The Trivial Life of Noah Tarnow
It’s the end of the second round and he is in his element: surrounded by music and microphones, hunched over a handful of papers in the right corner of the stage. As advertisements from sponsors flash across the projection screen, he grades pages of contestants’ trivia responses as fast as he can, slamming them down on the table and wiping sweat from his forehead. The last round consists of some dizzying trivia tests, including this one: Guess the titles of four songs that won Oscars for best original score (each song was slowed down to half-speed), and guess the titles of twenty Oscar-winning movies (a clip from each movie was displayed on a tiny screen). Just to add an extra layer of difficulty, all the songs and movies played simultaneously, for just one minute.
Wearing a green sparkly suit and a cheesy showbiz smile, the tiny Noah Tarnow, thirty-seven, doesn't move around much; there’s no need—he just stands still, points, and reads questions into the mic. He also stops to banter playfully with his sidekick, who goes by the name “EDP” and is posted on the other side of the stage, where he works the projector, handles the sound effects (cymbals, cheers, boings) and runs the video and audio clues that explode their way onto the screen in cartoon fonts.
“Don’t forget to stop by the bar and tip your bartenders,” Tarnow croons with a cock of his head and a point of his finger, looking a lot taller than his natural 5’8”.
“In the 1980s, three winners of the Best Picture Oscar had a three-word title with the word 'of ' in the middle: BLANK of BLANK. Name any two,” he coos, sending the teams of trivia competitors into their huddles. Biting on pencils and looking up at the ceiling while smacking their heads, these people are serious about puzzling it out—cash and swag are on the line.
(The answers: Chariots of Fire, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa.)
“Don’t cheat by checking the answers on your phone, please,” Tarnow reminds everyone. Several young women smile guiltily as they pocket their devices.
Once the show is over, and before this year’s Oscars telecast is screened on the projector he used just moments earlier, Tarnow does a lap around the room, collecting tiny red pencils, leftover pads and stickers that say Smart Ass Answer. It all seemed to go well, and the roughly 150 people packed into the room seemed happy.
But Tarnow isn’t happy at all.
“I'm exhausted,” he says. “I don't like long breaks; it took me too long to score. The lighting wasn't good for the video round, I forgot to read the Smart Ass points before the scores in round three, I should’ve collected team names in round one,” he says. “I pride myself on being the best. Even if nobody notices these things, which they probably don’t, I’m paranoid. I don't want to lose my audience if I don't do something right. I think, if I make a mistake, people will leave or they'll never come back.”
Tarnow is a former theater nerd who survived years of intimidation and loneliness in high school, and who used his inner geekiness to start one of the most popular trivia show games in New York City. This hyperactive, anti-sports pipsqueak of a geek is currently chief copy editor at Time Out New York. But he’s had to switch from full- to part-time as The Big Quiz Thing, the “trivia game show spectacular” he’s been working to build for ten years, finally gains momentum.
Now, after a decade of hauling A/V equipment to venues around New York City on nights and weekends, Tarnow is about to bring his bar trivia show to TV on NYC Life, one of four city-owned public access cable channels.
If all goes well, Tarnow believes he could become the next Howie Mandell or Regis Philbin. Or maybe he will go down as another Al Sharpton, an electrifying character on the streets of New York whose shtick seems deflated and strange when translated to television.
After years of work, Tarnow will learn this spring whether his geek passions can make him a star.
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Even before inventing his trivia alter ego, Tarnow has always been a character. In his freshman year at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, he was cast as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a feat unheard of for a freshman. Sporting a tight green-and-yellow bodysuit and fairy wings, he was joined onstage by his soon-to-be-famous classmates: singer Lauryn Hill, who played a fairy, and Ahmed Best, who went on to play Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars. Zach Braff, the actor and director best known for his sitcom Scrubs, was also a freshman at Columbia High School. Braff and Tarnow had been friends since the third grade, when they both attended the same Hebrew School, and remained close throughout their time at South Orange Middle School. They had a falling-out, however, at the end of eighth grade, “because he was an asshole,” Tarnow says. Braff dropped out of theater during their freshman year, and Tarnow overheard Braff making fun of the theater department.
But Tarnow didn’t need Braff to join him on stage—in fact, there wouldn't have been a stage big enough for the two of them. Tarnow’s presence was huge, even then.
