Masturbating bears and bayonettes

Spring 1966: Songs like “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Monday, Monday,” and “I Am a Rock” fill Top 40 radio. U.S. forces have just begun firing into Cambodia. Bill Russell becomes the first black coach of any pro team. Two of the 10 most popular shows airing on network television are “Batman” (the cliffhangers on Wednesdays, the Bat-conclusions on Thursdays). Mike Tyson is born. And here in Williamstown, freshman Franklyn Ferry has a brainstorm. On the last day of classes in the 1965-66 year, he takes to the WMS airwaves (WCFM’s call letters then) at midnight, and asks a trivia question. Then he asks another. And another.

Groups of students from the various houses and fraternities phone in, trying to answer. Ferry intends to go eight consecutive hours, but by 7 a.m. he runs out of material. He calls a timeout, promising to return with one more hour’s worth of questions. At noon, Ferry is back. But Williams D, the team that had been leading the contest, is not. They’re asleep. And so Garfield House engineers a come-from-behind victory to become the first-ever Williams Trivia Contest champions.

Thirty-five years later, Williams Trivia is one of the College’s most unusual and beloved traditions. In some ways, it remains the game that Ferry created all those years ago. At midnight, the host team reads its first question, and plays its first song. All around campus, dozens of fingers frantically begin dialing the seven or eight phone numbers on which operators are waiting. If they answer the question, they score one point. If they can name the song and who did it, they score another. Of course, not everything about today’s Trivia is the same as in the spring of 1966…

Spring 1972: The 12th contest becomes the first one to end with two teams in first place: the “Grand Duchy of Fenwick” and the “Bayonettes.” The “Free Tumblers,” that night’s hosts, announce an overtime. The first tiebreaker question: “What is the last line of dialogue in ?The Time Machine’?” Unfortunately for the Grand Duchy, Bayonettes counts among its members future filmmaker John Sayles, described by a teammate as “basically having seen every movie ever.” That included “The Time Machine,” and the Bayonettes emerged as champs.

By 1972, Trivia had added a few twists. Music had been a big part of the game for years. Hour Bonuses were added in 1968 by Morgan, the first all-frosh team to win the title. (Only two other frosh teams have finished in first since, in 1980, and again just one year ago, with “Holy Sack and the Resident Vomit Specialist.”) An Hour Bonus is an assortment of questions, sounds, or images, all about a central subject. The subject matter can be as basic as “Sports” or “Religion,” or as twisted as “Friendly Giants and Evil Dwarves,” or “Name That Stain!” ? a hand-out T-shirt on which 25 mystery substances had been ground into the white fabric.

Winter 1981: “Grape Nehi,” an all-star team of sorts, becomes the smallest team ever to win Williams Trivia. All eight of its members were powerhouses, though, each with multiple championships of the ’70s to his or her credit. One of its members, Mitch Katz, is also a phenomenal bookkeeper. Twenty-five years later, his vast store of contest material will provide a huge chunk of the online Williams Trivia archive.

The online archive is jam-packed with more Trivia lore and data than any sane person would ever want to wade through. Luckily, sane people are usually in short supply at any Williams Trivia contest. To view a list of every winning team ever, plus mountains of on-air questions, bonuses, scores, photos, comics, essays and other detritus, click on over to: http://wso.williams.edu/orgs/trivia.

Could an eight-person team win this Friday’s contest? It’s possible, but not as likely. Williams Trivia continued to expand and mutate in the 1980s. Action Trivia (an hourly feature in which teams actually send live performers down to Baxter Hall to act out some skit, song, or other act of trivial foolishness) became a more central part of the contest experience. Super Bonuses arrived; much larger than Hour Bonuses, worth more points, with quadruple the time to solve. Additional puzzles, challenges, and the dreaded Ultra Bonus added further spice to the Trivial stew.

Still, there’s no “right” amount of people to make up a Trivia team. Some teams consist of just a single motivated person. Others barely fill out a couch. Bigger groups might top 20 people. The longest-running team in contest history, the “Manhattan Skyliners,” is often one guy flying solo, and he’s been coming back to play since 1972. Now that WCFM’s signal can be heard on the internet, teams are playing from Texas, Chicago, California, North Carolina and even the nation of Micronesia.

And let us never forget that the “grand prize” for winning Williams Trivia is the same today as it was in the 1960s. The champs are obliged to create and host the following semester’s contest (That’s not a paying position, either). So, playing for fun isn’t just the common thing, it may be the smartest thing.

Winter 1986: A great three-team race ends with two large squads, “We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes” and “All the Sugar, Twice the Caffeine,” in a flatfooted tie. This time, five questions are asked in the first elimination round. Both teams go 3-1 on the same four questions. It’s all up to the geography question: “What three African countries are monarchies?” We Begin Bombing nails all three. Twice the Caffeine names two of the countries correctly, then guesses “Tonga” as its third answer. Tonga is a monarchy, all right, but it’s not located in Africa. And, thus, by one-fifteenth of one point in overtime, Caffeine loses the closest contest in history (Fifteen years later, Williams Trivia still salutes its most gruesome tragedy by asking a question about Tonga sometime between midnight and 8 a.m.).

That combination of heartbreak, tradition, and absurdity gives you an idea of why people play Williams Trivia and come back for more. But it’s not the whole picture.

It’s been said that Williams Trivia is the night devoted to all the things they never seem to teach you in class. What’s Peppermint Patty’s last name? Which pill does what in The Matrix? What classic rock album had a working zipper on its cover? Which current baseball pitcher has six fingers on his throwing hand? What ancient battle was won by hurling dead cats over the walls of a city?

Then there’s the music, perhaps 100 songs by one-hit wonders (and no-hit wonders), obscurities by top acts, just plain good stuff, and a few aural items whose sheer existence will leave you shaking your head in horror and amusement. Plus, every single song provides a hint or connection to the trivia answer… and vice versa!

There’s dozens and dozens of chances for you to get creative (and fast), whether through an inspired Action Trivia performance, being the only person on your team to know a particular answer, or via your team’s name itself. Any funny or interesting reference will work, but make sure you don’t pick “Evil Ninjas from Hell;” “A Gaggle of Small-Nosed Love Wenches;” “Masturbating Bear;” “Gravity is a Harsh Mistress;” “So Many Cats, So Few Recipes;” “Debussy (For Her Pleasure);” “The Least Hairy Thing in the Refrigerator;” “Phasers on Stun;” “Shiny Happy Tupperware of Doom;” “The Erotic Adventures of Hercules;” “My Second Favorite Organ;” “The Penultimate Mohican;” or “Leggo My Eggo, You Son of a Bitch.” They’ve been taken.

What is Williams Trivia? Well, according to “The Funk of 40,000 Years” (May 2000 champions), it’s “not your standard dry academic trivia contest: Trivia is a music-oriented, caffeine-infused, pop-culture-inspired, goofy all-night festival that gives you numerous opportunities to make a fool of yourself and delve into the treasure trove of useless knowledge in your head. It draws more alumni back to the college than homecoming. You want to play. Trust me.”

The 71st Williams Trivia contest begins at 11:45 p.m. this Friday, Dec. 7 on WCFM (91.9). It runs until 8:00 a.m., and the hosts, “I Say It’s Duck Season, and I Say ?Fire,’” guarantee it’ll make you smile. Have a radio. Have eight hours’ worth of food. Have a blank cassette. And have a good time. If the next few years of Williams Trivia are as entertaining as the last 35, you won’t want to miss ’em.