Monday, June 24, 2013


Since New York Times puzzle editor (and, more importantly, FOBB&B) Will Shortz declined to air this submission, it's good blog fodder:

Take a group of people who aren't around anymore, in 12 letters. Remove one letter and rearrange the remaining letters to spell a place they used to be found.

Get your thinking cap on!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Just For Laughs: Saturday's best bet


Bob Newhart Chicago Theatre, 7pm.  There are many shows worth attending at tonight's crescendo of the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival. In fact, I've written about a number of them over the past few days. But if you're going to see one act this evening, make it the most peerless performer in this year's shebang: Bob Newhart. The former Chicago accountant (a nonpareil example of life imitating art) made his first foray into entertainment with the seminal standup comedy album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, an influential, Grammy-winning classic that hit #1 on the Billboard chart. A Peabody- and Emmy-winning television career followed, as did a New York Times bestseller and dozens of nights guest-hosting the Tonight Show. A towering figure in comedy, Newhart makes a rare visit to headline the Chicago Theatre.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Just For Laughs: He shoots, he scores


Nick Swardson killed at the Vic Theatre last night during the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival.  I particularly liked this story:
My agent calls me a few years ago and says he's having people over.  So I go to his house and I'm hanging out, having a beer.  A teenage kid comes up to me and says, "Hey, weren't you in Blades of Glory?"  I say yeah.  He goes, "Say that line!"  I'm like, "Sorry?"  He goes, "You know... 'I want to cut off your skin and wear it to my birthday.' "  So I say it.  He goes, "No, say it like you said it in the movie!"  I'm like, "What?!" but I say it like I said it in the movie.  Then he goes, "Say that other line:  'I want to wear your gold medal naked.' "  So I say it.  And he goes, "No, say it like you said it in the movie!"  So I say it like I said it in the movie.  He's like, "Awesome" and he walks away. I turn to my agent and I go "Who was that kid?" and my agent says, "We just signed him. He's going to be the biggest thing in the NHL. His name is Patrick Kane."

Just For Laughs: Friday picks

Just For Laughs Chicago hits the gas pedal tonight and accelerates into the weekend.

Here are my picks:

Doug Loves Movies Podcast  Stage 773 — The Cabaret, 7pm.  Since podcasts are by definition available on demand, it's an iffy move to single out a live taping during a festival packed with national talent.  In this case, however, amiable stoner Doug Benson has forced my hand by assembling a choice array of fellow comedians who only occasionally visit Chicago.  Brian Posehn, Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes and Samm Levine join Benson tonight for his cinema-themed Internet favorite, where the lively conversation promises to touch on movies at least occasionally. Funny flint, meet funny steel.

Seth Meyers Chicago Theatre, 7:30pm.  Seth Meyers is a classic example of a guy who did it the right way. The Northwestern alum rose through the respected ranks of the iO Theater and Amsterdam's Boom Chicago, then performed "Pick-Ups and Hiccups," his two-person show with Jill Benjamin, at comedy festivals far and wide.  His Chicago Improv Festival performance of that very show caught the attention of an SNL talent scout and the rest is Lorne Michaels comedy factory history.  The host-elect of Late Night returns to Chicago for a big-time headlining gig at the Chicago Theatre with able standup support from Hannibal Buress and Al Madrigal.

Knuckleheads UP Comedy Club, 8 & 11pm (also Sat 8 & 11pm). Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant are at a certain nascent stage in a comedy career; they've achieved their dream of being cast on Saturday Night Live, but have yet to break through to nationwide familiarity on the strength of a signature character. Strong may be the first to climb that ladder as the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party, but they've all got the chops to make an upward move. Expect them to prove it tonight when they return to their Second City roots with a night of sketch and improv.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just For Laughs: Thursday picks

The Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival rolls on.  Tonight's slate ranges from clever TV quipsters to club scene hotshots to a Twitter sensation or two.

Here are my Thursday picks:

Nick Swardson, Vic Theatre, 7:30pm (also Fri 7:30pm).  Nick Swardson's appearances on The Showbiz Show with David Spade as the affected "Scotty Kangaroojus" told pretty much everything you need to know about his comedy. Presaging SNL's Stefon with inside dish and a self-involved fabulosity, Swardson wrapped hilarious material in a ridiculous, bitchy character that unfailingly livened up the program. Having worked his way up from appealingly whiny comic to frequent scene stealer in such films as Blades of Glory and host of Nick Swardson's Pretend Time on Comedy Central, he returns to his standup roots this week with two shows at the Vic Theatre.

Chelsea Peretti, Stage 773 — The Pro, 8:30pm (also Fri 8:30pm, Sat 7pm and 8:30pm).  Chelsea Peretti is a comic for today, purveying solid jokes and plenty of attitude in pretty much every venue available to a professional comedian in 2013. She writes for and appears on leading television comedies (Louie, Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Program, Kroll Show, The Burn), hosts a weekly podcast and monthly UCB LA showcase, and writes a widely followed Twitter feed. But credentials are built on talent, which Peretti has in spades; her sophisticated, sarcastic persona shines through all her material.

@DadBoner and Friends, You Guys, Stage 773 — The Thrust, 10pm. The most fully realized comic character this side of Borat Sagdiyev and Dwight Schrute, Karl Welzein is a Michigan working-class hero delivered joke by joke to the smartphones of the comedy cognoscenti.  The brilliant Twitter-based Welzein is beloved by a six-figure following for his "power moves," "finger guns," and enthusiasm for cold ones, Bob Seger, muscle cars and sticking it to the man; appropriately for the age we live in, he's also attracted considerable attention around Hollywood. Tonight his creator, Mike Burns, hits the stage as Welzein in all his blue-collar glory, with standups including Al Madrigal and Kyle Kinane in tow.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Bonus pick!

Don't miss the Bear Down Podcast, in which Chicago comedy expats Matt Walsh (Veep), Horatio Sanz (Saturday Night Live), Brad Morris (Seeking A Friend For the End of the World) and friends talk football. Expect funny conversation about Coach Ditka, Tim Tebow, Manti Te'o, and maybe even Brad's commercial with Brett Favre. Tonight at 10:30 pm, UP Comedy Club, Pipers Alley.

