Ten years ago today (July 19), the second and final season of VH1’s tournament-style pop trivia competition The World Series of Pop Culture was won by Twisted Misters, a trio of NYU students, taking home a $250,000 grand prize. One of those NYU kids was Billboard Associate Editor Andrew Unterberger. Below, he remembers the bizarre experience of being a pop culture junkie who very briefly got to be part of his own pop culture footnote.
The World Series of Pop Culture was a VH1 game show born directly from my subconscious. For as long as I can remember, I’ve ingested pop culture and pop trivia at a compulsive and borderline self-destructive rate — a personality trait that had precious little practical application as a kid in the late ’90s, beyond occasionally impressing (or at least surprising) adults who were understandably taken aback by a teenager who had bothered to memorize all the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominees from 1974.
By the time I was in college at NYU in the mid-’00s, I still had no real productive use for my obsessive pop culture consumption, but I now had an outlet: The school’s College Bowl trivia team, which I joined as a freshman, and through which I finally found a handful of other like-minded pop super-nerds. Our weekly meetings, where we’d scrimmage over packets of expertly composed trivia covering all subjects known to man, were absolute heaven, even if I was useless for well over half of it: I knew zero about history, geography, mythology, science, literature, or any other even slightly scholarly subject. But movies, TV and especially pop music… those I could do.
Luckily, those were the only three subjects covered by the World Series of Pop Culture, which my new College Bowl friends Victor Lee, Andrew Weber and I first heard about before its debut season in 2006, and which we instantly knew we had to try to get on. The show would pit 16 teams of three against each other in lovingly crafted, drama-inflated, nationally televised rounds of single-elimination pop trivia, with the ultimate winner taking home $250,000 in prize money. It was hard not to feel like my entire life’s validation hung in the balance of us at least participating, if not actually winning.
To get on was a multi-tiered process: You had to take an online trial exam to prove you were up to snuff, then a live written test, than a filmed interview, then a regional eight-team competition, the winner of which would automatically advance to the big show. In 2006, we didn’t even make it past the online round, but in 2007, after watching every episode of the show’s first season run, we returned with newfound determination. This time, we made it past the online test, and were selected to take part in the written test at a hotel in New York. When they came back from grading the tests to announce the teams that would advance, ours was the last one read. I hugged the woman who called our name.
After an interview and an agonizing eight-hour wait, we were called back, and told we’d be going to the regional competition. This one mirrored the proper show format, where a category was announced, and one person per three-person team had to go up to face off in a series of related questions. The contestant who got the fewest right was eliminated, until your entire team was eliminated, and the other squad moved on. We came one question away from being booted in the semis, but came back to win, and took the finals with relative ease. We were moving onto the real thing.
A couple months separated the regionals and the VH1 show, and we spent the entire time studying. Of course, it’s impossible to learn the entirety of pop culture in a few months, but we’d already been preparing for this our entire lives: This was just about squeezing in those final movies and TV shows we’d been too young to catch in real time, and too unmotivated to consciously research since. By the time we got to the main event, we had a team name and gimmick — Twisted Misters, an ’80s metal theme. We looked ridiculous in our badly conceived Joe Elliott, Angus Young and Nigel Tufnel costumes, and we couldn’t air guitar for s–t, but I appreciated the excuse to buy a sleeveless Union Jack tee.
The filming was a two-day process at the Manhattan Center grand ballroom, with the first day just being the tournament’s first round. We were fortunate to make it to day two. Once again, we found ourselves at the brink of elimination — I lost a TV catchphrase category thanks to my ignorance of Hill Street Blues — and if not for an unlucky brainfart that led our opponents Jammin’ on the 1 to identify The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” as “Mr. Nice Guy,” we would’ve gone home much earlier than hoped. Victor bailed us out with his knowledge of the lyrics to The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” and we persevered. The second round was a personal low for me, as I betrayed my TRL-weaned generation by only naming two out of five Backstreet Boys — sorry, Brian, Howie and Kevin, promise I’ll never forget you again — but my teammates (especially Weber, who won a pair of categories) again picked up the slack, and we were onto the semi-finals.
The filming experience was mostly a mixture of unbearable tension and maddening boredom. When we weren’t on stage, we were sequestered in the green room with the rest of the teams waiting for their next round, without much to do but psyche ourselves out over the trivia challenges that laid ahead. The only good thing about how anxious I was about getting the questions right (and stressing the ones I’d already gotten wrong) was that I didn’t have the energy to be just as anxious about how I looked, sounded, and generally came off in my first national TV endeavor. The cameras didn’t really bother me, the captive live audience watching us didn’t really bother me, the prospect of having to watch myself when it aired four months later didn’t bother me (yet). Brian, Howie and Kevin, though — that killed me. Still does.
Anyway, I was probably too consumed by that to notice the degree to which all the other teams competing had turned on us. It was pretty clear by the semis, though — as the support for our opponents Three Men and a Little Lazy was unmistakable from the “LA-ZY!” “LA-ZY!” chants cascading down from the previously eliminated teams in the ballroom balcony — that all the other teams were actively rooting against us. Mostly, we deserved it. At the pre-filming introductory breakfast, where all the teams were supposed to go around and introduce themselves, Victor — a wrestling fan who got into the show-encouraged, s–t-talking spirit of the competition a little too early — got up and semi-seriously announced, “We’re the Twisted Misters, and we’re the team that’s going to beat you all.” Things went downhill from there.
