Did you know that the Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman created the Garbage Pail Kids? Or that it was once the custom to dress baby boys in pink and girls in blue? Or that Alfred Hitchcock, horror movie director extraordinaire, was afraid of eggs? Thanks to a lifelong love of trivia, I have facts like this at the ready at a moment’s notice.
I can’t remember exactly when my passion for learning bite-size tidbits of knowledge started. As a kid I would scan through old books at garage sales, searching for random facts; as an adult I regularly fall into Wikipedia rabbit holes. When I can, I take my passion for useless knowledge out for a night on the town and participate in trivia events around my city—rooms full of people facing off about what they know, often competing for prizes. Trivia night is my new favorite thing. It’s a perfect way to hang out with friends—it’s not loud like a nightclub, so you can actually talk, and it’s more focused than just meeting up at the coffee shop, which diminishes the possibility of long, “What are we supposed to talk about now?” silences.
Trivia night is also fun, and super easy to plan. If you’re tired of typical high school parties, want to show off how deep your well of Arrested Development knowledge runs, or you just need to come up with some kind of activity for a school fundraiser, give it a try. Here are some tips for hosting a successful trivia night (or afternoon or whatever).
1. Find a good venue.
Try to pick a spot that has lots of tables and chairs, and where the host can be seen and heard by everyone. Each player or team will want a little privacy when they’re coming up with their answers so no one steals them, so be sure that there’s a little breathing room between teams/individuals.
The easiest place to host this kind of thing is obviously your house or a friend’s place, because they’re free and convenient, and you can easily control the number of participants. If you’re worried about making the pitch to your parents, remind them that you will be celebrating knowledge, and that it will probably be much tamer than a regular house party. If you’re looking for a venue that isn’t at all related to where you keep your pajamas, independent cafés and restaurants are often willing to reserve space for large groups. Some will charge you to use their space, but it doesn’t hurt to try to negotiate—you might be able to get the space for free in exchange for bringing business in. If you’re looking to start a new weekly or monthly event, propose it to the venue of your choice. They might be really into the idea, and help you promote it. School gyms, community centers, town halls, and other public gathering places are good spots for trivia-themed fundraisers.
2. Decide if you want to have a theme.
According to the Official Trivia Night Planning Guide Book, which so far only exists in my dreams, general and themed are the only two types of trivia nights (otherwise known as pub quizzes). Every topic is fair game in general trivia, so it’s a nice option if you want to appeal to a large crowd, but you can still divvy everything up into vague categories like pop culture, or specific categories like makeover montages in teen movies from the ’90s.
A theme night means you’ll base an entire trivia night around one topic. TV trivia is my favorite, because it combines the two best things in the world: watching things and knowing things. Pick your theme based on something you’re interested in and that a lot of other people might also know a little bit about—TV, movies, music, cult movies, Matt Dillon, and local legends are all great options.
3. Draw a crowd.
If this is a private event, this part is pretty easy—just send out invitations or announce it on Facebook the way you would for any party. If it’s a fundraiser, use the school or community newspaper, bulletin boards, Facebook, the ujh. But if you’re trying to start a new weekly or monthly event at a local venue, you’ll need to put in some extra effort to get the word out. Make a Facebook event, put flyers on your community bulletin boards, and think about advertising in places with a shared interest—for example, if you’re having a comic-book themed trivia night, ask comics stores and hobby shops if you can hang a flyer in their store. Be sure to include what time the trivia starts, where it is happening, and if the participants need to bring anything (like costumes for theme nights). And ask the venue if they will publicize the event in the store and on their website/Twitter.
4. Decide on the rules before you start!
This will save you from potential arguments as the game goes on. Decide in advance how many people you want there to be on a team (I’d say no more than six), how many points each answer is worth (if the questions get harder as play progresses, the points per answer should increase too), and who’s going to help you keep score. Good trivia hosts tell guests to turn off their phones, but you should have a rule in place for the person who will definitely “just check a text,” because how do you know they’re not cheating? Setting your rules in advance could save you a lot of time and grief.
5. Create good questions.
Coming up with good questions is surprisingly tricky, because you want to challenge your audience without boring them to bits. The best trivia nights have a good mix of simple and obscure questions, in a variety of categories that include something for everybody. Some people know reality TV inside and out, others are history buffs, some are comedy nerds, and some political junkies. In a general (themeless) trivia game, you want each one of these people, as well as people who know about music, movies, comics, literature, the internet, etc., to get a chance to shine. Even if you’re having a themed trivia night, be sure your questions span all kinds of facts about your theme.
I prefer the question-and-answer format to multiple-choice or true/false, because it lets you reward KNOWLEDGE instead of guesswork. Good questions can come from anywhere! Read old Trivia Pursuit cards, flip through science, travel, and entertainment magazines, or find interesting but widely unknown facts under your Snapple lid—you’ve got a lot of options! Don’t make the questions too obscure, but a good question will make people pause a little before they answer. You can personalize the questions for your group of friends—I once made a trivia game for my friend’s sweet 16 based on facts about her life.
It’s a good idea to recruit a couple of friends with different knowledge sets from yours to help you come up with questions. Just be sure that each question is worded super precisely, so there’s only ONE correct answer (not a vague range of potential answers), and fact-check those answers thoroughly. If you need more help, look online—here are a couple of lists to get you started.
You’d think a bunch of like-minded nerds would get along easily, but as in any competition things get heated sometimes, so good questions can help you keep argumentative audience members in line. Have a few alternative questions on hand in each category for emergencies.
6. Keeping score.
The easiest way to keep track of everyone’s score is to have each team elect one person to write down their answers, which you collect and score at the end of the game. You can also have them exchange score sheets and mark each other’s points while you read the correct answers out loud. The simplest way to do this is to award one point for each correct answer. You can tally your scores at the end of each round, or wait until the end of the game.
Don’t forget to have some tiebreaker questions handy just in case! First one to get it right wins. This is a good time to bring out the really hard questions.
There should be enough pens and answer pads for every team. This will probably be your biggest expense of the night, but you don’t have to be fancy—you can get cheap golf pencils in bulk, and make your own answer pads by using both sides of a sheet of printer paper. If you’re doing a fundraiser, see if you can get a local paper supply store to donate materials—they’ll get free advertising, and you’ll get to spend your allowance on pizza instead of notepads.
7. Select an MC for the evening.
This should be someone charismatic who’s comfortable wielding authority and who isn’t terrified of public speaking.
8. Make it extra special!
Turn the night into an event. I once attended a Buffy trivia night that screened clips and episode highlights between rounds and encouraged people to come in costume (there were a lot of Dark Willows). Prizes are fun, and they don’t have to be elaborate—at a Simpsons-themed night the winner got doughnuts; I won a lifetime membership to a video rental store that specializes in cult movies at a Twin Peaks night.
Your ultimate goal is to make the night fun for everyone. You’re all going to learn new facts, bond with people over niche interests, and bask in the glory of knowing useless tidbits of information. Be sure everyone goes home happy and feeling like a genius. Especially you! ♦