Just For Laughs: Wednesday picks

Wednesday is hump day for the American working stiff, but the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival is just getting into gear.

Here are my picks from tonight's busy slate of national and local acts:

Moshe Kasher, Stage 773 — The Pro, 7pm (also Thu 7pm). Some standups write unusual material; others are themselves unusual. Although he works as a writer on NBC's The New Normal, Mr. Kasher is anything but.  His well-regarded memoir Kasher in the Rye, documenting his struggles with incarceration, mental illness and drug addiction, hints at the different path he's walked. More to the point of tonight's standup exercise, he's funny.

Second City Alumni, UP Comedy Club, 8pm. Improvisation in the hands of lesser talent carries a notoriously spotty success rate. But left to the professionals, it's at least as good as sketch: anything can happen and often does, and more thrillingly as it unfolds live.  Few practitioners are as able as this fine quartet of alums from Chicago's venerable Second City comedy theater: Kevin Dorff (Conan), Scott Adsit (30 Rock), T.J. Jagodowski (those beloved Sonic commercials) and David Pasquesi (Boss).

The Todd Barry Podcast, Stage 773 — The Cabaret, 8:30pm.  Todd Barry's sense of humor is so dry, you could moisten it in a sealed bag of rice and talcum powder. The seasoned veteran of high quality television (The Larry Sanders Show, Dr. Katz) brings a withering, world-weary sensibility that would be dispiriting if it didn't inform his first-rate material and patient, dead-on crowd work. Tonight's podcast features special guests John Hodgman, Brendon Walsh and Vanessa Fraction; Barry also performs standup Fri-Sat at 10pm, Stage 773.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Just For Laughs: Tuesday picks

The Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival kicks off tonight with a nice array of talent.

My picks:
  • A free screening of The Heat, a new buddy-cop comedy from Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold.  Featuring Sandra Bullock and Bridesmaids scene-stealer Melissa McCarthy. At ShowPlace ICON Theater, 6:30pm.
  • Pete Holmes, the popular Chicago-bred standup who became a frequent presence on VH1's "I Love the..." shows en route to his own Comedy Central special and a busy touring schedule. At UP Comedy Club, 8pm and 10:30pm, plus Thursday 8pm.
  • Wrestling With Depression Podcast, in which Marty DeRosa takes an unflinching look at the loneliness, career uncertainty and outright rejection that working comics face. An original approach to an infrequently discussed topic, other than among comics themselves.  At Stage 773 — The Cabaret, 10pm.

Elsewhere, local favorites T.J. (Jagodowski) and Dave (Pasquesi) present their usual improv master class at Stage 773 — The Box at 7 p.m., but it must be noted that they play frequently at iO Theater. If you're an infrequent comedy-goer, consider checking out an act or two that rarely visit Chicago.

Comedy Christmas comes only in June ... enjoy!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Serious funny


If it's the second week of June, it's time once again for Chicago's most adored new tradition this side of Stanley Cup hockey, "the Bean," and the downtown water taxi:  the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival. The cavalcade of hilarity plays tomorrow through Sunday at venues around the city.

Since 2009, when the Montreal-based Just For Laughs comic empire teamed with the "very funny"-rebranded TBS cable network to present live comedy festivals in several American cities, JFL Chicago has quickly grown into the largest annual comedy festival in the United States, and easily one of the best.

Last year's go-round, for example, featured Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., Jeff RossMegan Mullally and husband Nick Offerman, Patton Oswalt, The Office creator Stephen Merchant, Vince Vaughn, Kevin Smith, Amy Schumer, and a week of Conan O'Brien tapings at the historic Chicago Theatre.

This year it's another rock star lineup headlined by Bob Newhart, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Russell Brand, with ample support from standups Todd BarryNick SwardsonKumail Nanjiani, Al MadrigalHannibal Buress and more. Variety acts include the popular Whitest Kids U' Know sketch ensemble and the Bear Down (as in Chicago Bears) Podcast.

Conveniently, most of this year's club shows will play in the newly renovated Stage 773, a four-theater complex on Belmont Avenue in Lakeview.  Four stages under one roof mean shorter commute times for populace, performers, producers and press alike.

As usual, the intelligently curated smaller shows are highly anticipated.  Of particular note is a connoisseur's dream at iO Theater late Sunday evening. First it's expert improv from an all-star team of Second City alumni: T.J. Jagodowski (TJ and Dave)Kevin Dorff (Late Night with Conan O'Brien), Jon Glaser (Delocated), Scott Adsit (30 Rock), plus a famous friend or two.  Topping the bill is a buzzed-about one-man show by another Second City veteran, Saturday Night Live writer Michael Patrick O'Brien.

Another can't-miss is Karl Walzein (@dadboner), the fictitious tweeter whose Michigan working-class bravado, "finger guns" and love for "cold ones, you guys" has amassed 143,000 Twitter followers.  Creator Mike Burns will have solid shtick up his blue-collar sleeve at Stage 773 on Wednesday and Thursday.

I'll once again be covering the festival this year so watch this space (plus Facebook and Twitter) for updates.  The full festival lineup is available at

It's the funniest week of the year. Get out there and catch something (ideally a show)!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dept. of Prognostication

Looking ahead at Cory Booker's career...

• 2016: Runs for and wins the late Frank Lautenberg's old Senate seat

• 2017-19: Repeatedly reaches across aisle in gracious but futile attempts to work in comity with Senate Republicans

• 2019: Announces bid for White House in stirring Newark oration attended by President Obama and Caroline Kennedy

• 2019-20: Has patriotism questioned when Wall Street Journal reports that his American flag pin was made in Korea; is denounced by an angry Donald Trump as not having reported $2 income on scratch-off lottery ticket in 1987; is alleged not to have heroically rushed into a burning house to save people; eventually releases two forms of his birth certificate to moot allegation that he was born in Africa; is accused by Tea Party of fomenting class warfare and secretly plotting to secede North New Jersey from the United States

• 2020: Is elected by healthy margin despite being outspent $10 billion to $2 billion on campaign trail by mild-mannered Republican CEO, who then immediately disappears from public life

• 2021-23: Against long odds, uses White House bully pulpit and 68% approval rating to shepherd several landmark pieces of progressive legislation through Congress

 • 2024: Handily wins reelection despite not even campaigning against Republican nominee Sarah Palin

 • 2025-28: Stands by helplessly as Republican Congress passes no new laws and feverishly attempts to unwind progressive legislation from his first term

 • 2029: Moves to Denmark

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Attn. Chicago poker players!

