Not long ago, Twin Cities pub trivia nights were the domain of people with secret "Jeopardy!" aspirations, British expatriates and people who spend their Friday nights correcting Wikipedia threads. But if you've been paying attention lately, you'll notice that pub-style trivia has lost its nerdy reputation, showing up at many local nightspots. If you're game, there's probably one near you.
It hasn't always been this way. Only seven years ago, the Twin Cities bar scene was devoid of live trivia. That's when Ireland native John Cosgrove began hosting a trivia night at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. "I started it at Kieran's because I couldn't believe there wasn't one here," Cosgrove said. "They're so popular in Ireland, they're as prevalent as Guinness."
Since then, trivia has taken off for Cosgrove. He has become such a popular host that he's made trivia into a business -- the Cosgrove Trivia Challenge. As a host for hire, Cosgrove brings his brand of trivia to corporate events, and he still hosts an informal trivia night at Brit's Pub, the venue generally considered to have the best bar trivia in town.
In the past two years, trivia has taken off in other Twin Cities bars, as well. More than 25 trivia nights take place weekly or monthly. Part of the appeal is the "Cheers" phenomenon: "It's a constant. You know you're going to see certain friends every week," said musician Martin Devaney, 27, who attends Sunday night "Chuck and Sean's Trivia" at the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis.
At the Nomad World Pub's Monday trivia night, attendee Nick Aulwes, 22, said that trivia is an inexpensive way for bars to provide entertainment on weeknights. He added, "Good drink specials never hurt. I'm pretty sure that's why I first started coming."
Regulars also say that over time, it's their affinity for the trivia hosts that keeps them coming back. Players' attachments to their hosts can resemble enthusiasm for celebrities or sports stars, and they talk about them as if they're close friends -- which they sometimes are. Sunday night at the 331, players arrive early just to get a seat for trivia hosted by Chuck Terhark and Heiruspecs bassist Sean McPherson. "We love Sean. He's hilarious, and by the end of the night, he's drunker than us," said Emily Petraitus, 23. Trisha Hansen, also 23, said she goes to Brit's on Wednesdays largely because of host Cosgrove. "What's the point of going if you don't have Cosgrove?" she said.
At Merlins Rest, trivia host and general manager John Dingley is a hit for several reasons, from his fashion sense (he is apparently a frequent sweater-wearer) to his Welsh accent to his sense of humor. "I just love the man," said Iglika Merev, 27. Abby Woodworth, 22, says she has attended many trivia nights, but thinks the Nomad host, local rapper Dessa (of Doomtree fame) is the best. "We like Dessa, as a person and as a host," she said.
But as with a favorite teacher, what one player likes in a trivia host -- wit, or the propensity to get wasted while reading questions -- might not be what another is seeking. The same goes for questions, which vary from place to place. The types of questions and their level of difficulty largely reflect each host's tastes. And let's face it -- it's the questions that will determine whether you leave feeling like a dunce or a drunken genius.
Dingley has made Merlins Rest's Sunday trivia night famous for its doctorate-level questions in its 10 months of existence. Dingley readily admits some of his natural-science questions are "excruciatingly hard." But he hints that there are connections and clues in questions that can help players answer other questions, which makes his night "a little like doing a New York Times crossword puzzle."
"A good question must be somewhat amusing, and it must give you knowledge," he added.
Ian Rans, host of the cable-access show "Drinking With Ian" (and a dead ringer for the love child of Conan O'Brien and his ex-sidekick Andy Richter), previously ran a punk karaoke night and now spends his Sunday nights leading trivia at Pizza Lucé in the Warehouse District. Rans often measures potential questions by his response to them. "If it taxes me to think about it, it's probably a good question," he said.
Rans' questions require players to recall everything from "Diff'rent Strokes" to disgraced politicians, he said. He is also known to insert "Feats of Strength" into his repertoire -- physical challenges that require players to, say, hold the same pose for as long as possible.
"It seems like there is something happening then, instead of people staring off into space, drinking a beer," Rans said.
Of course, what a player considers common knowledge depends on one's age and interests. Merlins Rest player Daniel Glass, 23, notes that when he visited the Leaning Tower of Pizza, the questions were "generationally biased," while Nomad youngster Peter Kirschman, 22, found Memory Lanes' musical questions a bit too hard. "They play a song, and it's like, I don't know the difference between Styx and Journey," he said.
But then, not everyone is a black hole of random information, the kind of person cut out to host their own trivia night, right? That would require a special kind of mind.
"I'm horrible at trivia," Cosgrove admitted.
He's not the only one.
"The really dark secret about [331 hosts] Chuck and Sean," said Sean's brother, writer/musician Steve McPherson, "is that they're not very good at trivia."
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