Paul Crenshaw

 

Trivial Pursuit

        In the seventies and eighties, all the game show hosts looked the same: the same polyester suits and wide, thick ties; the same dull brown hair that resembled combed cotton candy, flopped over sideways atop a brow that, no matter how many times the make-up people powdered it, still glistened faintly beneath the studio lights; same big smiling teeth; and the same inane observations handed down to each of the contestants.

        The contestants were the same as well, no matter what game show they were on. Occasionally someone showed up wearing a military uniform, but we’d long since learned that, despite the polished brass, they were usually dunderheads who would fail to recognize the obvious price for a can of stewed tomatoes or who did not know that the capital of Nebraska was not Wisconsin. The rest were middle-aged men with comb-overs and brown mustaches that resembled worn strips of shag carpeting. They usually wore glasses and practiced pensive looks when faced with a difficult question, as if they had a lecture which began shortly at the local university and were just killing time in cerebral ways. The women were always secretaries or stewardesses, either divorced—they always referred to themselves as “recently” divorced, or divorcées—or else had a “wonderful” husband at home, and three “gorgeous” children, Billy and Ricky and Sammy or Suzy and Sherri and Terri or Todd. They wore shoulder-pads and frilly scarf-tie combinations over pale blue blouses, and shook their heads slowly, often biting their bottom lip, when they did not know which president had been shot in Ford’s Theatre, or what was the longest river in the world.

        One game show could be substituted for another. There was the one with the wheel, and the one with the whammies. One with words and another with notes. A pyramid and a password. They had different names and different contestants and different hosts, but still they tended to blur together between nine and eleven in the morning and again from four to seven in the evening.

        My grandfather watched them all. He was retired, and enjoyed recalling the vast amount of trivia he had stored up over the years. I often wondered what he was thinking as the contestant furrowed his brow at whatever clue had been given. Here was a man who’d lived over seventy years, and who’d decided to spend his golden age trying to decode cryptic passwords delivered in emotive language.

        “It’s ‘A Shot in the Dark,’ Dodo,” my grandfather would yell when the Marine lance corporal tried to buy his third vowel in a row. He’d look at the rest of us, disgusted with the contestant’s obvious stupidity. He and my grandmother did volunteer work at the Methodist church they attended and often visited the infirm in the hospital, but something about an inability to decode common phrases offended him deeply. He would snort and throw his arms up as if beseeching help from a higher power. If the contestant was especially obtuse, he might call my grandmother in from the kitchen to witness the spectacle on the screen.

        “He just said The Revolutionary War was between Spain and France,” my grandfather would tell her, and my grandmother would watch for a few minutes, saying nothing, then return to whatever it was she had been doing. Occasionally, if she was watching with him, she might utter “My goodness” if the contestant missed an answer even she knew, but for the most part she just watched, eyes slipping toward sleep, until my grandfather would rouse her with an inarticulate scream at the TV after the contestant had failed to interpret his partner’s clues into “What an Egg Salad Sandwich Might Say” or “Things You Do With Gum.”

        In his children and grandchildren, he found willing accomplices. None of my family had graduated from college, but we knew we were vastly smarter than the blithering idiots who appeared on Wheel of Fortune or Match Game, and we wanted the idiots to know that.

        “Marsupial,” we would yell. “It’s marsupial. Marsupial!”

        We would hurl our answers at the screen in both a stab at ridicule and a magnanimous attempt to enlighten the players. My uncle would sometimes cup his hands around his mouth, as if the problem were only one of shouting loud enough or enunciating the words clearly.

        “Conestoga wagon! Co-ne-sto-ga!”

        Other times he might shout the answer again and again—the catch here was repetition: say it enough times, and, through some osmosis or sound wave vector, the player would come to enlightenment.

        “Eggplant. It’s eggplant. Say eggplant. Eggplant. I think it’s eggplant. Eggplant.”

        “I don’t think this dummy will ever get it,” my grandfather would say, cocking a thumb at the screen, and with that, the contestant would be dismissed. We would lean back, secure in our knowledge, growing ever more joyful the longer it took the contestants to answer. On the screen, the seconds seemed to stretch to minutes and then hours, sweat trickling down the contestants’ faces as the clock ticked or the music played. They might loosen their tie, run a finger beneath their collar, shaking their heads as time ran down. They’d often nod when the answer was given, as if they had known all along and had only needed another second or two.

        Even better was when a contestant shouted whatever came to mind as the seconds ticked away.

        “Coleslaw!”

        “Rhesus monkey!”

        “Nipsey Russell!”

        A contestant’s stupid answer could entertain us for weeks. We’d tell the story to each other again and again, perfecting the pauses and timing:

        “They asked to name the top five crunchy foods, and this guy said. . .get this. . .peanut butter! I guess he meant crunchy peanut butter, but still. . .”

        “It was a picture of Maine, and this woman said—she was a real dodo—Montana. She said she meant Maine, but you could see she didn’t.”

        The dumber the contestants were, the better we felt, silently priding ourselves on our abilities, glad we weren’t them. It was sad that some people were so dumb, we thought, living their lives without knowing the things that really mattered.

        Correct answers, however, failed to inspire us. A correct answer always brought a moment of thundering silence. Here we were, rooting for the contestants to fail, and they’d somehow, through some luck of fate, come up with the correct answer, robbing us of our God-given right to make fun of them. If the correct answer was followed by a commercial, we might be forced to maintain the silence for three to four minutes. This could be avoided if the contestant immediately said that equine meant “the same as,”  or that Canis Major was a brand of dog-food, but the silence of the commercial forced us to consider things we’d rather not consider: what we were doing, for example. Or, rather, what we were not doing. Here we were, an entire family crammed around a TV set, cigarette smoke thick in the air, shouting words like bobsled and barometer at a man wearing polyester.

        Then the show would come back on and one of the contestants would say that gaucho meant a sore or lesion, and whatever thoughts we might have been forced to consider were vanished by a simple, stupid answer.

        We wanted to cry for them, for people forced to go through life so unintelligently, without the necessary knowledge of state capitals and common phrases. It must be terrible, we thought, to know so little of the world around you.

        The last shot of each game show was always the camera rolling back, the contestants growing further and further away. You could see the set, and the darkness to either side, the wires and cardboard props that created the illusion that this world was better than the world you lived in. Were I to recall that same shot in my grandparent’s living room, this is what you would see:

        Seven or eight of us arranged like a fan around the TV. Cigarette smoke eddies and swirls above us. I am young, and small, my family small beside me. As the camera rolls further away you see the walls of the house. Beyond that is a street like any other street in any other town, in every other town. Beyond that is the world we live in, but instead of looking out, the family is looking in, captivated by the bright lights and noises, the trivial questions about places they have never seen and lives lived by other people. A commercial for adult undergarments has just been replaced by the studio lights, and our family is leaning forward, ready to point to faraway places on a map or find the missing words in well-known phrases, eyes searching the empty spaces where the answers lie.

 

Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays2005 and 2011, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, and the literary journals Ecotone, Glimmer Train, North American Review, and Southern Humanities Review, among
others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.
bio-paulcrenshaw