Memo from the Shoe:

SATURDAY, JUNE 15, 2013 AT 11AM 
Buy-in: $450+$50. Structure Sheets are available in the Poker Room. 
We will be giving away 10 free satellite seats between 8:30AM and 10:30AM. 
Good Luck!

Whither the Basstard?

As careful readers of the space may have noted, there has been a certain lack of new content here lately. After five solid years of banging away at BB&B several times a week despite increasing burnout, I hit the wall last December and took a much-needed break. That I didn't have any idea how long it would last probably explains how long it lasted. But what's six months among friends?

I've since directed my creative energies, such as they are, into an incessant stream of "humorous" Facebook and Twitter posts. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who connects with me there, or despite all odds still comes here to follow the Twitter feed at right, you'll know what I mean.

I'm resurrecting BB&B primarily because Flavorpill Chicago, the culture guide for which I cover live comedy and theater, is on hiatus during a major site rebuild that will take most of the summer. But the summer comedy and theater season marches on unabated.

So until Flavorpill returns better than ever — and it will; I got a preview in our New York office in November, and the redesigned site looks amazing — I'll be writing in this space about the best live entertainment around town, starting with next week's Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival. It will come as little surprise that I might also have a few other things to say.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Friday, October 5, 2012

Chicago theater roundup

As the mercury drops, our attention turns to indoor entertainment. Let's discuss the PG-rated type.

The Chicago theater scene's traditional autumn kickoff is in full swing, both on the highly publicized stages of the Goodman, Steppenwolf and Lookingglass Theatres and in smaller venues throughout the city. Although there are literally dozens of options if you're looking for a night out, here are three solid choices as seen through the prism of my previews for Flavorpill Chicago.

Closing this weekend, and not to be missed if you're a fan of A Chorus Line, is this entertaining musical about its primary creator told largely through his own music:

A Class Act at Porchlight Music Theatre

Next, if you're into Sherlock Holmes and/or Downton Abbey, you'll like the dastardly deeds and tender romance set in Victorian England in this adaptation of a classic Wilkie Collins novel:

The Woman in White at Lifeline Theatre

And finally, for my money, the best show currently playing in Chicago...

Good People at Steppenwolf Theatre Co.

The Bears aren't always playing and there are good stories not being told on television. Get out there and support live theater; it will in turn enrich you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Whither the blogger?

If you are one of the hundreds of people who have stopped by here looking for LearnedLeague writeups over the past few days, I apologize for my radio silence. I was neither eaten by a whale nor signed to an exclusive blogging contract by the Huffington Post. (Preposterous! They don't pay anyone.)

The sad fact is that I can't keep up with writing LL reports every weekday. I was several match days behind by last weekend because I tried to watch some measure of the Democratic Convention and the U.S. Open while feeling constant pressure to keep the blog going, and although I had good intentions of catching up over the weekend, I then had social, tennis and theater commitments that got in the way. This week is no better (U.S. Open men's final and a fancy Flavorpill dinner last night, Northwestern University charity function tomorrow night, Bears-Packers Thursday night), nor next week (Rosh Hashanah, board meeting for and performance by The Moth, Obama fundraiser, rock show Friday night, another play, mixed doubles tennis tournament).  With the opening of the fall theater season I will be seeing approximately six plays by the end of the month; this will cut deeply into blogging time, to say nothing of the writing I do about those shows. Plus I am attending a tennis fantasy camp in October and I have been asked to play 3-4 times a week, plus do stretching exercises, to prepare. Did I mention that I have a job?

The details are unimportant; the big picture is that I have barely even been playing the LL questions lately let alone writing about them, and something's got to give. Although I write quickly, I also write at length and care about the quality of the end product, and while I certainly take a nonchalant and fun-loving attitude toward the trivia league, I am much more serious about the things I write. As such, I would rather call it a day than not do it right.

I took a pass on blogging the previous LL go-round in May and June because it was a busy time for me at work. I knew I couldn't do it and figured I could write my way through LL54 during my office's fall (only relatively, as it turns out) slow season.  Yet although my work has its seasons, my life doesn't. I'm just a busy person. Last spring, when I blogged my way through LL52, I drove my family and friends crazy as I tried to find 90 minutes a day to write during a weeklong trip to San Francisco, and it was also hard to keep up when I was home. You'd think I would have learned my lesson.

Anyway, I apologize to everyone who's been faithfully stopping by here looking to compare their thoughts with mine as we forge our way through the remainder of the trivia campaign. I hate the idea of quitting — and, indeed, anything that puts me in a category with Sarah Palin — but I'm doing it for my own mental health. I constantly feel guilty when I can't write the blog, and every day that I look ahead at my calendar and see that I won't be home that night, only makes me feel more anxiety that I am letting my supremely intelligent and quite attentive readers down.

In case you're curious how I've been doing lately:  after enjoying very strong (trivia-wise), solid (defense-wise) and lucky (otherwise) rides through the previous two seasons, my current nightmare season rolls on unabated. I continue to suck in nearly every way a LearnedLeague player can suck as I dwell in a purgatory of my own making and drift inexorably downward toward the Mendoza Line that separates retention from demotion.

Once again, I apologize to anyone who's disappointed by my abrupt capitulation, and I'm happy for whoever is pleased that I'm finally giving it a rest.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Day 11: Throwing it all away

Today’s match was a pick’em: my opponent and I had virtually identical stats in both answering questions correctly and playing defense. Unfortunately for me, in the latest variation on a sadly recurring theme, I brought my A- game when I needed my A+ game.

