Susannah Brooks wrote a new job title on her tax returns this year: trivia expert.
In June, Brooks makes the move from television trivia contestant — she won $100,000 on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and, in her 20s, was a two-day champ on “Jeopardy!” — to bona fide expert. “Best Ever Trivia Show” premieres on the Game Show Network on June 10, showing weekdays at 3 p.m. central time.
The premise of the show is that ordinary trivia lovers compete against experts, and if they succeed they can win money. Sherri Shepherd of “The View” hosts, and Brooks herself will be on several episodes.
“The whole show is just about having fun,” said Brooks, who lives in Madison and works as a publicist for Wisconsin Public Television. “The experts are really welcoming of the contestants. And experts fail sometimes! That’s the fun thing. Are you going to get a question right that Ken Jennings gets wrong?”
Brooks, 39, drives “the car that trivia bought” (a 2000 Honda Accord, still going), which once bore a license plate that said “TRIVIAL.” She spoke with the Cap Times recently about her strongest subjects, what makes a good trivia question and the best part of her very trivial life.
Where does your love of trivia come from?
When I was little, Trivial Pursuit came out and I used to go through it. My mom says I insisted on playing even though I could barely read. I would ask my dad to do trivia in the car when we were on trips, and he ran out of things to ask.
My parents are both pretty curious people; they’re interested in a wide variety of things. I was reading anything and everything. I’m associative in the way my brain works.
When did you get into competitive trivia?
I think a lot of people have a dream of being on “Jeopardy!” I went on “Jeopardy!”in 2006 and I did very well, I was a two-day champion and ended up with $58,000 total. That’s what sort of put me on the radar.
For so many people being on “Jeopardy!” is a dream, and when you realize your dream and you’re only 26 and you can never be on “Jeopardy!” again, what do you do? “Millionaire” was not my style, but last year I found out they were looking for people. I ended up doing twice as well. And then I won an international level championship, the Americas Quizzing Championships.
Any tips to be better at trivia?
It’s a puzzle, so you try to figure out what they’re asking and if there are patterns. I’m very associative, so I try and find clues for things. If it’s multiple choice, I try to reason them out. You have to reason out, "What don’t I know?"
What makes a good trivia question?
You need to make it so that it’s absolutely not ambiguous what is being asked. You have to be as specific as possible. It’s so tough to have questions that are consistently pitched right, that are things you might know for a reason instead of just random things.
Really good trivia writers have a predictable style, a predictable consistency. You’re not going to second guess in a particular area because you know they’re not trying to trick you. Or you know they are trying to trick you, and there’s wordplay.
What are your best and favorite subjects?
Strongest is classical music, which is unfortunate because no one ever wants to talk about that. I go to High Noon (Saloon) music trivia, which is all hipsters, and I know nothing. It’s a lot of classic rock.
So classical music, theater, television, film, food and drink. I’m getting better at art. Wild card questions are the ones that I hate.
Do you play on any local trivia teams?
Some people my husband knows will go out for trivia, and I’ll go and sit and the end of the table and let people puzzle things out themselves because I don’t want to butt in. When it’s pretty clear that they’re not going to get it, I’ll say, "Well, it’s such and such."
They’ve come up to him the next day at work and said, “How do you live with her? She’s so freakish. Aren’t you intimidated?” Being a woman in trivia is very hard. People put you down. People think you’re not good enough, or they say you’re not good in science, the “hard” subjects.
Women tend to be generalists but they’re really good generalists, at a high level in a lot of different things.
Has being on television gotten easier?
Yes and no. I had no idea how I was going to do on “Jeopardy!” I shocked myself. My performance history helps. As a singer, I’ve never really had stage fright. Either I’m prepared or I’m not prepared, and if you’re prepared you do what you’re supposed to do.
In trivia, there’s going to be days when things don’t go your way. There’s no shame in losing to someone who’s legitimately better than you. But when someone calls you a trivia expert, you have to be a trivia expert. You don’t want to get things wrong and have people say, “Why did they pick her?”
Do you like the competitive part of this? Is winning money a draw?
A lot of times I’m competing with myself, just to see how well I do and be better than people expect of me. Looking like I do, being plus size, being a woman, being from the Midwest, not going to an Ivy League university, not being on quiz bowl — people have reasons not to pay attention. But they have to consider me a contender now.
“Trivia” is literally small and unimportant things, but it’s become a huge part of your life and identity. What’s the best part for you?
For me it comes back to the community. It frustrates me when people dismiss pop culture. It’s OK, you don’t have to like something. But I want people to recognize that pop culture is a way that people connect with other people. It means something to them. It’s a way you talk about things with other people.
When I was in college, I would get through the day by finding a part of the day I could enjoy, like “Oh, there’s chili in the dining hall, that’s a bright spot in my day.” Trivia is like that for people, having the spark of, “I recognize that. I accomplished something by knowing something somebody didn’t know.” You get a little teeny win.
Trivia means nothing — maybe it’ll get you a free beer at pub quiz. But if trivia is the little thing that will make you happy when things are going crazy in the world, then take it.