Fairweather Fandom Wednesday: Playing Trivia

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Two weeks ago, I used this space to share my mixed feelings about participating in The Great Midwest Trivia Contest, an event I love dearly, but also cannot return to in the capacity that I most desire. I wanted to share my new feelings following the event, but the contest itself kind of put me on my heels, so I haven’t really had the chance until now. I hope you’ll forgive some revelations that are a little past their urgency.

First off, let me commend this year’s staff of Trivia Masters for putting on a truly well-run event. It was everything that contest should be, and it was a joy to listen to. I was able to play both with old friends and newcomers, and everyone had a fantastic time. Many of my fears of inadequacy were unfounded, and in fact, I found my tendency to think like a Trivia Master to be an asset more than a handicap. I’d love to detail some of my favorite moments of the contest (of which there are many — it is, after all a 50-hour event), but it’s my experience during Garruda Hour that bears mentioning here.

Garruda Hour is the final hour of the contest, where the difficulty of questions, the time given to answer them, and the points awarded for answering them correctly are all increased. Now, to say that the difficulty is increased is a bit of an understatement, as these questions almost always go unanswered. Not that they need to — the answers are necessarily always out in the world — but in order to be google-proof, they often end up being unfindable under the time limit. Just to illustrate the concept, I’d like to share a the Super Garruda I wrote my senior year (the Super Garruda is the last question of Garruda hour, worth 100 points, and generally considered to be the hardest question of the contest):

In the ‘Citadel of Opportunity’ section of ‘An Invitation to the International Olympic Committee to Celebrate the XIX Olympiad at Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.’ there is a photograph of a girl wearing a sign around her neck. This sign bears the name of what notable figure?

The answer is “Josephine Baker.” But what’s important is that the book, Detroit’s ill-fated bid to host the 1968 Olympics, isn’t findable anywhere on the internet. In fact, it may not be findable anywhere in the world other than the Detroit Public Library and my own home (one of the perks of having a librarian in the family). Garrudas often feature this type of “you have to be there” element, though there are occasional (and very welcome) exceptions to this trend.

The point is, these questions are incredibly hard. In fact, the last time anyone had gotten the Super Garruda was 2001. Smaller Garrudas are gotten from time to time, but nobody gets the Super Garruda. But that doesn’t stop teams from trying. Bagging one of these answers is a real accomplishment, and teams are willing to do anything to get them. Attempts to find Garrudas often include cold-calling people who may know or have access to the answer, and one year, even included an attempted break-in at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

We were a team with limited resources operating out of Boston, a far cry from the action in Wisconsin, so I didn’t have high hopes for Garruda hour. Curiously, the first question was New England-related, prompting us to make a guess. Guessing is not penalized during Garruda hour, but you are only allowed three (maybe four) attempts. More importantly, I’ve sat at that phone bank during Garruda hour, so I understand how desperately the Trivia Masters don’t want that phone to ring. This is as much a test of their question-writing skills as it is a test of players’ answer-finding skills, so they have a stake in nobody finding the answer. Our guess was wrong, putting me off from wanting to venture more guesses in the future.

The second question asked about the image on a specific paperweight that was at one time or another on display in a specific museum dedicated to such things. We came up with a guess and called it in. Meanwhile, I found an image of a paperweight bearing an image of a french horn. I had no confidence that the image was related to our search, so, though I mentioned it to my team, I implored them not to call it in. I figured it was likely wrong, and would only serve to raise the tensions in the phone room. As luck would have it, the answer was a french horn, which irked my teammates something awful. My sympathy for the Trivia Masters had won out against my sympathy for my own teammates, which is clearly not how things should be.

The next question came and went without so much as a solid lead, so we readied ourselves for the Super Garruda.

It was a simple, beautifully constructed question, gilded with colorful but useless details. In essence, it asked what someone named Tonee from Chicago had written on her comment card at the MoMA when she visited in March of last year. It’s a classic Super Garruda: the answer was probably something funny or weird, but you’d need to see that card in order to answer it (or at least somehow get ahold of Tonee). Our only hope was that the “comment card” in the question was, in fact, one of the “I went to the MoMa and…” cards that are indexed on this site. As luck would have it, it was. We had found the answer to the Super Garruda! I couldn’t believe it. Honestly, getting a Supper Garruda was so beyond what I thought was possible, it had never occurred to me to really want it. I cannot convey how excited we were when we found it.

