Noah Tarnow's Big Quiz Thing has livened up boring Monday nights for many nerdy New Yorkers looking for a cheap way to have some fun and show off those random pieces of information that have lodged themselves in your brain, just waiting to be unearthed. Free cookies are given out to the team that comes up with the best factoid, and teams make up wacky goofball names. Anyone is welcome, and those without a team can show up and often find themselves some new friends, as long as they can cough up at least one correct answer. The mostly artistic crowd, filled largely with writers and other creative media types (Tarnow's day job is as copy editor at Time Out New York), make for tough, but interesting, competition. The audio round tests your listening and musical skills with short song clips centered around a theme (days of the week, Superman, etc.), while special rounds can range from a vegetable juggler to breakfast cereal haiku to impromptu copyediting. In the process of reading off answers and spurring the crowd on, Tarnow also reveals bits and pieces of himself, such as his love of Devo and his political biases. Gothamist quizzed the 29-year-old Tarnow about the meaning of trivia, trivia catfights, and his most memorable Big Quiz Thing memory.
Where do you live?
Seven years now on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. And I like show tunes. And I used to have a roommate named Rodd. But in case you're wondering, I'm not.
Why did you decide to start Big Quiz Thing and how has it grown in that time?
I saw a few other bar trivia events and I figured I could do that too, maybe better. I've always been one of those people desperate to be on stage in whatever capacity I could manage. In high school it was public speaking, college it was theater, postcollege stand-up comedy. But this feels a lot more suited to my mildly obsessive nature. Plus, there's a lot less competition to be a hotshot quizmaster.
I started the show two years ago and it's grown pretty steadily -- more shows, more fans, more press here and there. It's helped that I took on partners: EDP (Eric de Picciotto), my onstage sidekick, and DJ GB (Gretchen Brennison), my DJ. They do a lot of the work, since it's more and more every day. We're starting to rent ourselves out to business for private quiz events; there's a lot of potential for corporate bonding, I think.
Do you have any favorite categories?
I suppose it's sort of unoriginal, but I love presidential trivia. I like politics, I like history, and that's sort of the nexus of the two. Knowing the presidents is sort of like knowing the Cliffs Notes of American history -- you can spout of impressive-sounding information, but that's not really what it's all about. Still, this is trivia, it ain't serious scholarship.
Without giving away any trade secrets, how do you come up with so many new questions every two weeks? Does it ever feel like you will run out of things to ask?
I have a little notebook, and I'm always filling it with new ideas, inspired by what I see on the subway or in a bar. I remember I was once in a bar that had a stuffed animal head mounted on the wall, which reminded me of the stuffed animals in the movie Psycho, which reminded me of the serial killer Ed Gein, which got me to write a question about Charles Manson -- my mind drifts around a lot, which sucked in school but comes in handy now.
I'm always afraid I'll run out of things to ask, especially in subjects I know less about, like science or sports. Sometimes I wish I had a staff helping me to write questions, but then I'd get jealous if they came up with better ones than me.
What makes your trivia night different from some of the many others that happen around town?
I try to make mine more of a show. Occasionally we'll bring in guest performers, and we like to inject a fair amount of showmanship into things. Consequently, I want the BQT to be entertaining even if you don't know any answers, and I think it is -- we always have one team that scores only like 2 points per round, but they usually stay to the end. Plus, I give away lots more money and better prizes than other people.
On the Big Quiz Thing site, it states that you can name every mix-tape you’ve ever made, every state you’ve ever been to, every person you’ve ever kissed, and every vice-President in American History. Do you ever feel like you have “too much” trivia floating around in your brain, or is there no such thing?
No, you can't have too much. . . Although occasionally I feel guilty, like I know lots of crap but not nearly enough important information. You know, what's the point of being able to name all the Lucky Charms marshmallow shapes if you have zero understanding of global economic policy? And
remembering everyone I ever kissed is probably pathetic, and extremely creepy to a few women out there.
What’s your favorite part of hosting Big Quiz Thing? Do you ever feel like you’re missing out by not getting to play along?
I love it when a question really goes over well. You know, when I ask it and I can see people really getting into it, puzzling it out, getting excited when they come up with the answer, cheering when I tell them they're correct. It's gratifying knowing you've created something that's people genuinely are engaged in.
I often wish I could play the game. But if it weren't me on stage, it would be a different game, and maybe not as much fun to play.
You seem to know a lot of the people who go to trivia, and there are many repeat attendees who either show up to maintain their winning streak or make up for a poor showing the week before. Do you feel you’ve created somewhat of a trivia community?
