What begins at precisely 37 seconds after 10:00 pm on the last Friday in January every year? If you answered the “Great Midwest Trivia Contest,” then this long-running Lawrence University tradition just might be for you.
The Great Midwest Trivia Contest was founded in 1966 and lays claim as the longest-running college quiz bowl competition countrywide. It’s certainly one of the most unique. Part competition and part madness, the contest is all good Midwestern fun.
The Contest Kicks Off
The Great Midwest Trivia Contest traces its roots back to a Lawrence University student named JB deRosset. With professors off campus for their annual encampment event, deRosset decided that students needed an activity to pass the time. He and a friend who worked at the campus radio station, WLFM, devised a series of trivia questions and invited students to call in and answer between songs. The Great Midwest Trivia Contest was born.
The contest was an immediate hit, with students making over 10,000 calls to answer questions over the course of the weekend. By the second year, the competition was expanded, allowing the locals from Appleton, WI, to participate as well. Shortly thereafter, the contest was moved to coincide with the university’s winter term, a schedule that’s been maintained to this day.
A Unique Tradition
The contest has always been a light-hearted affair. The very first question asked listeners for the name of Superman’s father. The winners of the initial 1966 contest were presented with a broken refrigerator as a prize to commemorate their victory. Over the years, prizes have barely improved, ranging from pink flamingos to defective cassette tapes to half-eaten hunks of cheese.
Nevertheless, the students at Lawrence University take the traditions of the contest quite seriously. For the very first edition, deRosset and three of his friends served as the quizmasters, devising all of the questions. Since that time, the role of Trivia Master has become a more formal and highly sought-after honor. Each year, 12 new students are appointed as Trivia Masters and charged with creating the questions for that year’s event. Among them is a Head Master, who has the final say over any contest rules or disputes. The coveted role of Head Master is chosen by the previous year’s Head Master and is perhaps the most prestigious appointment available at Lawrence.
No Sleep for the Weary
The Trivia Masters are tasked with coming up with enough questions each year to keep contestants busy for 50 hours. In the 58 contests held to date, Lawrence students have posed more than 20,000 total questions. Contestants compete as part of teams, each trying to answer as many questions as possible throughout the 50-hour contest running time.
The questions come every three minutes for the entire duration of the contest, making sleep a rare commodity in Appleton during January’s closing weekend. Occasionally, teams are given more time to answer some of the trickier queries, but there are no breaks during the contest.
To Improve is to Change
The ever-increasing pace of technological progress has forced the Great Midwest Trivia Contest to evolve with the times. During the initial contest, competitors had to phone their answers into the campus radio station, with deRosset and friends manning the lines to record responses and keep score. As the contest continued to grow and attract wider interest, shifts of students would volunteer to answer the phones and record answers.
In the early days, because the contest was conducted over the WLFM airwaves, participants had to be physically located in the Appleton area. Receiving the WFLM radio signal required being within about 30 miles of the university. However, the introduction of Internet streaming led to significant changes. WFLM started broadcasting virtually in 2006, allowing this local campus event to become a worldwide one.
Today, teams from every corner of the globe participate, and both an off-campus and on-campus champion are crowned. Past contestants have included teams from as far away as Sweden and Japan. The contest is now streamed over Twitch, and participants can submit answers via Google Forms and Discord (in addition to the good, old-fashioned telephone). Most years, between 500 and 800 people participate in total.
Did You Say Furbish?
The Great Midwest Trivia Contest has always been an exploration of the obscure. The very first contest consisted of questions in four categories: movies, music, television, and comic books. According to deRosset, the ideal was for only about half of the participants to be able to answer each question correctly.
Questions in the final hours become more difficult and are known as “Garudas.” Yes, this is a nonsense word and very much emblematic of this contest’s charm. The very last question — the Super Garuda — is designed to be the most difficult of all (and, as such, is worth significantly more points than other questions).
But just as the contest’s technological format has needed to change with the times, so has its content. With the answer to every trivia question just a Google search away, coming up with challenging queries has become increasingly difficult. Many of the best ones today prompt virtual scavenger hunts, with users having to consult multiple sources to have any hope of answering.
A recent example of a Garuda asked contestants to translate a phrase from French to Furbish (the language spoken by the electronic robot toy known as the Furby), and then provide the binary code equivalent of one of the letters. So, yes, obscure.
A Tradition Continues
What started as one student’s whimsical idea has truly transformed into a global event. Media sources like the New York Times, USA Today, and Good Morning America have covered the Great Midwest Trivia Contest. Yet, despite the interest from the wider world, the contest has retained its quirky nature and its place in the hearts of Lawrence University students. During the last weekend in January, the campus still shifts its full attention to its one-of-a-kind trivia contest.
Think you might be up to the challenge? The 59th version of the Great Midwest Trivia Contest is slated to kick off on January 26, 2024. Registration begins at 8 pm CST, and the contest starts two hours and 37 seconds later.
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