Pop culture clash
Rival Kansas teams prepare for battle on VH1's trivia tournament
That condensed word was the answer to the question that Robert Bishop kept running over in his mind.
The 1997 Kansas University graduate had just finished the written portion of the qualifying test to become a contestant on VH1’s “World Series of Pop Culture.” He couldn’t help but wonder if all the questions would be as hard as: “What was the license plate on the car that Ferris Bueller drove?”
After dozens of other steps in the interviewing process, his “nrvous” second-guessing proved to be unnecessary. Bishop’s team, consisting of his pregnant wife, Kelly, and their longtime friend Rachel Cahill (all KU grads), was selected as one of 16 finalists in the televised game show.
“The 2007 World Series of Pop Culture” bills itself as the “ultimate pop culture competition designed for teams to display their astounding range of knowledge about everything music, television and film.” The new season begins airing at 8 p.m. Monday on VH1 (Sunflower Broadband Channel 66).
For Bishop, his lifelong ability to regurgitate trivia about those areas finally found a venue.
“If anything, people will realize how little work I actually do at the office. It could hurt. I’m prepared for that,” he says.
But the fact that the three Kansans were selected from over 10,000 applicants took an even more bizarre turn in February when Bishop decided to tell his friend Andy Morton the good news about the VH1 show when the two attended an Oscar-watching party in Lawrence.
No sooner had Bishop announced the news than Morton began saying, “No (expletive) way” like a mantra. Turns out Morton and two of his Lawrence buddies, Eric Melin and J.D. Warnock, had also made the cut.
Both three-person teams had attended regional finals in different states and never ran across each other.
What that meant was now the New York-based “World Series” had TWO teams to rib about their Kansas heritage.
“Through the interview process, it was clear that they were interested in the fact that we were from Kansas but we wanted to avoid the stereotypical ‘Do you or do you not believe that man evolved from flying monkeys?’ angle,” says Morton, who is the host of “One-on-One Trivia” on Channel 6.
“We were willing to embarrass ourselves on national television, but we didn’t want to take Lawrence and Kansas down with us. We couldn’t bear the thought of undoing the honor that Danni Boatwright had brought to our area.”
Eric Melin became hooked on the “World Series of Pop Culture” when it debuted last year.
“I’ve never taped a game show in my life. But I taped last season,” he says. “I was immediately trying to put my team together in my head as soon as I started watching the show.”
Melin (a freelance writer for Lawrence.com) immediately recruited his friend and former Ultimate Fakebook bandmate Warnock, then began seeking a third member. They turned to Lawrence trivia guru Morton to help them possibly capture the $250,000 prize.
The only problem: Would they be too old for VH1?
Melin says, “When I filled out my application and it said ‘age,’ I wrote: ’35. But I look a young, demographic-friendly 26.'”
He recalls watching more youthful teams “crumble” on last season’s show and was hoping the age and experience their gang brought to the game would be rewarded.
“Plus, I don’t think we’re lacking in personality,” he says. “But it turns out that Andy and one or two other people on the whole show were the oldest at 36.”
Dubbing their trio “Team Westerburg High” – a reference to the 1989 comedy “Heathers,” which itself was sub-referencing Replacements lead singer Paul Westerberg – the team was ready to take on all trivia warriors.
Ready, except for the costumes.
“J.D. is the best-dressed person I know,” Melin says. “When Andy started suggesting things like bowling shirts, I said, ‘We’ve got to put J.D. in charge of this.'”
So they went for suit jackets, red shirts and red Chuck Taylors.
“We have kind of this classy, older rock-guy look,” Melin says. “The suit coat is good because we’re all a little overweight. It hides the man-boobs.”
Bishop’s trio spurned any elaborate costumes, instead settling on shirts brandishing their name: “Team Wocka Wocka.” (It refers to both Pac-Man’s chomping sound and Muppet Fozzie Bear’s catchphrase.)
When matching skills against Team Westerburg, Bishop says they had something the other Kansans didn’t.
“Our strength is we’ve got a couple girls,” he says.
“I am definitely strongest at music. I was a DJ at KJHK. Oddly, Kelly is big into old-school hip-hop. Rachel is all about ’80s music and movies – anything with ice skating in it.”
The rules of the “World Series” play to individual strengths more than collective ones.
Within each round, a single player is eliminated if he or she answers the question incorrectly and his opponent answers correctly. The first team to best its opponents moves on to the next match.
Melin says, “The great thing about this show is it’s one at a time. I can tell you that the category I lost on in the regionals (tryouts) was TV Teen Dramas. It’s this weird feeling you get when you’re up there by yourself. You feel like you’re going to fail before you start. Or you feel like you’ve won before you start. I had both of those happen.”
‘Survivor’ with words
One of the most difficult challenges for the teams hasn’t involved trivia at all.
Since the entire season was taped over spring break, all the players know how each other fared. Obviously, they are not allowed to tell anyone for fear of a breach of contract.
“People are constantly trying to trip you up,” Morton says.
“One of my coworkers asked to borrow a quarter for the vending machine. When I said, ‘Absolutely,’ he went, ‘Ah ha! So you DO have money to give away!’ We have to explain to people that the winning team doesn’t see a dime of the prize money until after the show is done airing, so it would probably be fall before you see me driving around in a zebra-striped PT Cruiser.”
All the contestants interviewed mention that the bonds they made with other rival teams was what they enjoyed most about the experience. They also felt validated at finally putting their knowledge of arcana to actual use.
Bishop says, “This is like the ‘Survivor’ of pop culture. I don’t think anybody can truly understand what we’ve all been through. It’s a battle, almost. Let’s keep it in perspective, it’s just pop culture trivia. But it feels so much more important when you’re there.”