Is that your final answer? Bobby Calise writes on the evolution of television trivia.
It’s a Monday night in December and I’m sitting in a bar called Mulligan’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, waiting for my buddy Mike to claim the bar stool I’m saving for him. I lived in Hoboken for three years during my mid-20s and spent a lot of that time in bars, but I can’t remember ever seeing Mulligan’s this packed on any night of the week, no less a Monday.
The crowd, which is about 90% dudes, is there for the same reason Mike and I came out: It’s Seinfeld trivia night.
When the trivia host hands us our answer sheet for Round 1, I examine it carefully. It’s made up to look like the cover of a Penthouse magazine–a noticeable departure from the nondescript answer sheets you might find at other trivia nights. The blank white answer spaces, labeled 1 through 10, are strategically placed to cover the otherwise exposed cover models underneath (pictured below). In the bottom right corner, I notice the magazine is addressed to fictitious Seinfeld “dentist to the stars” Dr. Tim Whatley, DDS, who in one episode had an adults only dental practice and a waiting room stocked with adult reading materials.
Not your average answer sheet.
Mike and I are confident going into the first few questions. Between us, we’ve seen every episode 20 or 30 times in reruns. (I’d learn later that our host estimates he’s seen each episode at least 200 times.)
We keep pace with the leaders for the first few rounds, including a perfect 12 out of 12 in Round 2, attributing quotes from the show to the characters who said them. But by Round 4, matching obscure character names to their pictures, and the final round, made up entirely of questions about the “Festivus” episode, we’re toast.
We finish in seventh place. Our only consolation prize is the small laugh we get from the other players when our team name (To See Ramon?) is read aloud.
Still thinking about Seinfeld trivia the following morning, I reached out to Trivia, A.D., the company that put on the event, via Twitter. I wasn’t really sure what I expected to find.
But five days later, I’m sitting in Trivia, A.D. co-founder Dave Oliver’s living room in Hoboken, listening to him tell the story of how the company came to be.
For friends Amy Gerson and Dave Oliver, that epiphany came in May 2009 over drinks and tater tots at their favorite neighborhood haunt, Big Daddy’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Big Daddy’s is an 80s-style diner that doubles as a watering hole for locals, which Oliver describes as “like Johnny Rockets but less cheesy.”
Half-jokingly, they bounced the trivia idea off each other for 10 or 15 minutes, after which Gerson (who freely admits, “I have a big mouth”) approached the manager on duty that night about co-hosting a trivia night with her friend Dave at Big Daddy’s, eventually getting in touch with the restaurant’s general manager.
He said yes.
Management didn’t know what to expect as far as turnout, so they set aside a space for Gerson and Oliver in the back of the diner to hold about 25 people. Big Daddy’s email-blasted their customer database to alert them about the event, and Oliver used his graphic design background to create an eye-catching flyer to hang inside the diner.
After just a few days of promoting, Big Daddy’s had 110 reservations lined up.
That first night went well–so well, in fact, that the nascent trivia hosting team was invited back to do 80s pop culture trivia at Big Daddy’s Gramercy location, and later to host more trivia nights at those locations as well as as at two Duke’s locations (owned by Branded Restaurants USA, the same people who own Big Daddy’s).
Before they knew it, Trivia, A.D. (named for Amy and Dave) had become a four-nights-a-month part-time job.
When Oliver approaches a potential client (i.e. a bar) about hosting a trivia night, they typically request “regular” or general trivia. But when one of his Friends or Saved by the Bell trivia nights brings in 80 to 100 people on a Tuesday night, that’s all the convincing they need.
The concept of a themed trivia night isn’t unheard of, but general trivia–topics like current events, geography, music and sports all rolled into one–is far more common in bars. For Trivia, A.D.’s events, though, people aren’t there simply by happenstance; they show up specifically to play trivia about their favorite TV show or movie because they’re passionate about it.
That passion is never more apparent than when Oliver hosts Seinfeld trivia nights, which he started in July 2009. In fact, Oliver says Seinfeld is one of his three passions in life (the other two are baseball and Pearl Jam), but there’s one couple who might love the show even more than he does.
“To date, we’ve won Seinfeld trivia 17 times,” says Jamie Sclafane, who plays under team name Why No T-Bone? with her husband, Dave. They’ve been attending Trivia, A.D.’s Seinfeld trivia nights since September 2009.
(For some more of Trivia, A.D.’s funniest Seinfeld trivia team names, see the comments section below.)
“We had been waiting for something like this for a long time,” says Sclafane. “When I saw the flyer, I immediately called Dave and was like we need to go to this!”
Why No T-Bone? placed second at Trivia, A.D.’s 2010 Seinfeld Trivia Tournament, which took place over three weeks in July 2010 across four Big Daddy’s and Duke’s locations. “The amount of work and detail [Oliver] put into the … tournament was incredible,” says Scalfane.
