As classes come to a close on Friday, the last thing that should be on students’ minds is pulling yet another all-nighter. However, thousands of students over the past 50 years have done exactly that, celebrating the final day of classes with the Williams Trivia Contest, a semi-annual, all-night trivia contest. This May, the contest will reach an incredible milestone: Last year’s winning team, “Toha Noa Noa,” will have the distinct honor of hosting the 100th edition of the contest on Friday.
The trivia contest is an eight-hour marathon consisting of on-air questions read over a live stream at williamstrivia.com, song identification questions that play on air and an assortment of bonus questions – or, to employ some Williams trivia slang, “boni” – released at regular intervals throughout the night. Students and alumni have already begun signing up for this year’s contest, which will run from 10 p.m. this Friday until 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. Teams compete to “win” the ultimate prize: the responsibility of running the 101st contest next January.
The trivia contest has come a long way from its humble origins in the spring of 1966. In the inaugural contest hosted by WCFM, Frank Ferry ’69 read questions over the air as listeners raced to be the first to call in with the answers. The contest ran from 12 a.m. until 2 p.m. the following day, with only one break at the seven-hour mark that was taken so Ferry could go get more questions. Evidently, the contest was a success; WCFM turned the event into a semi-annual contest.
After 50 years of trivia, the contest has created many inside jokes among participants. One tradition is the playing of “Five O’Clock World” by the Vogues at 5 a.m. Another is the use of the term “boni” as the plural of bonus. And, of course, the College’s trivia players have a special place in their hearts for the island nation of Tonga, which was immortalized in the College’s trivia lore 20 years ago when two teams finished the December 1986 contest in a tie for first place. The second tie-breaker question was, “What are Africa’s only three countries ruled by monarchies?” The team “All the Sugar, Twice the Caffeine” could only come up with two correct answers, putting as its third and incorrect answer, “The Pacific island nation of Tonga.” As a result, “Twice the Caffeine” lost by one-fifteenth of a point, and nearly every future contest has contained a question paying tribute to the “African monarchy” of Tonga. (For the curious, Lesotho, Morocco and Swaziland were the correct answers to the tie-breaker question.)
These traditions are important parts of the contest, but they don’t keep participants unfamiliar with the contest’s history from entering. “Part of what makes Williams Trivia interesting is its longevity and history,” Joe Iafrate ’14, who ran the 97th contest with the team “Polar Vortex,” said. “There are these throwbacks to old contests or teams, but not in such a way that discourages current students from participating.”
The first 77 contests were hosted at WCFM’s studio in the basement of Baxter Hall, and the next five years of contests were held in WCFM’s new studio in Prospect basement. However, a new era of trivia began when the team “Minnesota Pigpen” ran the first off-campus contest in January 2010. Seven of the next nine contests were held off-campus, and the team “Noumenal Yodelling” ran the first international contest while studying abroad at the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford.
While online streaming and Google Docs make it possible to participate in (and run!) the trivia contest from just about anywhere, it also has its downsides. “Part of the fun of trivia was physically sending people from your dorm to Baxter every hour to drop off the last bonus and pick up the new one,” Dave Letzler ’06 said. “The fact that, in January 2004, there was an overnight low of about -13 degrees (with wind chill about -45 degrees) was just part of the experience.”
In past contests, teams would also need to send members to the radio station every hour on the half-hour for “action boni.” Teams might be challenged with a spelling bee (often with words like “Boyz II Men” or “Cap’n Crunch”) or tasked with singing a song in the style of William Shatner. Absurd props, like a life-sized cutout of Dr. Spock, were commonplace, and nudity was a recurring theme among skits. In one contest during the early 2000s, the team hosting the contest had to request over the radio that teams stop sending topless participants just to try and get easy points.
Once teams began hosting contests off-campus, the action bonus nearly became extinct. However, in recent years action boni have been making a comeback thanks largely to the growing convenience of uploading Youtube videos. During the last contest, 20 teams sent in “a short intro (and only an intro!) for a pornographic film,” and a dozen teams remained awake enough at 5 a.m. to show off their best pillow forts.
“The differences [from past contests] are almost entirely logistical and technological,” Des Devlin ’89, former trivia competitor and one of the hosts of this year’s contest, said. “The general spirit and creativity and camaraderie and amusement of the game are the same as they ever were and in some ways, better.”
Devlin is part of a team of trivia veterans who won January’s contest as part of team Toha Noa Noa, the Tongan word for 100. The team will be broadcasting the 100th contest from Ann Arbor, Mich. starting at 9:45 p.m. this Friday on the Williams Trivia website. After a record-breaking 54 teams participated in the last contest, Toha Noa Noa hopes to see a strong turnout for Friday’s historic contest.
“The number one thing is to try it,” Devlin said. “Not only are you guaranteed to know many things, but if you’re on a team, there will be times when you’ll be the only person to know a particular thing. And that’s a great feeling.”