The booing bothered me, but I understood. Even if Victor hadn’t started our carnival barking prematurely, we probably would’ve ended up the antagonists anyway — as college-age kids, we were easily the youngest team in the competition, and while the other teams were having adult conversations backstage about their adult lives, we were still loudly and obnoxiously cramming that final bit of Trapper John M.D. trivia. We didn’t intend to be villains, but the role certainly made sense for us. The only thing that really upset me was that some of the other teams assumed we weren’t true pop culture fans, because we had memorized so much trivia in rote fashion, rather than organically relying on endless memories of VHS tapes and cable reruns. We had those too, and loved pop culture as much as they did, but we also really wanted to maximize our chances to win — and thanks to our wasteful college lives, we had the time to put in the grunt work to do so.
We won the semis on something of a technicality — after the final remaining Lazy contestant and I went the distance on a category IDing Bill Murray quotes (“Take dead aim at the rich boys…”) he answered “Her Majesty’s Secret Service” for a James Bond tiebreaker, omitting the title’s apparently crucial “On.” We advanced to the finals, where Team Wocka Wocka awaited, headlined by Robert Bishop, the Watson-like MVP of the tournament to that point. Victor won the first category (Simpsons trivia) by the slimmest of tiebreaker margins, and I won the second category (about film spoilers) thanks to my love of Primal Fear and my opponent accidentally misspeaking the name of Trading Places. Victor went back up for the third category, about food in movies, to face final boss Robert and hopefully get us that championship trophy.
Whenever I tell people about the World Series of Pop Culture, they have two questions: How much did you win, and what was the winning question? It’s always an unsatisfying answer, because it wasn’t really a single question: Victor and Robert both got all of their food-in-movies Qs right, and advanced to a tiebreaker — which was played by the host (shout out to NY1 news legend Pat Kiernan) giving them a question with multiple answers, and each of them taking turns naming answers that fit until one of ’em was stumped. In this case, the question was to name the six actors who played the six main characters in 2006 comedy Little Miss Sunshine. Victor went first, and the two quickly blazed through Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carrell, Greg Kinnear and Toni Colette. And then it was Robert’s final turn. “…That one guy,” was all he could muster, unable to produce the name of a then-largely unknown Paul Dano. The round, and the tournament, was ours.
It was a really tough lot for Wocka Wocka, who played brilliantly and basically had us evenly matched throughout, but lost thanks to one mental lapse and twice being the team that had to pull out the toughest answer of the round. But for us, it was of course ecstasy: I embraced Weber and Victor with 10 times the ferocity I hugged that lady after the written test, and then the rest of the night was kind of a blur. (Not the ideal kind of blur, sadly: My main memory is of the three of us and our friends struggling to find a bar we could all get into afterwards to celebrate, since I was still under 21 at the time.)
Back then, I remember hoping that winning our version of the World Series would change my life. Not that I ever thought being the heel winners of a VH1 trivia competition entitled us to much celebrity — we went out together in Times Square shortly after and were recognized from the show about a half-dozen times, but that was probably more times than we were noticed combined in all the days and years before or since. And while it was very, very nice to have, it wasn’t like the $60,000 we each took home after taxes was set-for-life money, especially not at NYU. But I hoped it would just give me something extra, a little swagger boost to separate me (in my own head, if nowhere else) from the hordes of collegiate geeks out there.
Within a couple months, though, my life was basically the same it was before the WSOPC: Watching too much TV, blogging into the void and wondering if knowing the name of Men Without Hats’ second hit was really a sustainably monetizable skill. The money went a long way towards eating better, living easier and procuring a lot of CDs, DVDs and other media that was about to be totally outdated in a couple years’ time. But outside of a TV I bought my brother and some money I kicked back to my parents, I couldn’t tell you one really big or cool thing I did with my winnings that first year.
Meanwhile, VH1 had declined to pick up the show for a third season. We’d presumed we’d have the chance to defend our title, as season 1 winners El Chupacabra had been given in season 2. But with the success of shows like The Surreal Life and I Love New York, VH1 was moving away from the nostalgia-based pop programming that had defined their post-I Love the ’80s lineup, and towards more straightforward reality TV. The World Series of Pop Culture had been a beautiful fantasy, but life got real again in pretty short order.
Ten years later, though, it’s hard to look back at the show with anything but fondness. The moment was unreal, and we were so blessed to be at the right place at the right time to experience it — I still break out laughing sometimes just thinking about the unlikeliness of all of it. And after the show aired and we’d had the chance to explain ourselves a little, a handful of the teams that hated us even reached out to essentially say good game and no hard feelings, or at least to give us their side of the booing. (Both the Lazy and Wocka teams were extremely gracious, for which I’m forever grateful.)
Plus, I eventually used the money to fund my first real solo journalistic endeavor, road-tripping around the country to watch home games at all 30 NBA stadiums in the space of 60 days, and writing about my journey for esteemed NBA blog The Basketball Jones (now known today as NBA TV’s The Starters). The experience and light renown I gained on that trip in many ways ended up leading to me having a quasi-career that — at the risk of getting too meta — allows me to write about the 10th anniversary of the WSOPC on Billboard, instead of on my own poorly read personal blog. So college kids of America, take heed, and keep studying those Twilight sequels and Ja Rule duets. Because you never know.
And Victor, Weber and I are still good friends. In fact, we’re going out tonight to celebrate our decade as reigning World Series of Pop Culture champs — hopefully without me getting carded this time. Paul Dano, if you find yourself in the neighborhood, first round’s on us.