Press: A SHORT HISTORY of TORONTO TRIVIA in SPRING by ALEXANDER LYLE

September 15, 2014


photo courtesy of Justin Eastman Media


Press Note: The following article was written by Ryerson journalism student Alexander Lyle in April of 2014, and features not only an insight on Trivia Club but also a perspective on Terrance Balazo and his pub trivia career, it's impact on trivia nights in Toronto, and why we do what we do. Mr. Lyle was also present at the May 20th edition of Trivia Club at Lou Dawg's.

The only free seats in the dim upstairs barroom on a corner of Mirvish Village were at the two-man booths. Patrons in their twenties occupied the bigger tables and lined the bar. It was a cold February night suited to this section of the Victory Café’s cabin feel. Terrance Balazo walked around the room, depositing sheets of paper and pens at the tables. At 8 p.m., his voice came over the sound system and the conversations quietened. It was time for his weekly trivia night to begin.

The first round of 10 questions read by Balazo, with the deep voice and enunciation of a radio host, suggested the night wouldn’t be easy. It required identification of the last film to win Oscars for both leading actor and actress (As Good as It Gets), the nickname of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (Tommy John surgery) and the war referred to by some historians as the “forgotten war” (the Korean War).

But Balazo supplied mockery and self-deprecation in addition to tough questions. He made fun of Ryan Phillippe after asking from which novel Cruel Intentions was adapted (Dangerous Liaisons). “If the host isn’t engaged with the audience or having fun, I think it takes away part of the enjoyment,” Balazo said. “‘Cause, you see, it’s not a serious night. In the grand scheme of things, a quiz night doesn’t really matter, no one’s saving lives, right?”

Balazo is the gatekeeper of this partially drunken, knowledge-based fun at three different Toronto establishments a week. He isn’t the only busy host in the city: Russel Harder runs four different regular trivia nights, which adds up to about 10 a month. It’s a job with benefits beyond being paid to spend evenings in bars. “It really is very fun and then once you actually get to the location there and you’re able to hang out with people and to share common interests, that’s wonderful,” said Harder. 

Balazo got into trivia hosting about 8½ years ago. The trivia host at the bar where he was hosting a comedy night quit, and Balazo was tagged as the replacement despite having no experience. There were about five regular trivia nights in Toronto then, but roughly five years ago he noticed other bars starting their own nights, and in the past three years or so is when trivia “exploded”, according to Balazo. Harder was part of the boom: he started hosting about two years ago. Pub trivia nights are now common on weeknights in the city and range from general trivia to a seasons 1-10 Simpsons quiz, held monthly at the Cadillac Lounge. Pub trivia is popular elsewhere, too. It’s growing quickly in Vancouver, for example.

It took a while for people to realize how fun trivia nights could be and for bars to recognize the profit potential. “I think the idea of stopping a whole crowd for 20 minutes to do one thing seemed a bit weird to a lot of bars,” said Balazo. “But now, because they’re so popular, I think a lot more places are getting onto that and want to start the social night of a trivia night or a bingo night or something like that.”   

The winning team for each round at Balazo’s Victory Café quizzes receives a plate of food, and the team with the highest score for the night gets a $50 voucher. Winners of Harder’s quizzes are awarded the “Golden VHS”, a video cassette of his choosing that he finds at places like second-hand stores, and spray-paints gold. It’s “a watchable movie with a very memorable night attached to it,” according to Harder. But the prizes aren’t the only incentive to play. It’s a social opportunity and a way to show off knowledge to friends.

A good trivia question, according to Balazo, has a recognizable answer. Whether you get it right or wrong, hearing the answer should make you say, “Oh, of course” or “That makes sense”. There’s no fun in questions that are too hard for everyone, which is part of Harder’s success. “He seems to pick stuff that at least one person in the place always knows,” said Chris O’Leary, a regular at Harder’s Tuesday night quizzes.

The presentation of those questions is important for audience enjoyment. “I’ve been to trivia nights where they’re just reading off a set of questions that were sent to them and it’s very, very, very boring,” said Greg Hill, who has attended Balazo’s trivia nights for at least five years. “But when you have a really good presenter like Terrance Balazo here, it adds a lot to the entertainment value as well.”

Thematically grouping questions can add interest to the rounds, and is done by both Balazo and Harder. On that night at the Victory Café, the lyrics of the 10 songs Balazo played were all sung by someone other than the lead singer of the band. A bonus mark was awarded to those who identified the common element. “I’ve been to other trivia nights and it’s just a bunch of random, disjointed questions and that becomes a lot less fun,” said Hill.

There are online trivia-writing resources that help hosts formulate questions. Harder also files interesting things he’s read into a database he uses for inspiration when writing questions in his spare time or over meals. There can be pressure to get the questions right so patrons will enjoy the night, but quiz writing doesn’t have to be an arduous process. Balazo takes about four hours to write a quiz and sometimes does it on the same day of the trivia night. Selecting songs for the music round takes him the most time.   

