I love trivia games. When Trivial Pursuit first came out back in the 80s, my parents would have their friends around for very vocal team matches that would stretch into the early hours of the morning. Apparently I used to trundle out from by bedroom and complain about all the noise they were making when I was trying to sleep. In truth, I was probably just jealous that I had to be in bed rather than out playing the game with them.
In high school, I was on the Brain Bowl team two years in a row. Brain Bowl was a quiz competition open to all of the American high schools in Germany. It was quite exciting (in a geeky sort of way), with lots people, lots of hubbub, and lots of vicious team rivalries. I still recall with pride my ability to provide lightening-quick answers to questions about Seurat and lexicography - and I still kick myself for not buzzing in to say "Arrangement in Grey and Black", when I knew - I knew - that that was the proper title for "Whistler’s Mother". Oh well.
With my Brain Bowl days well behind me, I moved on to playing trivia board games and watching quiz shows (Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Weakest Link, Master Mind - you name it, and I’ll shout answers at it). But it was not until moving to England that I discovered the king of all quiz shows, and the king of all quiz show hosts: University Challenge, as hosted by Jeremy Paxman.
University Challenge is my favorite thing on television. It’s the only show that I get really, really irritated about missing. Jeremy and I always eat in front of the television on Monday nights so we can watch Jeremy Paxman shoot withering looks at the contestants, and we can feel really smug when we answer questions that no one on the show can answer. I love the show with a passion, so when I started attending Sussex University last year, my first thought was, "I hope I actually manage to get my master’s degree," and my second thought was, "Hey, maybe I can be on University Challenge!"
When an e-mail was sent out about putting together a Sussex team for the upcoming University Challenge season, I jumped at the opportunity. I wrote back and said that I would love to be on the show, and I was told that a meeting was being held on March 10 to choose next year’s team. The meeting would, of course, involve some sort of general knowledge test to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In the run-up to March 10, I made a concerted effort to remember every new thing I learned (lithium is the lightest metal - Liszt moved to the Vatican - Dow and Jones devised a method for measuring stock market fluctuations - Keir Hardy was the first leader of the Labour Party). The night before the meeting, Jeremy did some quick-fire rounds of Trivial Pursuit questions with me to get me warmed up. And on the day of the meeting, I spent all morning reminding myself of the benefits that I, an American, could bring to the University Challenge team (I know what a pinch hitter is! I know what the capital of North Dakota is!) - benefits which would hopefully outweigh the disadvantages of me not knowing all the things that someone who was born and brought up in England would know.
By the time the meeting finally rolled around, however, I had a splitting headache which may or may not have been a direct result of all the thinking I had done over the past days. Maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t feeling so hot, or maybe I was just sick of going over trivia in mind - whatever the reason, as soon as I sat down at the meeting, I suddenly started to have doubts about how much fun all of this was really going to be.
When I showed up, the guy conducting the meeting was already talking about last year’s team, and about getting together to practice all the time, and about regional elimination rounds where they take your picture to send back to Granada television (presumably so they can see if you’re television-worthy or something) and blah, blah, blah - and suddenly it all started to sound less like fun and more like a big effort. Nonetheless, I was determined to give it my best shot - and since there were only about 6 other people in the room, and they needed to choose 5 for the team, I though my chances were pretty good.
I thought my chances were pretty good, that is, until the guy finally handed out the written test and I my first look at it. It was 60 questions ranging from nuclear physics to modern British television shows, some of which I could answer right off the top of my head, and some of which I knew I would never be able to answer, no matter how long I sat there staring at the paper. The questions on Greek mythology and the First Crusade were easy, but unfortunately I wasn’t so up-to-snuff on my British Lord Chancellors or 18th century French playwrights (or nuclear physics, for that matter). But I plowed ahead determinedly, and when I finally handed my test back, I knew that I had done as well as I possibly could, and if that wasn’t enough then, well, that wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough. I got an email two days later saying "Thanks for taking part, but…" - and I breathed a sigh of relief. Okay, I did feel irritated that other people had answered more questions right than I did (that’s my nasty competitive streak), but I realized then that I just wanted to have done well enough to be able to be on the team - but I didn’t actually want to be on the team, if that makes any sense.
I also realized that nine-tenths of the enjoyment I get out of University Challenge comes from how I experience it: sitting with Jeremy, eating dinner (usually red beans and rice or something, as Monday night is Cajun night in our house), trading words of admiration when one or the other of us gets a question right, and trading looks of astonisment when people on the show correctly answer questions that we don’t even understand. I tried out for the team on a whim and I didn’t make it, but I did manage to establish that shouting at the television from the comfort of my home is all the involvement in University Challenge that I actually need.
Having said that, if I were to find myself doing a PhD here, and they were looking to put together another team for another season…