1. Name the Republican who currently represents Missouri's 2nd congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.

It’s that dipshit, Todd Akin. I gave this one the 0 (which is also what Todd Akin is) and so did a lot of other people. It defensed the easiest of the day at 0.9, and both my opponent and I knew it as did 69% of players leaguewide.

2. This woman has been credited with being the first television psychologist (credentialed by her Ph.D. from Columbia University), as well as the first female television boxing commentator (credentialed by her boxing expertise demonstrated on the game show The $64,000 Question).

As opposed to Dr. Phil’s Ph.D. from the University of North Texas via a dissertation entitled Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Psychological Intervention (?!), Dr. Joyce Brothers boasts an impressive résumé only somewhat besmirched by her constant shameless appearances before every TV camera this side of the putatively Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Boy, am I judging ’em today! What the hell, it’s my blog.) She either reclaimed or irrevocably destroyed her own cred by endlessly serving as the butt of jokes in the 1990s on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien. You be the judge.

3. Identify this letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Aleph, the Hebrew A. As my bar mitzvah ceremony occurred at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I was relieved to get this one, lest a vengeful Old Testament God smite me. Even for those with a passing knowledge of Hebrew, this was a total gimme. Apparently mistaking me for former Houston Astro BassK, my opponent gifted me a 3 on this one.

4. This illustration is the work of what well known graphic designer and street artist?

You might know him as the creator of the iconic Obama HOPE poster, but he built his street reputation on his Andre the Giant-based oeuvre. Who are we not to obey said giant? The answer is Shepard Fairey. This time it was I who let my opponent score a 3, which he earned as one of the 42% who got this.

5. The organic compound sucrose is a disaccharide composed of two monosaccharides, which are two of the three dietary monosaccharides (galactose being the third). Name these two monosacchardides, also known as simple sugars?

Time for my almost daily choke. I try not to be on the wrong side of questions that 65% of the league answers correctly, but I cacked this one. I came up with Fructose, as in high-__ corn syrup — definitely the most delicious of your corn syrups — but I drew a blank on the two apparently interchangeable other -oses: Glucose/Dextrose (which gave me various Neuroses). I went with Lactose with a far too nonchalant “what the hell, maybe it’s a milk sugar.” I still don’t even know if it is.

I’m not going to make excuses about how it was 11pm and I just wanted to go to sleep without spending the time trying to remember another sugar ending in -ose. It’s my own fault for not playing these questions early in the morning when I think most clearly. Glucose should have been the first one I thought of; it’s the obvious one. I threw away two points here.

In fact, speaking of the daily trivia cycle, I write a lot of these in the evening, as I’m doing right now instead of watching the Federer-Berdych match in the US Open. An odd side effect is that after I wrap up the writing shortly before I go to bed, I often realize with a start that I have not yet played the day’s questions. I have routinely been answering the day’s Qs in the last two hours before the window closes, as indeed I will probably do tonight as it’s already 9pm and I need my Federer infusion, to say nothing of President Clinton's speech at the Democratic Convention.

6. The first solid body electric guitar manufactured and sold by the Gibson Guitar Corporation, in 1952, was named after (and endorsed by) what American guitarist and inventor?

Les Paul in a total gimme. I could practically have written this question off the top of my head. At 78% correct, this was the easiest question of the day. But how many players in the league own a 1971 Epiphone Riviera, made by a sister company to Gibson, on which they mangle the world’s greatest rock songs to the consternation of their neighbors? I rest my guitar case.

My opponent killed this soft set of questions, running the table and “drinking the beer” with his correct six-pack. Thanks to spilling the sugar, I failed to keep up with him, batted just 5 for 6, and lost the ballgame.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Day 10: I'll take it

After more than my share of shaky defense lately, I finally flashed the leather at shortstop.

1. This photograph was taken in what city, where this sort of thing happens around 80 times a year?  

“This sort of thing” is the sausage race around the field at the Milwaukee Brewers’ home ballpark, which occurs “around 80 times a year” because the Brew Crew have 81 home games. Knew it, ate it up with sauerkraut and spicy mustard. 

2. Identify the national capital city highlighted in red on this map. 

Once again my spotty geography knowledge cost me. Somewhat at a loss to name an East African nation other than Madagascar, I was sort of proud to come up with Ethiopia, not to mention its capital city, Addis Ababa, thanks in part to a local Ethiopian restaurant by that name. But it turns out that although Ethiopia does border the (not Coral but) Red Sea, due east of it is Somalia, whose capital of Mogadishu was the correct answer. I would have earned a 3 for this one, but I did hold my opponent to a 0. 

They have Ethiopian pirates, don't they?  When they're not shooting horses?

3. First discovered in 1869, and now a fundamental component in many branches of scientific research, nucleic acids (polynucleotides) are large biological molecules which are plentiful in all living things on earth. All naturally occurring nucleic acids are known commonly by one of two names -- give either name.

This one hurt me in my soul, in that the question gave away the answer and I still blew it. I wasn’t sure of the answer, but surely it wasn’t DNA and RNA as their N and A (for Nucleic Acid) appeared right there in the question. I think you can see where I’m going with this. Once again I took a wild stab in the faint hope of fooling the teacher, guessing Peptides, but might as well have guessed The Prince of Tides.

4. In the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, what was the trademark catchphrase of Sylvester the Cat?

This was a classic “you either know it or you don’t” and thanks to my misspent youth I did, getting credit for Thufferin’ Thuccotash although the correct answer was Sufferin’ Succotash. This both defensed as the easiest question of the day at 0.9 and played that way at 76% leaguewide.

5. The last film which featured Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra together was what 1984 film, itself a sequel to a 1981 movie (which featured Sammy and Dean but not Frank)?

This wasn’t exactly a “you either know it or you don’t,” but it was a rare film question where I couldn’t even come up with a respectable guess. Sure enough, it played as the toughest Q of the day at 27% correct.

Due to a technical error my guess was not emailed to me, and a few minutes ago I compounded the problem by closing a window from several days ago containing my guess, but it went more or less like this: We’re All Going To Die Soon, First Sammy, Probably, Then Dean, Then Frank.

