Question: What would it take for you, after a long, long week of work, to sacrifice your Saturday, schlep to Rockville, and entomb yourself for several hours in an industrial park? A.) Coercion? Or B.) The chance to win fluorescent yellow nose plugs on Local Quizine, a public-access cable quiz show?
In my case, of course, the answer is A. (Now, don’t get me wrong, I was secretly thrilled when a high-school teacher encouraged me to try out for It’s Academic. I didn’t, because auditioning would have branded me as a nerd, a wonk, a poindexter, an Einstein, a brainiac, a Mr. Peabody.) But some people are willing to embrace the geek within no matter what the reward, as I discovered last Saturday at the Montgomery Community Television studios.
“We give away junk from a dollar store as prizes, but still we get people to come on the show!” exclaims David Fialkoff, the creator and host of Local Quizine. Two years ago, armed with an episode shot in his basement, Fialkoff persuaded the station’s programmers to air his show. It is now broadcast to all, repeat all, of Montgomery County. Every three months or so, Fialkoff tapes two shows.
Quizine goes like this: Four contestants compete. In the first round, two of them are given a category—say “Union generals”—and Fialkoff reads a list of items. The contestants alternate, answering “yes” if an item belongs in the category, or “no” if it doesn’t. When a contestant answers incorrectly, saying “yes,” for example, to Nathan Bedford Forest, his or her opponent gets one point, and continues in the category for a possible three additional points. The two winners of Round 1 matches meet in Round 2, where instead of answering yes or no, contestants must provide items to fit the assigned category. The winner of that round proceeds to the prize round, where…oh, I forget.
Today’s first episode matches the wits of Lenny Levy and Marie Unger. Lenny, an attorney built along the lines of our 27th president, is also a stand-up comedian who has appeared twice on Grins, another MCTV show. Marie is a shaggy blonde wearing a shapeless blue- denim dress, who “plays baseball and softball and reads for a living.” She grows visibly nervous during the sound check, when a disembodied voice from the control room asks her to repeat: “I was born in a middle-class family. I’m still in one. I can’t figure out what happened. It got me into college and it got me out.”
While the sound check drags on, the audience—the two other contestants, Dotty and Geoff, Geoff’s fiancée, and me—grows restless. The fiancée, who works with Fialkoff at a small legal publisher neither one wants named, apologizes to her betrothed, whom she’s dragged here because another contestant begged off at the last minute. “Don’t worry,” Geoff reassures her. “What else would I be doing now? Sitting reading the paper or watching Bugs Bunny?”
Geoff, who resembles a young George Will, is a history graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Though he’s just subbing for the errant contestant, Geoff’s quick to tell me that he qualified for Jeopardy in ’92 and ’93. “I’ve never been called,” he sighs. “I think it’s ’cause they get a lot of white guys from D.C. who qualify. They want diversity.”
The perils of affirmative action, I think, then ask the gang what time the show airs.
“I think it goes on at 2 o’clock,” says the fiancée.
“P.m. or a.m.?” asks Geoff. The fiancée shrugs, so Geoff turns to Dotty, “Do you know?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Dotty laughs.
The red camera light goes on, and mustering his best Trebekian tone, Fialkoff begins the show: “Welcome to Local Quizine, the quiz show for people who don’t plan to be in the Los Angeles area.”
Lenny and Marie battle through Kipling characters, Caribbean islands, events of the ’50s, inventions of Thomas Edison (Bunsen burner—no; Geiger counter—no; diesel engine—no; quadraplex telegraph—yes), baseball players with a .400 average, songs from Sgt. Pepper’s, Swedes (not Ibsen), and prime numbers. I am too, um, enthralled to follow the scorekeeping, but Lenny wins, 8-4. The vanquished Marie slouches off the set, muttering, “I can’t believe I missed the baseball question.”
The game continues as Geoff and Dotty take the stage. Despite Jeopardy training, Geoff fumbles the Campbell’s Soup category. He answers “no” to cream of chicken, allowing Dotty to score four points. Geoff never recovers.
Lenny and Dotty face off for the big loot. It’s a weak round. The opening question is “Wives of Henry the VIII.” Lenny correctly guesses Anne Boleyn, while Dotty errs by rebutting with Jane Grey. (As everyone knows, Jane Grey, the 15-year-old niece of Henry, seized the throne for nine days before being killed by partisans of her cousin, “Bloody” Mary Tudor. Perhaps Dotty is referring to Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. She is not to be confused with the actress who rose to prominence in the James Bond film Live and Let Die). Going for points, Lenny recalls Anne of Cleves, arguably the most obscure, and according to the monarch himself the ugliest of Henry’s wives, but comes up short on the other four. Lenny and Dotty also miss 50 percent of Liz Taylor’s husbands—including local favorite John Warner—and recall only one Toni Morrison novel, Beloved. (Song of Solomon, duh!) Lenny triumphs, 7-5.
