Jack of all trades; Ken Jennings of none.

UPDATED! See below.

About two years ago, right in the middle of Ken Jennings' record-setting know-it-all juggernaut, I tried out for Jeopardy! Getting on the show had been and remains a lifelong dream of mine--okay, maybe not a dream exactly, but definitely on the list of things to do just once before I die. Like publishing a short story in The New Yorker or finishing the NYT Sunday crossword. (Will Shortz, if you're reading this, you are the devil incarnate.) What can I say? I have an unhealthy relationship with minutiae and, as anyone who's ever played Trivial Pursuit or Cranium with me will attest, an even less healthy need to show off how much of it I can access.

Believe me, though, when I say that I have never confused recall with intelligence. A lot of people seem to think that, since most Jeopardy! champs exhibit the kind of facial ticks, sartorial retardation and grotesquely underdeveloped social skills we usually associate with geniuses, that they're wicked smaht. Most of them probably are genuinely bright and intellectually acute; hell, most of them are lawyers. But that's not why they excel on Jeopardy!. I don't consider myself smarter than the average bear, just preternaturally good at random recall of cultural ephemera. A zeitgeist sponge. A trivial savant, if you like. And, if I may say, a pretty snappy dresser (thanks entirely to my wife).

Long story short, I didn't get on. I didn't even get past the first test. Two and a half hours standing in line at the Biltmore Square Mall (which is about 135 minutes more than I had spent there up to that point), 3 minutes to come up with responses (phrased in the form of a question, natch) to 10 pretty hard but not mind-bending "answers." And 20 seconds for some pretty-boy proctor to glance over my sheet, purse his lips and say, "Sorry."

Me: So I didn't pass?
PBP: Nope.
Me: Can you tell me what I missed?
PBP: Nope. We don't really do that.
Me: Can you at least tell me how many I missed?
PBP: Nope. Sorry.
Me: Can you tell me where you bought that sweater so that I can have the place fire bombed and spare humanity any more pain? (Actually, that last bit was only in my head.)

Anyway, that was that.

Like I said, the questions were hard--mostly all Double Jeopardy!, lower-half of the board stuff. That I was expecting. The snooty, callous, goatherd (Next!) mentality of the dude behind the table is what really threw me. Remember the maitre d' at the restaurant in Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Like that, only without the 'stache. But there was no convincing him that I was Abe Frohman, the sausage king of Chicago, never mind the guy from whom Ken Jennings was going to get his ass handed to him.

So you'd think I learned my lesson. You'd be wrong.

Tonight is the online test to qualify for the VH1/Entertainment Weekly World Series of Pop Culture. The fact that it's all pop culture--no opera, no European royal family trees, no American Vice Presidential arcana--just fun facts and quotes from TV, movies and pop music is just enough to delude me into believing that I won't fall prey to any blind spots. That, and the sample questions were crazy easy.

Trouble is, my sobriquet notwithstanding, I probably have equally large weaknesses, to which I'm all but oblivious, when it comes to certain corners of the pop-culture landscape. They go too deep into The Simpsons, for example, and I'm screwed.

Am I a pop-culture genius? (Isn't that an oxymoron?) I don't know. Maybe. I'll let you know after the test.

So I took the 10 p.m. test. Overall, I don't think I did especially well; almost certainly not within the top 5% needed to qualify for the 'wild card' team.

The hardest part was the analogies. This is the category that separated the players (or playas) from the posers. One question in particular (that I can recall) compared character relationships on The Simpsons with those on Dallas. To succeed in this category, you basically have to have not gotten off your couch since the beginning of the Reagan administration.

I also had a lot of trouble, as expected, with song lyrics. Well, at least lyrics from the likes of Kelli Clarkson and R. Kelly. Or R. Kelly Clarkson.

My biggest disappointment was in movie quotes. I really thought I'd ace that one. But boy did they go wading in the bog of ultimate obscurity for some of those. One Crazy Summer, anyone?

I think I acquitted myself fairly well in the Body of Work category. If I came anywhere near 10/10, it was in knowing who was who and who was in what. Unfortunately, I don't think they're looking for category specialists.

So, alas, I don't expect my phone or my inbox to be lighting up any time soon with word from a VH1 production associate.

C'est la vie. C'est la guerre. C'est la pomme du terre.

And, for whatever it's worth, I think I'm actually better at Jeopardy! than at the more mainstream pop-culture stuff. Now, I'm just trying to take some solace in the idea that being a voracious consumer of popular and middlebrow culture is about enjoying the things I enjoy. There's plenty of odd detail that I sort of absorb from the ether, but I'd hate to feel like I have to actively remember every arcane detail of things in which I have absolutely no interest, simply for the sake of a trivia contest. That would just be sad. (Yes, I might be denigrating those who did better than I, just ever so slightly. I'm only the tiniest bit bitter, honest.)

Excelling at trivia is supposed to be the icing on the cultural cake, right? Well, that's my story, anyway. And, like Colin Quinn, I'm sticking to it.


Danny said...

Good luck, Roger. May the force be with you. (How 'bout that for an obscure pop culture reference!)

fish said...

Good luck. May you find your Warholic muse...

Mr. Middlebrow said...

Thanks for the good will, gents.

Anonymous said...

My husband, too, excels at trivia. The way a mind works to be able to do this is impressive and baffling to people like me. He has infuriated a few colleagues with his weird bits of info.
Coworker: (talking to another coworker) "...those muscles, you know, on your side..." (pointing to them)
Paul: "Obliques" (he learned this one from me)
Coworker: "Do you just know EVERYTHING?"

The last time I was at book club, a friend was telling another woman about my blog. She asked me, "Now, what was the quote you have on there?" I went blank. (I can't even remember my OWN trivia...)