I’m sitting on a pub trivia team with Brad Rutter, one of Jeopardy!’s winningest contestants ever. Despite being a trivia enthusiast and moonlighting as a trivia host, I have no idea who he is.
As the night progresses, I shout trite encouragements in the vein of “Way to go, Brad!” and “Brad’s carrying the team on his back!” thoroughly embarrassing everyone at the table (except for me).
My friend Tanay finally leans over and tells me that (A) it's Brad Rutter and I'm a fool, (B) almost everyone in this bar has previously appeared on Jeopardy! or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and (C) I really have to stop remarking on the blandness of shepherd’s pie considering we’re in an Irish bar.
I take note of the first two points and blatantly ignore the third.
We’re at O’Brien’s in Santa Monica, home of L.A.’s longest-running pub quiz and, reputedly, the most difficult game in town. Brad is crushing the questions. My other teammates are helping out with the questions. I am drinking beer.
Pub trivia has experienced explosive growth in the United States in recent years. I called up Josh Lieberthal, CEO of King Trivia, one of the biggest trivia companies operating in the L.A. region (full disclosure: I host their game at Angel City Brewery).
“Thirteen years ago when we started, there were maybe only two or three one-off shows. It was virtually unheard of then,” Lieberthal says. “Today, our company puts on over 100 shows a week. We’ve grown 40 percent in the last 12 months.”
Today, you can find a nearby trivia game in practically any neighborhood of L.A. You can compete in annual tournaments with $10,000 in cash prizes. You can even play online Fantasy Football–type trivia leagues, replete with “offense” and “defense” statistical analysis.
But why now? And why this of all things?
I survey some of the guys at O’Brien’s. Mark May, who’s been playing and organizing for 19 years, says, “The appeal is the same as it originally was — it’s a fun way to spend an evening out with friends.” Rutter echoes the sentiment.
“It’s funny, too, because the L.A. stereotype is we’re very shallow and unintellectual, which I have never found to be the case,” Rutter says. “We have rocket scientists and law professors who come out to play, and we have just as many of those here as we have show business people.” Plus, “Show business people aren’t vapid. Your average sitcom writer is a very intellectual person.”
Is that why it’s so appealing? A chance for us to exercise our human compulsion to compete while minimizing physical movement? An opportunity to see friends while trashing strangers with the strength of our IQs? The nerd version of pick-up basketball?
I think there’s something more than that, something about the activity that isn’t just a “good night out," something that appeals to an almost primal need in us. As I mentioned, I host a game for King Trivia at Angel City Brewery in the Arts District, a quiz that draws a weekly attendance of around 80 people. The most satisfying part of being a host is watching people’s faces — the look of excitement, of pure ecstasy, of, in many ways, release, that comes from knowing.
Especially in this city, filled with its aspirants and its dreamers, existential crises are daily staples. Anxiety courses through L.A.'s veins — anxiety about our careers, our futures, our what-in-the-shit-are-we-doing-with-our-lives? Anxiety that has been ratcheted up by wondering what in the shit the rest of the country is doing with their lives. So it’s nice when, once a week, we can gather with similarly anxious people and simply know things.
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We may not be able to tell you where our lives and our country are headed, but we can tell you definitively that Trevor is the name of Neville Longbottom’s toad.
In that regard, pub trivia’s rise has been inexorable. An opportunity to reassure ourselves two hours a week that, yes, we do have answers to something, while operating under the guise of low-stakes, healthy competition.
But what about those of us who suck at it?
That’s what makes pub trivia so brilliant. Because for everything in life we lack answers for, there’s always beer.