leisure pursuits

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Comes to Trivia Night in Williamsburg

The bar-trivia circuit has become such a fixture in this city that it’s surprising it hasn’t yet been co-opted by Big Trivia. But a turning point may have come on Wednesday night, when a producer from the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire visited one of Brooklyn’s most venerable pub quizzes in order to recruit contestants.

The producer, a willowy blonde woman named Shane Killoran, took the stage at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg just as trivia night was about to wrap up. “Hey, you guys!” she called out (she is one of those television people who put their hands in the air when they talk). The show, she said, was holding auditions for its ninth season. “We really want to test your knowledge and see if you can make some money off it!”

Killoran and another producer, Lauren McTague, made their way from the burlesque-y red stage through the bar’s narrow back room passing out fliers as the night’s co-hosts, Kraig Smith and Rich Dearing (a Yale Law–educated state attorney), finished tabulating the scores. The evening’s questions had required identifying songs and their artists, then combining them into “portmanteau” answers (“Patti La-Belle and Sebastian-Bach”); naming the ten action stars in the movie The Expendables and their highest-grossing films (for both Steve Austin and Terry Crews, it was The Longest Yard); recognizing the cover of Glenn Beck’s novel The Overton Window; and, for a bonus, estimating how many of the 3,700 words in Mel Gibson’s five recorded telephonic rants consisted of “fuck,” “fucking,” “bitch,” “cunt,” or “whore.”

(Full disclosure: I was on Millionaire a few years ago and won $100,000. I find the questions at Pete’s, where creative cluing and complex themes are valued, to be outrageously, infuriatingly difficult.)

Wednesday-night trivia at Pete’s has been going for at least a decade, originating back in the time when only Irish pubs did this sort of thing. Hosts rotate from week to week, and the top teams meet twice a year in a trivia Super Bowl, which some refer to as a trivia World Series. Ira Glass of “This American Life” and John Hodgman of The Daily Show once played here; Martha Plimpton was supposedly a regular for a while.

A team at a table near the front of the room was reminiscing about great trivia rounds past. There was the audio round that consisted of short bursts of something like 50 drum solos; Koven Smith, a drummer and composer, identified practically all of them. Trent Williams, a quiet 25-year-old who works in retail sales, killed it on a round about the city’s bridges and tunnels; a self-described “transit buff,” he has been drawing his own subway maps since he was 6, likes to make lists of bus and train schedules, and sometimes rides around the whole system for fun. There was the paragraph-long question whose answer was “Bi-Curious George Jefferson Starship Troopers.”

Smith once wrote a question where you had to get from R. Kelly to Joni Mitchell in six degrees of separation: “‘I’m a Flirt,’ R. Kelly with T-Pain, who was on ‘Chopped and Screwed’ with Ludacris, who was on ‘Gossip Folks’ with Missy Elliott, which was produced by Timbaland, who produced ‘Earth Intruders’ for Björk, and her song ‘Hidden Place’ was arranged by Vince Mendoza, who arranged a version of ‘Both Sides Now’ by Joni Mitchell,” Smith recalled, admitting, “I don’t know if anyone got that one.”

The team at the front suffered a narrow loss to a team in back that included my friends Brian Levinson, a pop-culture savant who won more than $70,000 on Jeopardy!, and Jason Heller, who estimates he’s missed no more than half a dozen Wednesday nights at Pete’s in the last nine years. Jason was my lifeline on Millionaire (which recently eliminated the Phone-a-Friend option), correctly answering a question about gravity on the moon.

After the producers left, competitors agreed that it was “weird” that Millionaire had been there. “Who here knows it’s even still on the air?” said 23-year-old Ian Forster, a lanky kid who works for PBS. “They said season nine, and I was like, ‘Are you serious?’”

Millionaire is nothing without Regis Philbin,” said Jonathan Munar, who is 30 and works with Forster. Philbin has not hosted the show since it went from prime-time to syndicated in 2002, when Meredith Vieira took over.

I think they show it at, like, 11 a.m.,” said Morgan Holzer, 30, who works on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Holzer doubted anybody they knew was watching at that hour, though she said she catches reruns on the Game Show Network.

Munar mused that it seemed presumptuous for Millionaire, the corporate behemoth, to be horning in on their scene. Forster pointed out that Munar was still in college when Millionaire was in prime time, so really, the show was here first.

When I was in sixth grade, my music teacher wanted to be on the show soooo bad,” Forster said. “She told us over and over, ‘If the phone rings, it’s Millionaire, and I might have to leave.’ She never got called. She never made it.”

Holzer said she would probably go try out for the show. “I just think it’s interesting to do something new like that,” she said. “And it’s free money.”

Millionaire holds auditions on the Upper West Side four days a week, from 5 to 7 p.m. Season nine premieres Monday, September 13, and airs at 12:30 p.m. every weekday on WABC, Channel 7. The answer to the Mel Gibson question is 137.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Comes to Trivia Night in Williamsburg