I did make a good guess as to the order in which they died, but my poor taste likely doomed even my bid for a Best Wrong Answer. The Best Right Answer was Cannonball Run II. The good news was that my gaudy statistics in the Film category presumably caused my opponent to give this one the 0.

6. The plot for the John Fletcher and William Shakespeare comedy The Two Noble Kinsmen is based on what earlier English work?

This one I figured out by the process of elimination. There are very few classic pieces of English literature that predate Shakespeare and would be fair game for a trivia question among non-PhD candidates.

My first thought, of course, was “Shakespeare needed a cowriter? That’s like Stacey King (jokingly) boasting about the night he and Jordan combined for 70 points after Jordan dropped 69 on the Cavs.” But I soon got to work thinking what the right answer could be. Something by Marlowe? Would the Commish be tricky enough to use an earlier work by Shakespeare himself? No and no. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene? Not likely; too obscure and maybe not even before Shakespeare. Milton? Not comedic, later than Shakespeare. La Morte D’Arthur? Hell no. Beowulf? Some other circle of hell no. 

That left Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which I read in college and have largely forgotten. Although I was not entirely clear on the two noblemen thing, I felt like it pretty much had to be the correct answer, and indeed it was. 

My opponent and I each got three correct answers, but with immaculate defense I allowed the minimum 2 points and won 4(3)-2(3).

Making "Friends"

Hello, fellow triviaheads.  I hope you had an enjoyable holiday weekend.

The day after Labor Day fills a lot of people with dread:
  • Students, because they have to go back to school;
  • Teachers,                   "                  "                     ; and
  • Me, because we now embark on 14 weekdays in a row of LearnedLeague action and I've committed myself to writing about all of them.
Between the fall theater season opening (I write about shows), fewer people in our office due to travel, the U.S. Open tennis tournament underway that I follow closely, the Democratic National Convention this week, and only a month left in our outdoor tennis season, the prospect of spending 90 minutes a day writing about trivia is fairly daunting. 

I only managed to write about one match during the busy holiday weekend (wedding, tennis, out of town guest, high school friends' rock band reunion show, etc.), I'm already two matches behind, and we're only now hitting our grueling stretch of three straight weeks of trivia days. Sure, I could phone it in by quickly tossing off subpar writeups, but I'd rather spend my usual hour-plus and work hard to create subpar writeups.

So please bear with me as I try to keep up, but I will probably be a few days behind at times, and try to make up the ground on the weekend(s).

For now, here's a gem that my mom chipped in from a sea not named after a color, i.e. the Mediterranean:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Day 9: You lose some

I played a tough player today and needed my A game, but I brought my B game.

1. The location photographed here was, according to legend, first memorialized in song in 1936, by whom? 

Ugh. I think of the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil as a legendary intersection of dirt roads somewhere in the backwoods of the Deep South, not a prosaic meeting place of two paved U.S. highways. But that was indeed the right answer.

I could not stop thinking about Route 66. The street signs put me on that road and that song. But 1936 was way too early. I had trouble coming up with a good guess. The Tennessee angle said it probably wasn’t East Coast-bred George Gershwin so I went with Cole Porter, whom I knew to be a native of relatively nearby Peru, Indiana. Give me an E for effort and a G for good intentions along with my W for wrong.

At an average 2.0 this defensed as the hardest question of the day, and I really could have used the 2 my opponent earned here. Only 35% of players got this, which did make it the day's hardest question.

2. The Dutch language in Belgium, as it is spoken by the majority of its citizens (and nearly everyone in the region adjacent to the Netherlands), is known colloquially by what name?

It’s Flemish, which you pretty much knew or you didn’t, and I did. I’ve been to Belgium and pay more attention to it than most Americans because I follow pro tennis. Over the past decade there were two supremely talented Belgians at the top rank of the women’s tour, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. 

Henin was not particularly likeable — particularly when her poor sportsmanship screwed Serena Williams out of an important point late in the semifinals of the 2003 French Open — but Clijsters is right there with Federer among the nicest and most popular (among both peers and fans) champions of all time. She retired for good this week to spend more time with her family, having left the tour for three years to have a daughter, only to return in 2009 and win her second U.S. Open title after playing only a few warmup tournaments.

I hit the 2004 Australian Open with a girlfriend who'd played Big Ten college tennis. Henin and Clijsters were atop the sport at the time; we referred to the two Belgians as the “Waffle Chicks.”

3. Beginning with the 1987 French Open, and ending with the same tournament in 1990, this German appeared in a record 13 consecutive tennis Grand Slam finals.

What do I know about tennis? Enough to get this one. Whoever missed it likely guessed Boris Becker, but although the swashbuckling German was indeed a top player in the late 1980s, he certainly didn’t play in 13 straight Slam finals. For one thing, a 17-year-old Michael Chang won his only Slam when he beat Ivan Lendl in a five-set classic at Roland Garros in 1989, becoming the youngest men’s major tournament champion of all time and the first American to win the French Open since Tony Trabert in 1955.

The answer lay on the ladies’ tour, where Steffi Graf was the dominant force in question. She won each Slam at least four times, including a “Golden Slam” in 1988 when she ran the table and added an Olympic gold medal.  My opponent and I each nailed this and earned a 0 for our trouble.

4. Companion to Music, Companion to English Literature, Companion to Food, Companion to Western Art -- these are all partial titles to successful books which begin with what name?

I knew I would feel like a fool when I saw the correct answer, and indeed I did. I couldn’t come up with Oxford, instead guessing Norton as in Anthology of English Literature, a clear sign that Companion to English Literature made Norton incorrect, as indeed it was.

5. Sutter's Fort, the final destination of the Donner Party survivors, and abandoned after the discovery of gold (and subsequent rush) at nearby Sutter's Mill, was established in an area that would eventually become what city?

I knew the Donner Party had traveled through north central California and never hit the Bay or the coast (although both are lovely), so I figured Sacramento was a good guess. It turned out to be the best possible guess in that it was the correct answer.

