Trivial matters: Live games at Lawrence bars, restaurants gain momentum

Scott McDaniel and Jen Flippin are the hosts of Brainville Trivia at Johnny’s Tavern North, 410 N. Second St., and Johnny’s West, 721 Wakarusa Drive. The married couple played trivia on their first date, and they’ve co-hosted Brainville Trivia for the past 10 years.

Rodger and Erin Wolfram play Brainville Trivia at Johnny’s North, 410 N. Second St. The game is played on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month.

Scott McDaniel leads a game night at Johnny’s North. Johnny’s West is the newest location to begin a live trivia night after it replaced JB Stout’s in June 2009.

You would think that alcohol and general knowledge quizzes would go together about as well as cough syrup and heavy machinery, and — frankly — you would mostly be right. Memory, after all, is one of the first faculties to be impaired by the stupid juice. But the practitioners of live-action bar trivia swear by this unique cocktail of brain teasers and liver wasters, and the steady rise of venues providing the pub quiz experience in Lawrence bear out its popularity.

Rather than the satellite trivia you’d find at any number of watering holes, basically video games utilizing touchpad controllers and televisions, these besotted pursuits of the trivial feel more like a low-rent game show. Common denominators are a flesh-and-blood host, questions written specifically for that night’s game, pitchers of beer, categories ranging from “Civil War history” to “The Cheech & Chong Canon” and a roomful of surly nerds furiously scribbling answers on slips of paper or dry erase boards. Buffalo wings are optional.

“As a trivia host I don’t want players to have access to chicken wings because, sooner or later, they are going to throw them at me,” says Andy Morton, the sardonic host of Smackdown trivia at the Bottleneck, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Smackdown is a more rambunctious version of live trivia, encouraging playful animosity both through the use of “smacks” — where your team can challenge another team to answer a question with the hopes of embarrassing them and gaining twice the points and its mock-confrontational host. “Hecklers and arguments are to be expected,” says Morton. “Part of my role is to be the ‘bad guy’ and provoke responses from the room. New teams don’t understand that when I host, I’m playing an exaggerated version of myself. It’s not personal, it’s business. Besides, if I actually believed half of the things that come out of my mouth, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house.”

Bawdy fun

Thanks to a constant stream of social lubricant, the very nature of live bar trivia is bound to be a bit bawdy. It’s less the genteel academia of “Jeopardy” and more the irreverent chaos of Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy.” And, pop-culture savants being pop-culture savants, everyone thinks they’re Sean Connery.

“I get heckled every week,” says Scott McDaniel, host of Brainville Trivia at both Johnny’s North and West, who arguably became the godfather of Lawrence’s trivia scene along with Tom Conroy when they started a quiz show at Kaspar’s Bar & Grill (now Conroy’s Pub) in May 1999.

“I make mistakes sometimes, and I always own up to them when I do. But more often than not I am right, and the person arguing is wrong. It’s not because I’m smarter. It’s because I have the answer in front of me, and I know what the facts are. I try to handle heckling like a stand-up comic would. I’m no Andy Morton. He’s a pro when it comes to that sort of thing. But heckling is part of the act, and I try to be ready for it. The truth is, though, I invite a certain amount of banter. Giving the host some grief is part of the live experience.”

That camaraderie and collegial busting of chops, for both player and host, is what sets bar trivia apart from it satellite and board game brethren. “The appeal is the live interaction with the hosts and other players,” says Debby Ziegler, organizer and frequent host of trivia at Zig & Mac’s since 2008.

“We have an outstanding group of people that play trivia at Zig & Mac’s. Ninety-nine percent of the time everyone has a great time and is very good-natured. There’s a lot of laughing and fun. Occasionally, someone may take the game very seriously — to the point of arguing or getting angry — but that rarely happens. We have, however, learned to always have a laptop on hand so we can confirm, and sometimes adapt, answers.”

With demand seemingly insatiable for live trivia in Lawrence, there’s no rest for these weary MCs of minutiae. “Bar trivia games are still relatively new to the U.S., particularly to the Midwest. I think it will continue to grow,” speculates McDaniel. “Questions can be tailored to older groups, younger groups, families, hipsters–you name it. The possibilities are endless.”

Live trivia in Lawrence

Brainville at Johnny’s North7 p.m. the second and fourth Wednesday of the monthFree to play, no limit on team size, winners receive $25 cash

Brainville at Johnny’s West

8 p.m. the first and third Tuesday of the monthFree to play, no limit on team size, winners receive $25 cash

Smackdown at The Bottleneck8 p.m. Sundays$5 per person to play, no limit on team size, winners divide the pot from admissions

Trivia at Zig & Mac’s9 p.m. Thursdays$10 per team, limit six people per team, winners receive gift cards to Zig & Mac’s

Trivia Night at Applebee’s9 p.m. FridaysFree to play, no limit on teams size, winner receive gift cards to Applebee’s.

Live Action Pub Trivia Show at Conroy7 p.m. Wednesdays$5 per person, no limit on team size, winners divide the pot from admissions.