Each team who made the tournament “finale” received a Seinfeld themed gift, such as a giant marble rye or a box of Jujyfruits. “He also made … a giant clown check made out to The Human Fund and the sign to mile marker 114 for the highway Kramer adopted,” Sclafane says, “which we proudly hang in our dining room.”
Jamie and Dave Sclafane at Trivia, A.D.’s 2010 Seinfeld Trivia Tournament.
Looking to expand beyond bars and restaurants, Trivia, A.D. hosted a “Festivus”-themed Seinfeld trivia night at Comix comedy club in December 2010. Comix advertised the event in the New York Post and Oliver designed inserts promoting the event to put in the playbills for Long Story Short, the one-man show starring Colin Quinn and directed by Jerry Seinfeld.
Long Story Short donated 16 tickets to their show plus some Seinfeld memorabilia for the winners. Unlike previous Trivia, A.D.-hosted trivia nights, Comix sold tickets to the event ($15 plus a two-drink minimum), but still drew an impressive 125 people.
It’s easy enough to Google “Seinfeld trivia questions,” copy and paste the best ones, and pass them off as your own at a trivia night. But that’s not Trivia, A.D.’s style.
For Seinfeld trivia in particular, Oliver has a database of thousands of questions and answers and says he knows where to find just about any scene for any season within his Seinfeld DVD collection. (I detect a hint of pride in his voice when he tells me this.)
So, if I go to one of your Seinfeld trivia nights this month, and then I go to another one six months later, will I get any of the same questions?
No repeats, he guarantees, not at any of his trivia nights.
As we’re chatting, Oliver’s wife, Kara Oliver, stops in to tell her husband that she’s got a friend “who knows a guy who was in the Pez episode who owns a bar.” He appears to make a mental note to track down that lead once I’ve left.
While Seinfeld trivia is Oliver’s forte, he’s getting more comfortable writing questions and hosting trivia nights for themes in which he’s not as fluent.
“If you’re gonna host, you better know your stuff,” says Oliver. “Die hard fans pick up on that.”
Trivia, A.D. gets tons of requests for new themes. “Right now people want Scrubs trivia.” Oliver’s even heard requests for Little House on the Prairie trivia. (Do not look out for that one at a bar near you in 2012.)
“My favorite part of any trivia night is when we announce all the themes we do and hearing people’s reactions,” says Kara, who has hosted Trivia, A.D. events for Jersey Shore, Mean Girls, Mad Men and Caddyshack. “They get so excited to hear their favorite show or movie.”
Other Trivia, A.D. pop-nostalgia themes have included Star Wars, Beverly Hills 90210, Back to the Future, Sex and the City, and more recently, Arrested Development and Harry Potter. Oliver’s always got his ear to the ground for the next pop culture phenomenon that could make for great for a trivia night.
Just a year and a half after its inception, Trivia, A.D. had taken greater strides than Oliver and Gerson had ever imagined it could, but a series of bad breaks in the first half of 2011 left them wondering whether they’d taken it as far as it could go.
This past February, Oliver hosted a Seinfeld trivia event at Gotham Comedy Club, hoping to repeat the success of the Comix show. But a couple of factors were working against them this time–namely, it was the Monday night after Super Bowl Sunday–and the event drew just 40 people.
And in June, Trivia, A.D. and Big Daddy’s mutually dissolved their long-standing trivia arrangement; the two sides are no longer affiliated.
But Trivia, A.D. has rebounded, adding new venues to its roster in New York and New Jersey, including Croton Reservoir, Village Pourhouse, and Liberty Bar, and it currently has trivia events booked through March 2012.
Without giving too much away, Oliver hints at multi-city expansion beyond the New York metro area, and he’d like to further experiment with trivia events outside of bars and restaurants. “I have big plans,” he says.
Well, how’s this for big plans: On January 30, Oliver will host a Seinfeld trivia night at Tom’s Restaurant. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because fans of the show may know it better as Monk’s Diner, the coffee shop where Jerry and the gang spent an obscene amount of time during the show’s 10-year run. (Monk’s is based on Tom’s.)
Though the Tom’s event is already booked to capacity, Oliver is always looking to add the finishing touches. He has reached out to every Seinfeld actor he can get a hold of to get them involved in the event, from Bryan Cranston (Tim Whatley) of AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad to Patrick Warburton (the face-painting David Puddy) of CBS’s Rules of Engagement.
And if Jerry Seinfeld himself happens to show up at Tom’s that night, you can bet there will be a spot waiting for him in his old booth–there might even be room for three of his closest friends.
Originally appeared at The 250 Square Foot View.