You’re halfway through your third pint, watching scraps of paper being passed back and forth across the wobbly high-top table. You’re surrounded by brilliant minds—professors and attorneys and economists, their faces contorted in concentration, scribbling their theories alongside paper plates littered with pizza crusts. They talk through their thoughts in conspiratorial whispers. The entire evening hinges on this moment.
New Coke, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Honey Nut Cheerios, Roseanne: Can you put these things in chronological order of their debut, earliest to latest?
On the surface, this could be any old pub trivia night. A host leads teams of bar-goers through a six-round quiz, three questions per round, in categories like “geography,” “current events,” “lost lyrics” or “advertising.” The time limit between questions is one song of the host’s choosing. In the final question, teams are asked to put four things in the proper order—“[XYZ] countries from smallest area to largest,” for instance, or “[so-and-so] actors from youngest to oldest.”
But the bar-based quiz tradition may very well achieve its Platonic ideal Wednesday nights at Growler’s on North Tamiami Trail, where the academic, artistic, esoteric clientele—heavy on alumni and faculty from nearby New College of Florida and Ringling College of Art and Design across the street—has spawned a next-level trivia tradition. While many pubs use supplied questions from a service or company, Growler’s rotating bullpen of hosts takes pride in writing original, multifarious and, most importantly, challenging questions. The crowd holds the hosts accountable for clarity, difficulty and accuracy. Growler’s trivia teams are stacked.
“I’ve gone to [trivia nights at] other places, and it’s not nearly as intellectually stimulating as it is at Growler’s,” says Sarasota attorney and New College grad Chad Bickerton, a regular competitor who also sometimes serves as a Growler’s trivia host. “Most people would say that I ask the hardest questions, and I’ll never apologize for that.”
Weeks when he’s not hosting, Bickerton fields a team that includes, among others, a Riverview High School literature instructor, a medical consultant, a market research analyst, a world-travel tour guide and New College political science professor (and recent state senate candidate) Frank Alcock. Their ages span early 20s to 50-plus, and in addition to their varied professional expertise, they bring different interests to the trivia table—passions for pop music or sports or history. Still, they are no lock to win.
In fact, on a recent Wednesday night, by the time they found themselves pondering the debut of Honey Nut Cheerios in the final question, they were longshots.
Their team name changes week-to-week, whether to toy with the competition (“Team Mote Marine” to confuse another team actually comprised of Mote employees), to reference current events (“We’re in Small Hands Now” the day after the election), or just to make the host say something ridiculous (“Kachingaringaringaringaring.”)
To be sure, intellectual engagement is a big part of the appeal, as is the free pizza Growler’s offers to each team. (Another group regularly calls itself “Here for the Pizza.”) But pub trivia ultimately centers on social rapport. Each category triggers humorous conversation or, especially in Bickerton’s group, merciless ribbing.
Earlier in the evening, when a question about Gone with the Wind came up, the table fell silent. After a few moments, the group targeted their high school teacher teammate:
“Come on, dude, you’re a [expletive] literature professor,” one member chided.
“Teacher,” he corrected.
“See, this is the problem with our education system.”
That is the nightmare scenario: to specialize in the category but be unable to summon the answer. Or worse still, to convince your teammates to submit an unpopular answer, only to be wrong. In trying to answer a question about the current name of the baseball’s National League 19th-century team once called the Boston Red Stockings, the market research analyst had insisted on “Cincinnati Reds.” The correct answer: Atlanta Braves. His teammates growled about trusting his confidence in the future.
In the end, there’s something to be said for the democracy of pub trivia. No matter how challenging the questions, no matter how varied and intelligent your team, there’s no way to know beforehand who’s going to get the answers, the glory, the $50 gift card.
But back to that final question. By the time the last song of the night begins to wind down, and every iteration of the four items has been weighed, Bickerton’s team is certain of some things (Thriller came out in 1982) and less certain of others (“I watched Roseanne in middle school, but were those new or reruns?”)
They submit their answer: “Thriller, Honey Nut Cheerios, New Coke, Roseanne.”
Honey Nut Cheerios (1979), Thriller (1982), New Coke (1985), Roseanne (1988). The winning team is “Dumpster Fire”—two visual artists and a chemist-turned-beermaker. Bickerton’s team places fifth. But there’s always next week.