Noah Tarnow lost Jeopardy! by $600, so he started his own game show and trivia quiz company, Big Quiz Thing. (It’s more complicated than that, but only slightly.) The New York-based former stand-up comedian, who wrote his senior thesis about Batman, runs monthly games in Gotham, Boston, and other cities. He’s a panelist on NPR’s “Ask Me Another” and also works as copy chief for Time Out New York. Tarnow has written thousands of trivia questions and is one smart dude. We talked about school smarts versus street smarts, being smart versus being good at trivia, and why you should know Genghis Kahn.
What was your educational background growing up?
I was a good student. I was never the best student. My parents were very demanding in terms of schoolwork. Good grades were very important in my family to the point that, rightly or wrongly, I had internalized that it was important to work hard and do well in school. That carries over to adulthood in that I feel like I have high standards.
I don’t mean to say that my parents are autocrats. They weren’t perfect parents, but they are very warm people and I have a very good relationship with them now. It was really burned into me that it was important to do well in school and, in some ways, it was important to please authority. That helps you do better in school, but I’m not sure how important that is in life. There are a lot of moments in my life where I wish I had challenged authority even more.
I went to public school until I was 15, when we moved to Canada, but we lived in a really good school district in New Jersey. My sister went to the same district. She went to an Ivy League school. I was in the top classes, but I was never the top kid. I read a lot. My parents encouraged that. They are both readers. Something I think is very important is to grow up in a household that encourages learning and education.
That being said, I watched a ton of TV. Really crappy stuff. It’s not like we lived in a home where we couldn’t listen to popular music. I was a normal kid. I read superhero comic books and watched pro wrestling. I was pretty lowbrow. I think that’s really important. I don’t have kids, but I see kids being raised now, and I think one of the most important things is to encourage reading and to encourage an atmosphere where education is important. I think that’s a big problem in our society. If you look at a lot of dummies and go back to the homes where they grew up, there aren’t a lot of books around. It makes a difference.
I got good grades. I was a smart kid in terms of school. I’m pretty hard on myself, but I think I was pretty dumb in terms of street smarts. I think I needed a lot more real-world education. As a result, it’s taken me awhile to really be a smart adult in terms of being in control of my life. I don’t think I’m unusual in that sense.
“We teach kids how to read but we don’t teach them how to watch TV or movies. I think that’s just as important, if not more important, because it’s how people process information now.”
Have you actively tried to gain those street smarts?
How else do you learn? You get thrown overboard and you learn to swim. A lot of it is forcing yourself to do it. People bemoan helicopter parents, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. You have to let people make their own mistakes. I ran away from challenges a lot. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had challenged authority a little more. So yes, while I am and was smart in terms of “I know a lot of junk,” there are a lot of elements of smart that I didn’t have, and still don’t have, that I think are more important. If I had a child, I’d think about that a lot. Success isn’t getting everything you want. Success is dealing with things when you don’t get what you want and bouncing back.
You wrote your senior thesis about Batman. It’s called “Dark Knight Over America: Batman as Pop Culture Icon.” That’s awesome.
I was a real comic book geek, especially in high school. I was obsessed with the idea of the man who suffers tragedy and from that he makes himself the best human being possible. It also was a good time for it. I went to high school when the Tim Burton movies were coming out. Batman was becoming more mainstream.
In college, the nerd in me was all wrapped up in reading comics a lot and opining about them. I wanted to study popular culture. I had a philosophy, which I think has borne out to be true, that understanding media and media literacy is a huge gap in education in this country. We teach kids how to read but we don’t teach them how to watch TV or movies. I think that’s just as important, if not more important, because it’s how people process information now. The reason people are fucking dummies now is because they don’t know how movies, commercials, and TV are manipulated. They don’t know how to process that and have a cynical view of that.
I was really into that idea. I majored in American studies and minored in media studies. I thought about trying to carve out a special major in popular culture, but I wimped out. All the professors I talked to thought it was a stupid idea. When I proposed writing my thesis on Batman, the head of the American Studies department said it was too narrow an idea, which seemed ridiculous since all these people were writing their theses on one book that came out 50 years ago. He was a bit of a snob, but I got him thinking on it, and he said “fine.” I think I did a pretty good job. I was a little too close to the subject.