6. To whom did the head in the bottom right of this painting belong?  

My first thought was St. John the Baptist. Then I realized I wasn’t sure whether he had been beheaded or not. So I tried at length to think of well-known people who lost their heads more literally than, say, Sarah Palin trying desperately to prepare for a vice presidential debate. It didn’t feel like Louis XVI was the right answer even though his was the era of the guillotine, and Jean-Paul Marat had died in the bathtub since he was so into Jim Morrison, so I went with Charles I. One of the few things I remember from World History my sophomore year of high school was an odd sequence of British kings (James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II) during which Charles I was beheaded.

This didn’t feel like the right answer either, but I didn’t have a better guess. The answer was Goliath, who was slain by a slung sling, but whom David apparently then beheaded as an extra “F you.” I gave this one the 3 and my opponent hit it with his sling.

He and I each gave up two points above the minimum, but by getting four correct answers to my three, my opponent both ended up with and deserved a 6(4)-4(3) victory.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Day 8: Fail Whale


Today I discovered a new and exciting, that is to say an old and tiresome, way to lose: inferior defense.

My opponent was Amy Reynaldo, a fellow Chicagoan, noted crossword blogger and author of How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. She also authored a narrow victory over me that went like this:

1. Provide the two words that fill in the blank in the following full title of a novel as it was published in the United States on November 14, 1851: Moby-Dick; or, ___________

The answer was The Whale, which I know from reading this book during my junior year of high school in Mrs. Huggins’ class. (I also knew there was a hyphen after Moby, which you often (don’t) see omitted.) Probably my favorite chapter, for the wrong reasons, is the one where Melville spends about 10 pages rattling off the provisions and supplies aboard the Pequod.

2. Saint Eustachius and Saint Hubertus, the patron saints of hunters, are referenced in what liqueur brand's logo, which consists of a glowing Christian cross between the antlers of a caribou?

I had never heard of Sts. Eustachius or Hubertus, never having paid attention in church because I grew up Jewish, nor did I know about the glowing cross or the hunters, but it didn’t matter. As with my man Yuri Gagarin the other day (“Russian … cosmonaut ... whom?”), this question boiled down to “blah blah liqueur logo antlers caribou?”

I don’t even drink, but I have a black Soul Asylum t-shirt (still!) from college for which the Jagermeister logo is the artistic inspiration. Rather than "Jagermeister," "Soul Asylum" is spelled in forbidding Germanic calligraphy under the minorly famous caribou antlers. Underneath the band name are the words GUITAAR – LIQUEUR. It's a pretty sweet t-shirt, dudes, but so menacing that I was afraid to wear it for several years after I bought it. Frankly, I also knew that I was not yet cool enough. But I eventually wore it and was immediately hired as a Motörhead roadie, plus it helped me nail this question. 

3. In 1978, who won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress -- Miniseries or a Movie for her work in the miniseries Holocaust, which would be the first of a vast multitude of nominations and awards this actress would receive in her career?

Another giveaway from the details. “blah blah Emmy Award … Lead Actress … vast multitude of nominations and awards…” Who could it possibly be but Meryl Streep? It wasn’t Susan Lucci. I didn’t know the first thing about the Holocaust miniseries and it didn’t matter. I also knew Kramer vs. Kramer was 1979 and Manhattan was no earlier than 1978, so neither of these would necessarily have preceded the TV miniseries even if she’d earned nominations for them.

78% of players knew or correctly guessed this gimme. Incidentally, “in miseries” is an apt anagram/container for many miniseries.

4. According to their official wedding registry of April, 2011 (and per the surnames of the bridegroom's parents), what is the surname of William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge?

This question was a problem area. I thought the answer was Windsor and so obviously so that I gave this one the 0. The answer was in fact Mountbatten-Windsor, and my answer was properly deemed incorrect. When I saw the correct answer, I did recall hearing something about a hyphenated name during the royal wedding, by which I mean the marriage of Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

"This is the most stirring display of gallantry and sportsmanship since Mountbatten gave India back to the Punjabs."
British-accented commentator at a miniature golf tournament championship match between Bart Simpson and Todd Flanders

Amy and I got the same four questions correct today, but she gave this one a 1 while I gifted her a 0 on this Gordian knot. A mere 7% of players in the entire league got this one.

5. As defined in classical mechanics, speed is a scalar quantity defining how fast an object is moving, while velocity is a vector describing the object's speed and direction. Likewise, as distance is a scalar quantity of length, what is the term for the vector describing distance and direction?

OK, I’m going to embarrass myself here in front of all the science nerds, experts, PhDs, Nobel Prize winners (I assume), etc. who play in our league.

First of all, as I quickly scanned the question, I felt confident that the correct answer was Vector. When I saw that word twice in the question, I had a sinking feeling, a downward vector if you will. Reading the question more carefully, I also learned to my surprise that speed and velocity are not the same thing. Velocity is directional?!  (I did take physics as a junior in high school but apparently I was reading Moby-Dick that day.)

My hope of salvaging a correct answer started out dim, then faded further the more I thought about this. I briefly considered guessing Thrust, but that felt like power and acceleration, not merely distance and direction. I also thought about Force, but I recalled that was Mass x Acceleration, so it too involved derivatives and integration and stuff, and was more than a mere directional (tips cap). But I still didn’t have a good play until I came up with what felt like a decent guess: Momentum. It was pure bullshit, but maybe if the Commissioner was drunk when he graded my paper, I could get away with it.

The correct answer, however, was Displacement/Position. I take strong exception to the term Position as a correct answer, as that connotes to me a zero-dimensional location, not a relative measure as Displacement seems to be; Position only seems directional and distanced relative to an origin. Richard Feynman would surely agree with me, except for the part about me being completely wrong and clueless on this whole subject.

The only good thing that happened here was that Amy missed it too, so I didn’t take a huge bruise by giving this the 3.

6. The White Sea, off the northwest coast of Russia, is the fourth-largest sea in the world (in area) whose name in English is a color. What are the three largest that fit this description?

Black Sea is an XTC album. Wait, what?