“Everyone was asking, ‘Did they bring him over from the middle school?’ He was so tiny,” recalls Noah’s sister, Jessica Wilan, now forty. “Even then, he wasn’t afraid to be different for the sake of his craft, wearing tights and a fairy costume onstage without batting an eye.”
The next year, Tarnow transferred to an all-boys, sports-focused private school. He spent much of the year alone in his room. But he did take the lead role as a woman in a school play. His mother taught him how to knit for a scene—whatever it took to get the lead and be considered “the best,” he says.
“I am bizarrely competitive,” says Tarnow. “I get very jealous of anyone who seems to be doing better at something that I’m trying to do, to the point of being unable to process it constructively.”
It’s fitting, of course, that he grew up in a house full of competition—and not just while they were playing board games, which his parents never let him win.
“We were four big personalities who all thought we were important,” says Jessica. “We were always competing.”
Now he’s not just competing with his family. Tarnow has created a tribe of followers who jockey for prizes like magnets and gold stickers, but the competition is fierce nonetheless. His job is to relay information that is, essentially, useless, and he’s gotten some flack from his white-collar father about the shtick.
“Do I feel guilty sometimes that I'm not a doctor or in the Peace Corps? Yeah,” he says.
He pursued acting briefly, but it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it on the big screen, something he’s made peace with.
Tarnow got his start hosting trivia at the Lower East Side’s Slipper Room, a gig he created after failed attempts to write for TV shows like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Not satisfied to merely sit on a stool and read questions, he came up with a routine involving lights, music, costumes, graphics, and, like every superhero, a sidekick.
And then there are the show’s magic elements: The comedy (subtle, slightly caustic, heavy on the double entendres) and the questions (complex, but “figure-outable”).
For example: What current Hollywood star’s name is the inverse of a popular casino game? The answer: Jack Black.
“A figure-outable question is something that the average culturally literate American can puzzle out with a little bit of effort.”
Can regular folks, not just the geeks, keep up? Sometimes. In puzzles like the Bipolar Movie Challenge, he shows a video clip from a well-known movie, but replaces the audio with a track from a completely different movie, and asks teams to name both titles.
“Trivia is to facts what candy is to food,” he explains to his audience at Element, a nightclub on the Lower East Side, before reading descriptions of Mexican dishes and asking the crowd to name them.
The audience gathered here tonight is atypical, however. It’s a cold morning in February, and Tarnow is taping the last of seven pilot episodes of the Big Quiz Thing TV show, which will premiere on July 13. The crowd is happy, coming from a holding room full of Krispy Kreme donuts, gourmet coffee and candy. They merrily oblige as the stage crew runs them through various levels of taped, fake laughter, to be edited in later. The crowd is small—about twenty people—and the “teams” are seated in front of them at small tables. One group, Pink Champagne, is composed of women in their sixties. The next team, Hulk Hogan’s Heroes, is a group of three middle-aged men who look like they came straight from Comic-Con. Lastly, a table of two guys and a girl—attractive, young, smirking—makes up The Fat Kids.
Cue lights, cue announcer, cue graphics, cue Tarnow in a flamboyant red and gold sequined suit and green suspenders popping up on stage like a cork released from the bottle. He welcomes his TV audience to his trivia game show “spectacular,” pointing a finger-gun to the camera.
“Remember, “ he says. “Anything can happen, and probably won't.”
Tarnow launches right into the questions.
“What procedure was banned in NYC from 1961 to 1997 - which is surprising, considering that when you walk the streets of New York City, it’s easy to see that many people have partaken in it?” he asks, reminding them that, if their answer is wrong but manages to get a laugh from the audience, they can still get a Smart Ass point.
People in the audience can’t resist playing along. They whisper their answer to the person beside them, or suck their teeth as it eludes them. The answer: tattooing.
“Next, we’ll read a quote,” Tarnow says. “Tell us: Was it overheard on the streets of New York, or is it something that New York Yankee and master of malapropisms, Yogi Berra, once declared?”
Tarnow isn’t the least bit nervous, coming to life and bantering with EDP as though he’s in his own living room among friends, and there’s never a need for a second take. Then again, this isn’t his first time on TV. In 2001, Tarnow won VH1’s “Name That Video.” He didn't want the $25,000 car and took the cash instead, using it to pay rent as he pursued a career in stand-up comedy.
"Trivia is an aggressive sport. If you were a sissy like me who didn't fight or play sports, it’s the only way you can get a rush."