And then I called it in.

Provie Duggan, a fantastic Trivia Master, one I consider myself very lucky to have worked with, answered the phone with all of the sullen dread I had forgotten lived on the other side of the phone during Garruda hour. I suddenly felt very guilty for finding the answer. Provie genuinely felt like she had failed the contest, and I did my best to assure her that this was not only a classic Super Garruda, but a damn good one. Honestly, Garrudas, while hard, should be theoretically gettable. The fact that we (and a few other teams) got it meant only that the question wasn’t impossible, which is more than can be said about the Super Garruda I wrote.

I wanted desperately to comfort her, but I knew at that moment, I had moved irreversibly from being a Master to being a player. I had called in without regard for the poor Masters’ nerves, wanting only to announce to the world that I had found the answer. Unbeknownst to me, I had been reborn during that hour, moving forever from the world of Trivia Masters to the world of trivia players. I don’t know if I was ready for the change, but a Super Garruda is one hell of a consolation prize.

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Sharing Something: My first open mic

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I finally did it: I took the stage at a comedy open mic. I don’t mean to assign more importance to that action than it warrants, but it has been a very long time coming. Ever since I first watched David Letterman do a monologue, I knew that I wanted to do stand-up. I don’t know if that meant a career doing comedy (in fact, I doubt it did), but it was at least something I wanted to try.

I suppose there’s a little narcissism inherent in taking the stage at any kind of open mic, but this is especially clear for stand-up, where people are mostly just talking about themselves, as well as asserting that their observations are funny (let alone worth listening to). That narcissism may have contributed to my having avoided trying my hand at stand up all of these years, but more than anything, I was afraid of making an ass of myself. If I got up there and wasn’t funny, it wouldn’t have just been because I didn’t have good material or was inexperienced; it would be because I’m out-of-touch with what is funny. I could stand not nailing a punchline, or not having a punchline, but to stand on stage with material I only thought was good would be devastating.

But this post isn’t about back-story (which I’ve already amply supplied elsewhere), or about my neuroses (though aren’t they all?), it’s about my actual experience at my first open mic. I wish I had video to post, but none was taken (not that I really mind), so instead I’ll just have to describe it.

My brother and I got to the bar a little later than we intended, so our options of time slots were limited to either the very beginning or the very end. My brother’s advice was that earlier was always better, so we signed up for the first two slots. We ordered a couple beers and sat down at a table, waiting for the show to start.

The host was a very amicable fellow with either a very quick wit or a wealth of jokes at the ready for any possible situation (probably both), and he warmed up the audience fairly well before he invited my brother up to the stage. My brother had actually hit a couple of open mics in New York before he came out to Boston, but he warned me he was pretty rusty. He got going with some solid bits I had seen him do before, but the audience wasn’t responding particularly well. This made me a little nervous, since I know he had spent a fair amount of time sharpening these bits; if these gems weren’t sticking, what of my hastily-conceived, never-written-down jokes? He wrapped up, and the host took the opportunity to warm the crowd up a bit more.

When my name was called, I immediately went into performance mode, which is a phenomenon I’ve only experienced a few other times in my life. Basically, I feel like I no longer have conscious control of my actions, and am more or less just along for the ride. Generally, this only kicks in when I’m super confident of my capabilities (usually through rigorous practice), where it can be exhilarating, but it’s absolutely terrifying when you feel like you’re barely remembering the precise wordings necessary to land a joke. This fear led me to talk a lot and very quickly throughout my set. I’m sure that’s a common problem for beginners, but it only served to make me more nervous as my rushed punchlines didn’t have time to compute before I stammered onto the next line.

I opened with a bit about snuggies and how I now feel trashy using sleeveless blankets. That punchline got a reaction, but my lead-up was a little marred because people were having trouble hearing me. In short, I have terrible microphone skills. In my hand, the microphone veers wildly from millimeters from my mouth to however far away too far away is. Words were missed, and it made me look like a total n00b. After I sat down, I watched how other comics were handling the mic, and saw one guy — clearly with a lot of experience, using this open mic as an opportunity to work up new bits — just plant the microphone on his face next to his mouth. I realized I had seen that before, but never realized why. It’s a great, simple solution to a problem that otherwise might require conscious thought to resolve. I don’t know if that’s a strategy I’ll ever use, but it was neat to have new insight to a behavior I had seen many times before.