God, do I suck at geography. In this case, I thought the Red Sea was too small because I constantly confuse it with the super-salty (so people easily float) Dead Sea in Israel, as opposed to what it actually is, a big sea between Africa and the Middle East. Black Sea sounded good, and I was pretty sure there was a Yellow Sea to go along with the Yellow River. I (w)racked my brain to think of other colorful seas but came up with nothing, so I went with Red after all, along with Yellow and Black, and it was correct. Coral would also have been accepted and I don’t even know why.

Not knowing I can’t find Yemen on a map, Amy gave me the 0 for it. Thanks, but I actually got this one. A whopping 86% of players got this one and few of them were as worried about it as I was.

Although we both had four correct answers, Amy allowed one point above the minimum to my two and handed me a 6(4)-5(4) defeat. ETTU, Amy?

Exigencies and eventualities


Will have Day 8 match report posted by the end of the day.

Until then, with apologies to Paul Baldwin, talk amongst yourselves.  Here is a suggested topic:  The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. Discuss.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Day 7: Christmas morning

...not because anyone gifted the match, but because I received an unwanted tie.

As an initially nervous but increasingly confident young rookie, then a brash sophomore, then a self-assured veteran, I used to win matches or salvage ties with defense. The opposite is the case lately, as I turn wins into ties and ties into losses (note foreshadowing for the Tuesday match, as I write up the Monday match on Wednesday morning). I am also finding ways to make Ws evaporate with spectacularly bad decisions on questions where I have to guess, as I did today for the second time in seven matches.

Around 100 people stopped by here yesterday looking for a writeup; apologies to my loyal readers for the delay. I spent Tuesday playing tennis — an 8-6 victory that, including a few chitchat breaks during changeovers, took 2 ½ hours — and, for the first time in six months, poker, in a lengthy session that I should have ended earlier for reasons both temporal and financial. Tennis and poker are my personal biathlon, but during outdoor tennis season I rarely play cards.

OK, you didn’t come here to hear my life story, so let’s get this painful match summary over with:

1. In the field of geography, the term cordillera (e.g. American Cordillera, Arctic Cordillera, Cordillera Central) refers specifically to a connected chain of what?

If there is one thing about the gameplay in this league that makes me want to throw up, it's when I'm pretty sure I have a good guess, then convince myself not to follow my instincts and go with a lesser guess, only to find I was right in the first place, and it costs me a win or a tie.

That was the case here. It felt like mountains were the right answer. That made complete sense and was the only thing I thought of at first. But then, in a fit of unjustified arrogance, I decided that if a connected mountain chain were called a cordillera, I would have heard the word before. Never mind that whatever the answer was, I had still never heard the word. Never mind that it was screamingly obvious that connected chains of islands, which I went with, would be far too small to justify names like American Cordillera and Cordillera Central.

The two points I gave away on this one would have given me a win rather than the tie I ended up with.

2. The actor James Dean is credited with appearing in exactly three feature films, all in leading roles. Of the three, which was the only one widely released during his lifetime?

This one I played just right with a combination of knowledge and analysis. I knew for a fact that Giant was released after he died. So it was a coin flip between Rebel Without A Cause and East of Eden. I went with the latter for two reasons: (a) I felt like it was less likely that he’d get such a huge, iconic lead role in his first movie, and (2) East of Eden is somewhat more obscure and thus a more likely LearnedLeague answer. I didn’t see the league rewarding players who could name only the most famous of James Dean’s movies when a more interesting curveball was available. Sure enough, only 23% of players got this one.

3. A series of oil paintings by American artist C. M. Coolidge, which was commissioned in 1903 by the publishing company Brown & Bigelow to promote cigars, is best known today for featuring what?

The only decent guess I could come up with for a famous oil painting from a century ago was Uncle Sam. There were problems with this guess — it seemed likely either to go back further, like to the Civil War, or not that far, like to WWI or WWII, as the country probably didn’t need an oil painting to recruit soldiers for the Mexican War; and why would Uncle Sam “NEED YOU” to smoke cigars? — but I couldn’t come up with a better guess.

The only other thing I thought of was “Pittsburg” baseball star Honus Wagner’s insistence that his likeness be removed from tobacco-sponsored trading cards, creating a rarity that helps explain why they now sell for over a million dollars; but that involved a photo, not an oil painting, and it was later than 1903.

So I went with Uncle Sam, and the answer was dogs playing poker. Compounding the problem was that I gave this one the 3 and to his credit my opponent nailed it. Like me a lot of people thought their opponents would miss it (average defense 2.0, highest of the day) but 46% of players managed to get it. Just not my week for anything involving poker.

4. What is the name of this athlete? 

McKayla Maroney (aka "that cute one"), which I not only knew but could spell, having taken note of her parents’ non-use of the more common Michaela. As the world saw during the recent Summer Games, her vault skills are both amazing and clutch, which I can say with the expertise of someone who spends about six minutes every four years thinking about the vault.

My opponent and I each gave this one the 0 and knew it, and leaguewide it was defensed the easiest at 0.9, yet only 52% of players got it right.

5. Most commonly, the chemical hydrolyzation process called saponification is used in the production of what?

I pulled this one out of thin air. Once again my AP Chem failed me, as I don’t know what hydrolyzation is, or whether it is the same thing as hydrolysis, or for that matter what hydrolysis is (and I am only fairly certain it exists). All I knew on this one was that savon is the French word for soap. Since I figured there was some chemical process involved in making soap, and because I had no other guess, I went with soap and was shocked that it was correct. But I defensed it wrong, giving it a 1 because my opponent was good in science, only to have him miss it.

6. On December 8, 2004, during a performance by the heavy metal band Damageplan in Columbus, Ohio, guitarist Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed by an audience member while on stage. Darrell was a founding member of what other band, with whom he first achieved fame?

Much like during a previous season, when I was able to identify both the Michael Jackson song Scream from an audio clip, and the preposterously named album on which it appeared, I was more embarrassed than proud to get this one. Dimebag Darrell played in Pantera, which I learned from the coverage of his hedonistic life and unfortunate death on the Howard Stern show. I’m not too proud of the time I spend on that either but its redeeming facets justify the more base segments, which I don’t even listen to.