In the prize round, Lenny qualifies for two of three lovely gifts. He forgoes the nose plugs in favor of a food storage dish and a pocket book of facts.
The second group of minor characters in this Confederacy of Dunces arrives, and with them my Ignatius, the bait Fialkoff used to lure me here: Martin Morse Wooster. A rotund and brooding man who has occasionally written for Washington City Paper, Wooster enjoys composing vituperative missives attacking the integrity and accuracy of journalists.
This is Wooster’s second time on the show. During his first appearance, an inaccurate question denied him victory, so Fialkoff has invited him to return. Wooster’s parents are here, too, perhaps as witnesses.
Actually, everyone on this second show has battled on Local Quizine before. Fialkoff’s running out of new blood. “I’ve asked everyone I know—even my insurance salesman has been on,” he laughs. “OK, I admit it. It’s a vanity production.”
Ana Kurland faces off against Hillary Goldberg in Round 1. Ana’s hubby, Brian Kurland, will duel Wooster in Round 2. Brian’s not above dissing his better half, as she prepares onstage. “I usually win most of our Trivial Pursuit games,” he confides. Like Geoff, Brian has qualified several times for Jeopardy, but has never been called. “I think you have to display an advanced education. I only have a B.A., and can’t b.s. much more than that. So I have to be content with this,” he says, gesturing to the studio.
Brian gazes reverently at Fialkoff, who made it on to Jeopardy after sending in 1,000 postcards to ensure a tryout. “Now they only allow one per person,” Fialkoff says proudly. Fialkoff, who appeared on the show in April, blew his lead in final Jeopardy (topic: U.S. presidents), when he missed the question: “Emily Tennessee Donelson served as this president’s first lady because his wife died seven days before his inauguration.”
“If it weren’t for Andrew Jackson, I would have had $8,000 and somebody else would have a NordicTrack,” Fialkoff says bitterly. “I was supposed to get a year’s supply of Pearl White. I got one tube and six boxes of Wash ‘n’ Curl instead. Real useful,” he laughs, touching his balding head.
Hillary, or “Miss Trivia” as she’s known to her friends, adds that the highlight of her attempt to get on Jeopardy came in the tryout’s mock round, where she went head to head with Herbie Stempel, the man who blew the whistle on Charles Van Doren in the 21 quiz show scandal.
Hillary and Ana’s round commences. But the audience is distracted by the snoring of Wooster senior, a sound occasionally punctuated when he briefly wakes to mumble an answer to Fialkoff’s questions.
Hillary bests Ana, ending all hopes of a Kurland vs. Kurland final. “Occasion!” Brian says sarcastically to wife as she takes her seat in the audience, referring to a missed “words with two “C’s’ ” question. “Hey, you’re the speller,” Ana retorts. “English isn’t even my native language.”
Martin and Brian take the stage, and by the second category—card games—Wooster is already challenging the judges. Cribbage does not use cards, Wooster insists. “Yes, it does,” his father mutters. “Gee, I sure hope I’m right,” says Fialkoff nervously, “I don’t want to bring you back.”
The game slogs through equations that equal four, battles of World War II (“Battle of the Bulge,” growls Wooster senior from his seat), works by French authors. Then, all of the sudden, calamity. The director misses the “30 seconds” cue from the control room and the game abruptly ends without a clear winner. So Fialkoff decides to revisit the first category—people over 50—for a tie breaker. Wooster promptly flubs on Jimmy Albert, loses, and stomps off in a way that implies he suspects a fixed game.
Fialkoff runs after him. Returning, he announces: “I just want everyone to know that I did give Martin the nose plugs. I want that on the record.” Then, under his breath, “There’s just something about that guy.”
The scandal has unnerved the contestants, and it shows in Brian and Hillary’s final round. Brian double faults on women tennis players ranked No. 1, then passes on characters in Little Women. Hillary seizes the opening and scores four crucial points. She wins and walks away with a coffee cup, a menu pad, and an onion holder.
Now, it’s Ana’s turn.
“Who has a crush on Tracy Austin?” she asks her husband sarcastically.
“I think she’s pretty. I didn’t know she was ranked No. 1,” Brian retorts. “It was Little Women that was the death of me.”
“Well you should have gone to the movie with me,” she scoffs.
Like most trivial pursuits, the day ends in a petty argument.
You can catch Local Quizine on the Open Channel at 10 p.m. June 27 and 3 p.m. June 28.