodically through the file, category by category, drawing a couple of questions from each, placing them in the proper part of the quiz. (On the easier end? Lightning Round. Harder? Round 3. The kind of thing that works best when you have only scant seconds to buzz in? Three-Way Finale, baby!) This process would have been completely different, of course, if I were doing this before the advent of the personal computer; I'd be swimming in little blue index cards, I assure you.
Another interesting element of my new-question file, and perhaps a frustrating one: It's littered with subpar questions that I will never, ever use, like unsightly weeds crawling up through the cracks of a pristine sidewalk. Take this one from the History section: "According to Cicero, what is the chief law?" I wrote this so long ago, it's practically in cuneiform, and I never liked it—it commits virtually all the sins of bad trivia questions, and I will almost certainly never use it. But I can't bring myself to cut it from the file, along with so many others, because I'm a man with commitment issues. I kill the Cicero question, craptastic as it may be, and I might someday regret it. Besides, space in a Word file is free.
But fuck it, I'm killing it now: Search "Cicero," highlight, delete. Done. The question file has been minimally cleansed. It thanks you.