February 7, 2002
A Trivial Pursuit
You don't plan to become a trivia writer, it just happens. The next thing you know, you're a one-woman trivia carnival, packing up your trunk of battered almanacs and dictionaries and moving on to the next show.
"Goodbye, guys," you say, because you're often the only female on the team. "And who stole my Bartlett's?"
This was the case last Friday, as I wrapped up a five-week stint on my fifth game show since moving to Hollywood.
What is "career stagnation"? You are correct.
I've never met a trivia writer that wants to be a trivia writer. Some of us want to be screenwriters, others comedians, sitcom writers, novelists. We're like actors who came here to play Hamlet and end up playing the bellhop in "Hotel Sodom 6." Trivia is our porno. We tell ourselves we'll never do another one; we'll never go back, but the lure is too much. Game shows beckon.
The money is pretty decent. And technically, we're still in show business, working on studio lots with producers and television executives. Words we write do appear on television. We may be on the slag heap of Hollywood writers, but at least we're making a living.
Everyone's path is different, but here's how I accidentally became a trivia writer. A comedian friend recommended me for a job on a comedy game show, I wrote a sample of jokes and questions and was hired. The joke-writing aspect of that job rescued it from the taint of trivia.
After that, I began getting referred to other shows, "straight" Q&A type shows. I was usually broke at the time and thought, "it's only a month" or "it's only four months." I was always grateful for the work, but felt a little like I was entering what my dad calls the Dr. Faustus Pawn Shop, where you sell your soul and hope they pay you enough to buy it back.
What is a typical day in the life of a trivia monkey? You get a quota, meaning you have a certain number of questions to write each day. Topics vary from the "meat and potatoes" categories of science, history and geography to the "chick" categories for which I'm usually brought in -- pop culture, art, fashion -- although, for a chick, I do write my fair share of sports questions. Nicknames are my bread and butter. If you see a question about "White Chocolate" or "The Mailman," it was probably mine.
In game show argot, some questions get "killed." They aren't interesting enough, they're too hard or too easy. A question might be deemed "too Jewish" or "too female" or even "too ethnic." An example of this was a recent big-money, multiple-choice question I wrote asking the surname of the title character in the best-seller, "Tuesdays With Morrie." The answer: Schwartz. The verdict: too Jewish for network prime time.
There are speed demons who finish their quota and run off to meetings or auditions. Others practically move in, sleeping on the office couch and toiling in the trivia mines until all hours, fueled by Red Bull, Red Vines and takeout. Either way, trivia is nothing if not draining.
As in all jobs, there are those who have been institutionalized, who get defeated when a question dies, crying, "My questions are like my children." This is just sad. Still, losing perspective can mean gaining dignity. If you think about how silly the shows are, how small our part is in them, how trivial trivia can be, you will be paralyzed staring at a list of state mottos and wanting to hoist yourself out of the window of the writers' room.
Wait. There are no windows. Game show security is so stringent these days that writers are usually sequestered in windowless rooms. All documents that aren't used are shredded. Tensions run high, and the people at the top take it very, very seriously. See above adage about losing perspective to gain dignity.
Cheesy trivia books and "fun fact" Web sites are frowned upon. Even at our low level, we strive to think our occupation requires some modicum of creativity. Never, ever let anyone see you with Trivial Pursuit cards. That is the last refuge of trivia scoundrels.
Occasionally, while crafting a question about Rodin or "Road Rules" or Rhode Island, a debate will break out in the room. We'll put down our quotas for the eternal question about which of us will "make it out."
I maintain the grudgingly positive attitude that I'm lucky to have a skill that pays the bills and doesn't involve saying, "Hello, I'm Teresa. Do you have a moment to answer a few questions about your long-distance plan?"
If you want to feel that you matter, that you have something to say, that your life has meaning, you can't always find that where you work. For some things, you've just got to phone a friend.
Teresa Strasser is now on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com . She will be appearing in "The Teresa Monologues," April 28 at the University of Judaism. For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.