I got 4 questions correct to my opponent’s 3, but as I have already boasted, my inferior defense let him catch up and earn a tie.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

BWA ha ha

A subtly entertaining facet of the LearnedLeague trivia contest is that the best wrong answers are honored as, well, Best Wrong Answers. These tend to be funny and intentionally so; in fact, players often shoot for this coveted honor when they can’t — or even if they can? — come up with the correct answer.

Since we’re in a break right now from live action, here are the Best Wrong Answers from the first six days of match play:

What was the name of the middle and long distance runner, one of the most famous individuals in the history of sport in Finland, who won nine Olympic gold medals during the 1920s, and was known during his time with countrymen Hannes Kolehmainen and Ville Ritola as the 'Flying Finns'?

Elvira, Bobby Sue, and (I'm Settin') Fancy Free are among the hits from what country music vocal group?

Of the 13 feature films released by Pixar Animation Studios since 1995, which is the only one -- not including 2012's Brave -- to receive no Academy Award nominations (befitting its critical reputation as the studio's worst release)?

Heartless by Dia Frampton, Fix You by Javier Colon, Roxanne by Juliet Simms, and I Believe I Can Fly by Jermaine Paul, all singles that reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart, were studio versions of performances that first appeared on what television program?
  • STAR WARS CHRISTMAS SHOW (I find this particularly hilarious because it's so random)

What is the most common informal name for the skyscraper at the center of this photograph?

Though his hometown was Rutherford, New Jersey, the epic Paterson was the crowning achievement of what American poet and physician?

Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage, Anfield, and, formerly, Highbury, are all names of what?

We resume play tomorrow. Whoever's playing me, try to be funny!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Day 6: Correctapalooza

Today’s questions were easy. Too easy. So easy, in fact, that they compressed the field, resulting in a slew of high scores, ties, and wasted strong performances. Even the harder questions had few possible wrong answers, so players like me could score points even where we weren’t entirely sure.

Of the 26 players in my division,
  • 9 of us got all six questions correct 
  • 13 got five correct 
  • 3 got four correct 
  • 1 got three correct 
That is kind of ridiculous. We are a B division, not the elite championship tier.

Judge for yourself:

1. Aldo, Avia, Naot, and Sebago are all companies best known for the manufacturing and selling of what? 

Shoes (official answer: footwear). I’ve been in Aldo stores in Chicago and New York, I’ve known forever that Avia makes running shoes, and my mom had Sebago(e)s when I was a kid. Naot was the only brand I had naot heard of. On a day when almost every question could have merited the 0, I gave this one the 0.

2. The protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which establishes a structure of rolling commitments of greenhouse gas emissions reductions for its ratifying nations, is commonly named after what city, where it was adopted initially in December, 1997? 

The Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto. Gave this a 1, would have liked to give it the 0.

3. In geometry, a tetrahedron is a regular polyhedron with four faces (a.k.a. triangular pyramid), and a cube is one with six faces. How many faces does a regular dodecahedron have?

This one, admittedly, was not a gimme. If you didn’t know a dodecahedron was a 12-sided figure, as childhood D&D nerds like me did, then you might have guessed either 12 or 20 based on the word itself.

4. What is the name of the imperial dynasty that ruled China at the start of the first millennium (roughly from 200 BC to 200 AD), and gave its name to what today is China's majority ethnic group? 

Neither was this a gimme. Everyone knows the Ming dynasty from its vases, but I felt somewhat sure that the Han dynasty was a bigger deal, dynasty-wise. It felt more central to Chinese culture, not that I know much about it. Although I wasn't positive, it felt like Han was a stronger guess, even though Han shot first.

Sure enough, Han was the correct answer. I gave this question the 3, as did a lot of other people; its average defense of 2.1 was the highest of the day.

5. St. Moritz, Gstaad, and Verbier are major ski resorts in what country? 

Switzerland. Gstaad, you may recall, is one of the cities whose current times are simultaneously shown by the wristwatch of Louis Winthorpe III.

I gave this question a 2 only because I could only give so many 0s and 1s.

6. Of the 40+ animated television series that have aired on the Nickelodeon channel and produced by the network, which one has been, by far, the longest-running? Over 330 original episodes have aired since the May 1999 premiere, where the title character first landed a job at the fast food restaurant central to much of the series. 

I don’t have kids but I knew that SpongeBob SquarePants is the longtime signature character of the Nickelodeon network. I only hesitated at the fact that he was a fast food restaurant employee, which I didn’t know. Then again, I don’t really know anything about the guy other than the shape of his pants.

My division’s performance on today’s questions pretty much tells the story, but it was more of the same all around the league. The “hardest” question of the day was the Han dynasty at 61% correct. Going up from there, it was Aldo etc. (70%), Dodecahedron (75%), Kyoto (80%), SpongeBob (82%), and Switzerland at a whopping 86%.

The Commissioner is entitled to ask whatever questions he wants, whenever he wants. I guess the reason I’m complaining about having so many easy questions on the same day is that usually I’m spoiled. Although I’m nothing compared to the true rock stars in this league, I’m generally competitive because I tend to know an answer here or there that my opposition doesn’t. While the converse is also true at times, I benefit from the random differences more often than not, plus I usually play pretty good defense.

So on a day like this, when I run the table and so does my opponent, we each get a tie and are effectively penalized for being unlucky enough to play each other. Our good performances cancel each other out and go to waste, and the whole exercise turns into a crapshoot based on who’s playing whom (and, less objectionably, which players among the many who answered five correctly were lucky enough to have their opponents assign a 0 to the one question they missed).

It’s not the end of the world, but it does feel like a waste of a day.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Even as our league's Commissioner is taking a few days off, so too must I pause in my intrepid efforts to document the various and sundry ways I screw up this LearnedLeague season.

I will be spending the day driving around Lake County, Illinois looking at real estate, then attending a fundraiser for a local elected official, so I will not post my writeup of yesterday's leaguewide cakewalk until probably some time tomorrow.

If I can't handle a two-day LL week, God help me when we hit the 14 straight weekdays in September, but I'll deal with that when we get there.