The titans of trivia

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January 16, 2012
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

Trivia players pack the 331 Club in Northeast every Sunday to compete for prizes like a $50 bar tab, a random object from the basement, or the opportunity to watch an emcee sit on their car.

Trivia Mafia, a company that has expanded into 26 bar events across the metro, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month.

Trivia Mafia was started by two guys: Chuck Terhark, a freelance writer who created the Zombie Pub Crawl and plays in a jug band; and Sean McPherson, a songwriting professor and bassist in Heiruspecs.

“Neither Chuck or I are star trivia players,” McPherson said.

“I do take advantage of that, and pretend I know all the answers,” said Terhark, who also writes a column about life in Northeast for The Journal.

Last Christmas was only the second time in five years that Trivia Mafia had missed a Sunday. Loyal teams like “The Specials” and “Pteam Pterodactyl” rarely miss a week.

“I see these people more than I see my dad,” said Andrea D’Amato, a music and pop culture buff in the team called “I Like Watching You Sleep.” “It’s our favorite thing.”

In a gesture to reward teams that don’t win every week, the team with the calculated average score wins the right to DJ on the following Sunday. One so-called “evil” team took advantage of the privilege by playing nothing but Christmas music, earning a horrible reputation in the process.

Trivia night has cultivated a few honored traditions. The night always ends with a cruel math question and a game called Rapadoo, where teams must translate a rap lyric into Grandma-speak.

The game has evolved over time, however. The college crowd today isn’t too familiar with ’80s pop culture, so questions are drifting into the ’90s.  

“More ‘Full House,’” said Terhark.

On a recent trivia night, Terhark quizzed the crowd on the essential ingredient used to cure a hangover in “Back to the Future III” (an egg), the delicious meal with the English translation “little ass” (a burrito), and the name of the architect whose father divorced his mother on grounds of “lack of physical affection” (Frank Lloyd Wright). Players labeled Euro car logos and identified songs by Patsy Cline and Rod Stewart.

McPherson estimates that he and Terhark have written about 8,000 questions. Mayor R.T. Rybak showed up as a celebrity guest a couple years ago to read Trivia Mafia’s landmark 5,000th question.

The hosts don’t have the luxury of repeat questions. Because the teams are so loyal, the hosts take heat if they ask a question given three years ago.

To find new queries, McPherson reads the New York Times front page every day, listens to National Public Radio and politely takes questions people pitch to him at parties.

The ideal questions aren’t minutiae designed to stump people, he said, but they should be accessible to a group of five people working together.

“We want to write questions that can unfold across an evening,” McPherson said. “We want questions that really have a tale to them.”

McPherson has gotten into trouble for asking trivia stumpers on 89.3 The Current — he now runs questions by his girlfriend to make sure they work for the general population, rather than hip hop experts like himself.

McPherson teaches Hip Hop History and songwriting at the McNally Smith College of Music.  He also works as a studio bassist and plays with Dessa and Heiruspecs, a hip hop group that has opened for The White Stripes.

When he’s not writing trivia questions, Terhark organizes the Zombie Pub Crawl. Twenty-five thousand people turned out for the event last year, and it’s a year-round job to attend city meetings and handle all the logistics. But the pub crawl runs smoothly enough that Terhark was asked to organize the Santa Pub Crawl this winter in St. Paul.

Terhark has worked previous jobs as A-list editor at City Pages and senior editor at Metro Magazine. He left Metro in 2010 to take a four-month road trip across the U.S. He outfitted a scamp with a solar panel and traveled more than 13,000 miles. He visited eight national parks, sampled bourbon at the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky, listened to countless murder-mystery audiobooks, and spent Christmas grilling chicken in a New Mexico desert.

“I would recommend it to everybody,” he said. “Quit your job; hit the road.”

Terhark started playing trivia at local venues like the Leaning Tower of Pizza, and suggested a trivia night to 331 co-owner Jarret Oulman so Terhark could play closer to his Northeast home. Meanwhile, McPherson had also suggested trivia to a 331 bartender.

Oulman decided to give them a shot at hosting together, even though they didn’t know each other. He had tried all kinds of things to bring people in on slow Sundays — independent film nights, singer/songwriter nights — but shows were only busy once a month.

“Our expectations were so low,” McPherson said. “We thought this was a hit when we had 13 people playing trivia.”

It took about four months to build a following.

“At the beginning, it was a lot of their friends coming out,” Oulman said. “Then it turned into regular trivia clientele, who tried out the trivia and saw that it was really good. … It’s been a really big deal for us.”

Trivia Mafia has since expanded to locations like the Uptown Cafeteria, several Green Mill restaurants and Amsterdam in St. Paul, adding games like Bar Bingo and Drinkin’ Spelling Bees. The company is looking to move into outstate bars in the coming years.

“It spread because we have good chemistry, and we’re making people laugh,” McPherson said.

Trivia Mafia arrives on slow bar nights, builds a following with a good host, and watches as waitresses start vying for weeknight trivia shifts.

“It hasn’t clicked in a couple of places,” McPherson said. “It’s certainly an art, not a science. But we have a lot more success stories.”

Talented hosts are crucial. A good host doesn’t need to be a trivia whiz, but must be savvy enough to handle hecklers and spot smart-phone cheating.

“It’s like a stand-up comedian gig,” Terhark said.

The anniversary party at 331 Club on Jan. 29 will likely feature a new game called Unfair-aoke, in which players finish song lyrics and their teammates help them with charades if they get stuck. Trivia Mafia will also show an original short film, which has become a staple of every anniversary party. A previous movie featured McPherson biking shirtless on a snowy winter day, and it told the fictional tale of a Bulldog Northeast threat to take over 331.

McPherson said he is grateful for all the people that make trivia a weekly priority. Some players stay home on Saturdays to save their money for Sunday trivia night. Others arrange their schedules so they work later on Monday mornings.

“We drink a lot less,” he said. “But it’s still this great thing, and people change their lives to keep coming.”

Michelle Bruch covers Northeast for The Journal. She can be reached at michellebruch82@gmail.com.


FYI
Trivia Mafia’s five-year anniversary party
When: Jan. 29, 8 p.m.
Where: 331 Club, 331 13th Ave. NE
More info: triviamafia.com