Tarnow figured he’d give Jeopardy a try next, and because he knew what R&B group Beyoncé Knowles was in, as well as which political party ruled Mexico for seventy years, the folks at Jeopardy jetted him to Los Angeles in 2002. Much like his philosophy with Big Quiz Thing, he decided that if you want to be a champion, you have to prove that you’re willing to pay for it, literally. Taking up a room at a discount rate at the local Radisson, he arrived at Sony Pictures Studios dressed camera-ready, carrying two changes of clothing for when he became a returning champion (the show tapes a week’s worth of episodes in one day).
When it was time for Tarnow to tell the audience a little about himself, the show’s coordinator told him to talk about the time he went to see Spider-Man dressed in his homemade Wall Crawler outfit. He got harassed by tourists.
“[Alex] Trebek cut me off mid-story, making me look like a tool, and twisted the knife by spending the commercial breaks calling me ‘Spider-Man,’” Noah recalls with disdain. “The guy is a skeezy, plastic-faced weirdo.”
Tarnow got the answer for Final Jeopardy correct, but a miscalculated wager left him coming in second. After taxes, the plane ticket, hotel and rental car, he walked away with $500, a copy of the home game, and a desire to boot himself in the ass for the rest of eternity.
“The episode aired on Christmas, thankfully, which means few people saw it,” he says. Tarnow’s journey to his own TV show began in 2008, when a couple of producers from Full Circle Entertainment, a production company specializing in product placement, decided they wanted to adapt his show for TV. Right before they pitched the show to Comedy Central, both producers were laid off, and the show was ultimately rejected. Last year, Diane Petzke of NYC Media, a TV,
online, and radio network that’s part of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, saw a blurb about the show in Time Out. She just happened to be in the market for a trivia show, and decided to start taping Big Quiz Thing in February.
Despite the fact that he’ll reach a tiny fraction of the audience he could have on Comedy Central, Tarnow says he’s much happier with this outcome, since he prefers to play by his own (admittedly obsessive) rules.
“I'm glad Comedy Central didn't buy it, because I probably would not get any say or even the title I wanted. Now, it’s MY vision. It’s MY title, MY show, MY everything,” he says in a tone that is half self mocking, banging the table with each ‘my.’ “Ask me more questions!” he exclaims, nearly knocking over the table on his way to the bathroom.
The winning team at every public Big Quiz Thing event goes home with $200 cash. Runners-up receive swag, much of which Tarnow acquires from Time Out. The winners are usually guys in glasses sporting knee-high white tube socks, an audience that makes up a significant portion of Noah’s public demographic.
Simply put, trivia offers a competitive way for the less sports-savvy men of the world to square off.
“The idea of bar trivia has given a lot of really heavy men with bad haircuts, baggy shirts, and pleated pants—who didn’t go on a lot of dates—the chance to feel like Steve McQueen for a night,” says Bill Scurry, thirty-seven, Tarnow’s friend and a regular at Big Quiz Thing. “People who shouldn't have egos, people who were pushed around by people more charismatic, attractive and popular, find themselves at a game with the chance to win something. Fantasy football and baseball people have their stats, shoulder-punching, and beer, and we have this.”
“It’s the same reason so many superhero movies are being made. Nerds have power now.”
The Internet is to thank for the boom of trivia nights popping up left and right, and podcast culture is part and parcel of the surge of interest, according to Scurry.
“All the podcasts I listen to are created by and intended for people like me: nerds with their heads up their own asses, navel-gazing about movies and comic books and popular culture,” he explains. “Trivia is an aggressive sport. If you were a sissy like me who didn't fight or play sports, it’s the only way you can get a rush. You literally spar with this intelligence.”
With his sparkly suits, the potential of a new TV show and, finally, a live, steady monthly gig in Boston, L.A., Chicago and New York’s Cutting Room, Tarnow has worked for a decade to become king, or at least archduke, of this hyper-competitive world.
“There’s so much useless information out there, and grown people are looking for a way to contextualize and use it,” explains Tarnow. “It’s the same reason so many superhero movies are being made. Nerds have power now.”
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Helaina Hovitz is a born and raised New Yorker who has written for The New York Times, The Observer, Teen Vogue and Salon, among other publications. She has the unshakeable notion that she can help save the world.
Courtney Dudley is a freelance photographer based in New York.