My next solid punchline was about how I don’t want kids because they’re so expensive — it’s really not a buyers market out there. That joke landed just fine, but where I took it after that was where things got interesting. I launched into a bit about how I can’t relate to kids anymore because I can no longer tell whether or not a kid is retarded. I got appropriate groans from the audience, which I guess I should have expected, but it kind of threw me off, causing me to scuff a line about how all kids are too friendly, dress like dorks, and talk too loud. I rush-mumbled through the rest of that bit, and felt like I had only been up there for 30 seconds, so I started to scramble for other material.

I had worked up a bit about eggnog in preparation for my envisioned Christmas open-mic that never materialized.  By “worked up,” I of course mean “roughly sketched over a month ago and then never thought about again.” It was rough, and hinged mostly on a back-and-forth between two characters that I did nothing with. It’s not my kind of joke, and I didn’t deliver it well. What’s worse, I couched the telling of that joke by explaining that this was my first open mic, so I’m just trying whatever material I had. That is a terribly unprofessional move that would bother me if I heard anyone else say it. It’s cowardly and totally unnecessary, but I did it anyway.

As the night wore on, I saw others (some with much more experience) offer similar preemptive apologies for new material they were trying out. This gave me some comfort. Also comforting; the modest laughs I got were far from the worst reaction of the night. I fared well enough to not scare me off, and the experience left me with enough to consider to make any future endeavors much stronger. The area I should focus on first are the moments between big punchlines. I either need to get better at riffing or just stop trying; right now, I’m just blowing the goodwill I earn on those few decent jokes. It’s also going to mean tightening up my transitions and set-ups, which definitely made me the most uncomfortable up there.

This makes it sound like I intend to try my hand again, but I’m not actually sure I will. The rush of performing is enjoyable, and I had an all-around good time, but I don’t know if I need to do it. I was a little put-off by the kind of insular sub-culture of open-mic regulars, a group that I think would take a long time to warm up to a newcomer, which is really not what my poseurphobia needs. On the other hand, striking out on my own and meeting new people may just be the best thing for me. In the end, I just enjoy coming up with jokes, so I’ll probably try this again sometime, so it’s more a question of when.

Update: New Site!

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Between things picking up at work and my needing to catch up with sleep after the trivia contest, I’ve been a little behind in updating. I’m hoping to put something up soon chronicling my first open mic experience as well as this year’s trivia contest, but I’m a little overwhelmed with things right now (it doesn’t help that my computer is also kind of on the fritz). I suppose it’s a good thing that I’m spending so much time doing things that I don’t have enough time to talk about why I haven’t done them in the past, but it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting blog.

One of the things currently dividing my attention is the anticipation of the launch of a new blog: retcon-punch.comPatrick Ehlers and I have been writing up our favorite (and not-so-favorite) comics across our respective blogs for the past few months, and have finally decided to make things official with a blog devoted to those write-ups. We’re expanding the scope for this new blog, bringing in new talent (fellow nerds Shelby Peterson and Peter Kilkuskie), and hoping to cover comics-related news, but more importantly, we’re separating our comics write-ups from our otherwise unrelated-to-comics personal blogs. I’m not yet sure how my new writing and editing responsibilities there will affect this blog, but the schedule will certainly need to be adjusted in light of those comic reviews no longer appearing here.

At any rate, Patrick and I (and Shelby and Peter) are very excited about this new site, and we look forward to hearing from you in the comments there. We’re envisioning this as a kind of outsider’s forum for DC fans, and I’m looking forward to all the weird places that could take us. We’ve written nearly 30 write-ups, and those will continue to be a big portion of the new site, but the opportunity to muse more broadly about the characters and the business of DC is what has me the most excited. Even if you aren’t following a monthly title, I’d recommend checking in with that site periodically as we’ll cover everything from DC movie news to crash-courses in character histories to abstract discussions about censorship. I’ll make a point of alerting people when something with a bit more crossover appeal is posted, but it’ll still be worth checking out on the regular.

I’ll get some new content up here this weekend, but in the meantime, check out our new Swamp Thing 6 write-up.