The pubs don’t meddle with the questions or format of the night. Balazo has changed whole music rounds based on who showed up because he figured they’d prefer a different theme to the one he had chosen. The crowds have different characteristics depending on the venue. The Victory Café normally has a young and enthused audience of regulars, for example, while the clientele at the Fox and Fiddle on Yonge Street’s Tuesday quizzes is older.

On top of those perks, Balazo and Harder make enough money to get by from just trivia, which in Balazo’s case includes writing the quiz page for Maclean’s and hosting private gigs. Both still have jobs outside of trivia.

Despite all this, competition among Toronto hosts isn’t all that fiery. Balazo knows a lot of the other hosts, with some of them starting their nights after originally attending his. Ben Joseph, who hosts the monthly trivia at the Magpie Taproom, filled in for Balazo recently at the Victory Café.

A good host will earn the loyalty of a bar manager. The Magpie wouldn’t consider replacing its hosts because they are good at what they do and because they’ve been loyal. “It’s become a staple within the community and the neighbourhood,” said Tania Henriquez, who helps her husband manage the bar. “There’s just a lot of loyalty both ways.” But not all hosting gigs last. Eddie Majnemer hosted the trivia night at Lou Dawg’s Ryerson for about six months before being replaced by Harder and his unique quiz format.

At one of his weekly Tuesday quizzes at that Lou Dawg’s, Harder walked around the narrow, wood-panelled barroom with a microphone, reading questions from his phone. He was facing a room with soft background music playing and the foosball table sitting idle, the snippets of liveliness provided by interaction between him and the participants. The first round of traditional questions, the kind that ask which bartender Woody Boyd replaced in Cheers (Coach), had given way to the game show round. The Price is Right-style question asked the four teams to yell out a guess one at a time for how much money the film Heat made domestically ($67 million). The Family Feud-inspired portion asked for the top five survey answers to “I have nothing to blank” (“wear” was the top answer). Harder’s own formulation was in play for the question asking how many Oreo cookies are in an 18-ounce package (45). The leading team got first go at shouting out an answer, but with each failed attempt, the next team on the leader board got a chance to guess, but for one less point each time.

The third round featured each team picking a category supplied by Harder. The “Oh, Cana-duh!” question asked which provincial capital was Canada’s main naval base during World War II (Halifax), and the “Oscars” question asked from which film Joss Whedon’s sole nomination came (Toy Story). Harder stood in the middle of the room after the round was over and announced the Beer Barons were that night’s winners. Applause rose from the table of the first-time champs, who were awarded the Men in Black Golden VHS. Harder signed off with “It's not what you know, it's what you learn along the way!”

Plenty of pubs and bars in Toronto don’t host trivia nights like that. One reason is not everyone is suited to playing the intellectual or affable host role in a pub setting. Balazo, Harder and Majnemer all have experience in either stand-up comedy or improv. That experience helped Majnemer quiet hecklers and keep people from yelling out answers, spoiling the night. “You’ve got to be the kind of person who can react to that positively and spin it into something that helps you,” he said. It also takes charisma to hold the audience’s attention for a couple of hours and keep the night from losing steam. 

Another reason is people don’t think of hosting as a way to make money. Balazo didn’t plan on hosting multiple quizzes a week and Harder didn’t expect the success he’s had. But to develop a relationship with a bar and a crowd, and therefore make money, takes time. Majnemer said a lot of people could be too busy to make that effort their first priority, and becoming a fulltime host would require more time and effort than the pay is worth. “A fulltime pub quiz host, I don’t think that’ll happen,” he said.

There’s the little things to consider too, like supplying the paper and pens. Balazo spends a lot of time at Staples. “I think I’m keeping Bic in business,” he said.    

Not all bars want to host trivia nights, either. C’est What in Toronto won’t do it, reasoning they’re common enough elsewhere. A bar needs to be the right shape and size to enable easy communication between host and participants, and having a good sound system and video screen helps. Trivia-goers also aren’t big spenders. “They have a target of 10, 20 dollars that they’re going to spend and they remain within that,” said Shote Ndreka, who manages the Victory Café.

After the music round was over and the final lot of answer-checking was complete, Balazo collected the sheets from each table. With the final tallying of points done, he announced the winners. Egon’s Ghost got third place, Jesus’ Ass was runner-up and the winners were The Facepunch. A smattering of cheers marked the end of the quiz.

Balazo left his post at the stage and talked with participants. With the quiz complete and prizes accounted for, he was now just a pub-goer himself – albeit one you could direct your trivia gripes toward. Some groups stayed behind to talk with him, others just among themselves. But the crowd thinned out quickly after Balazo’s final words from the sound system. The patrons left pretty much the same, except now they knew the world’s first plastic credit card was issued by American Express.

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