Trivia and intelligence seem like two circles of a Venn diagram that overlap some but not all the way. Fair?
Totally. I often get people telling me that they wouldn’t do well at the show because they aren’t good at trivia. I used to tell people they would be fine because they were smart and educated. I’ve since come to believe that it’s not always true. There are some very intelligent people who don’t do well because their minds don’t work that way.
I’m not a super genius. I know almost nothing about science. There is plenty of stuff I read that goes over my head. What I have is a real good mind for facts and for making connections. I think a good trivia player, and a good trivia writer, has a mind like that. And yes, those people are intelligent but it’s a certain type of intelligence.
That being said, I pride myself on designing games and writing questions that play more to a wider range of intelligent people. It’s about making connections. The term I like to use that I’ve semi-trademarked is “figureoutable.” What’s the capital of Burundi? Either you know that or you don’t. Then there’s a question like, What racquet game is named after the sound the ball makes when you hit it? No one knows that off-hand, but, if you think about it, odds are that you will come up with it. And it’s a fun process. [Editor's note: Ping-Pong. Your humble interviewer had no idea.]
Coming up with questions like that all the time seems very hard to do.
That’s the part I like the most. I started doing this because I wanted to write trivia questions and I couldn’t get anyone to pay me. Sometimes it’s tough, especially for topics I am not an expert in, but I love it. Frankly, I think I’m good at it, and over the years I’ve gotten better at it.
How many do you write a month?
I don’t know. Maybe 50? I recycle a lot, especially for private parties. There are questions I’ve asked hundreds of times.
With Google and smartphones and the Internet everywhere, we have constant access to information. In the time you’ve been doing trivia games, have you noticed a decrease in peoples’ ability to pull facts from their brains?
In terms of trivia games, no. Part of the reason I think trivia has become more popular in a way is that because we are suffused with information, people are looking for a way to use it. I think trivia games and, for that matter, Internet message boards, give us a way to do that. Not necessarily for something useful but to play with it. I think people are looking for ways to re-purpose that. There’s a gap. What do I do with all this bullshit floating in my brain?
I suppose that the type of questions you ask—the “figureoutable” ones—don’t entirely rely upon facts as much either.
True, but in fairness, some baseline knowledge is necessary. One of the other questions I like a lot is “the largest airport in Mongolia is named after which historical figure?” Unless you have been to Mongolia recently, you probably don’t know right away. But it’s not a hard question. Think of a historical figure from Mongolia.
Genghis Khan. [Editor's note: Nailed it.] But if I asked that question to an eight-year-old, they probably wouldn’t know. And I’m sure there are smart people whose brains wouldn’t make that connection.
Do you still read a lot?
I read a lot of news online and blogs. I read The New Yorker and New York every week. I do read books. I’m always in the middle of some book. I stopped reading comic books some years ago, but I was a big comic geek until my early 30s. I pick stuff up, but I’m not a huge book person. There are plenty of classic books I haven’t read. I feel like reading is the air you breathe and that anyone who doesn’t read something is kind of sad.
You’re also the copy chief at Time Out New York. It seems like there is some crossover between doing that and the trivia.
I was really good at math when I was a kid, but I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t find math to be relevant, whereas I would find humanities stuff to be relevant. I view copy editing, and to an extent trivia, as a form of math with words and information. It’s applying rules to get concrete answers and results. I feel like it really works well with my brain. It’s a more interesting version of math. I’m not someone who hates ambiguity or sees everything in black and white. I like debating issues. But, on the other hand, I’m very much about rules and fair play. I like when you can plug A and B into a format and something pops out. One of the reasons I love designing games is because I can set up the rules and figure out how things work. Both copy editing and trivia are about creating structures. They are like logic puzzles.
Who should I talk to next?
Jonathan Corbblah. He comes to my show a lot. He’s one of the few guys who plays trivia all over the city. He’s a professional poker player, teaches kids chess, and has been on 10 or 12 game shows. I think he’s a genius.