Yeah, a bit -- we definitely have a solid core of regulars. I kind of wish people mingled a little more instead of keeping to their own teams, but that's tough on Monday nights. We do need more of a community. I fantasize about someone starting an online message board, although that's kind of an ego thing. I'm pretty voyeuristic, and I'd troll around and read what people think of me.
Do you agree that “Smart people make better lovers?” Have any couples formed from attending Big Quiz Thing?
Smart people make better almost everything, in my opinion, but I'm a liberal. But I think the BQT is less a pickup scene and more the place where you bring your new honey to meet your friends -- you know, a somewhat mellow but still exciting night out. I used to say I wanted the Big Quiz Thing to result in at least one each of the following: a sexual liaison, a new job, a new apartment, and a marriage. (Not all for me, of course.) To my knowledge, we've had only the first two so far.
Is there anything someone can do to become “better” at trivia? Can you be “good” at trivia or is it random to some extent?
Yeah, you can be good at it, if you've accumulated the right (i.e., relatively useless) information, if you have a mind for collecting facts like that. But if anyone wants to do better at my show, I recommend you open your mind to thinking about questions. Too many people think you either know the answer or you don't, but a lot of my questions are more for figuring out. Like I once asked, "What word meaning 'disappointed' is taken from cockfighting?" People bitched and moaned, since no one knows
anything about cockfighting, but once you think about it, it's pretty easy: "crestfallen."
I always send my questions to my mother, and she complains that she doesn't know anything. But she's a smart woman, she graduated from college, she reads the newspaper. She could figure a lot of this stuff out if she gave herself a chance.
Big Quiz Thing just passed the 2 year mark, and has also recently expanded from being bimonthly at the Slipper Room to also running on the third Thursday at Happy Ending. Why’d you decide to expand?
Mainly because the owner of Happy Ending saw our show and asked me to. But sure, we want this thing to grow, to make us more money, give us more notoreity. The more the product is out there, the happier I am.
What are your goals for BQT? What would you ideally like to see happen with the show?
I'd love be a quizmaster for a living, maybe a local celebrity in the bargain (I wouldn't mind being famous, but only if I could not be recognized when I leave town). Being on TV might be cool, assuming it wouldn't be some mindless crap and I'd still have some creative control. I don't even know if that's possible -- "quizmaster" is a not a typical career path. Still, I think there's a huge untapped market for this kind of entertainment, and I'm confident that no one in NYC does it better than me.
Dictionary.com defines trivia as "Insignificant or inessential matters; trifles." How would you define it?
Trivia can be important, I suppose -- I've asked plenty of questions about things that matter. But I guess I'd define it pretty basically: "interesting information, usually devoid of knowledge or wisdom." Trivia is about facts, albeit boiled down to their basic form in which they serve no purpose other than
to stimulate the interest.
Have there been any particularly memorable Big Quiz Things that stand out for you?
We did a show on my birthday last year when we passed out cupcakes and asked the audience to guess how much I weighed. I'm pretty damn skinny, so most people weren't even close. When I announced the answer, I thought a riot was gonna break out. That was fun.
Have you had any protests/complaints/calls to question of your correct answers, and if so, are the complainants ever right?
All the time. Usually they're wrong, but a lot of the time, they're right; I never claimed to be the omnipotent god of trivia. But it's my show, and it really bothers me when people get nasty about it, or if they interrupt the show to argue about whether or not a croissant can be described as "a delicacy." It's just a game, people.
Along the same lines, even though you know a lot of trivia, and a lot about trivia, what have you learned (in whatever context) in the course of running Big Quiz Thing?
Getting back to what I said above, I learned that people take games very, very seriously -- I've never been much of a sports fan, so that was news to me. I've also learned that on the "sexy performer" scale, where rock star is at the top, game-show host is pretty far down, somewhere below ventriloquist and bear trainer.
Do you have a single favorite trivia factoid that you'd care to share?
Nothing coming to mind. I'll let you know if it does. Although this one's pretty good -- William Moulton Marston, the psychologist who invented the polygraph (lie detector) test, created the character of Wonder Woman. He thought young girls needed a more positive role model.
Are you secretly happy when you're able to stump a whole room full of geeks?
No, I hate it when nobody gets a question right. That's usually no fun. Even worse if everyone knows it cold. I'm a lot happier when half the teams get it right.
The next Big Quiz Thing takes place Monday, November 1st at 8 pm at The Slipper Room. The special round that night will be "The Election Recap Brain Teaser" and the audio round theme is "Change is Good."
-- Interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel