Trivia Pursuits: A Conversation with Newsman and Game Show Host Pat Kiernan

Pop quiz master Pat Kiernan in action

Anyone who attended last summer’s sold-out TrivWorks pop culture trivia event at The Bell House got to see yours truly blow the quarterfinal round for my team when I flubbed a softball question involving, of all things, the staple of my childhood lunchbox: Fruit Roll-Ups. Much more important than my inexcusable turf out, however, was the opportunity to spend a few hours with beloved NY1 anchor Pat Kiernan, who emceed the show in exactly the same winsome, witty, and low-key style with which he delivers “In the Papers” to millions of apartments every weekday morning.

Lucky for us, Pat and TrivWorks have teamed up again for a second trivia quiz night at The Bell House on Wednesday, January 25, and this time, the focus is local. “Why We Love NYC: A Pop Culture Trivia Night Celebrating the World’s Greatest City ” promises to test your knowledge “of the people, places and events which shape daily life in our city, as well as famous adaptations of the Big Apple on the big and small screen.” It will be the perfect showcase for Kiernan, who has helmed NY1’s morning news show for 15 years and earned serious trivia cred in the 2000s when he hosted VH1’s World Series of Pop Culture and the WB quiz show Studio 7. I had the opportunity to speak with him about the upcoming gig, his work at NY1, and his love of Williamsburg.

You’re originally from Canada, but you’ve been here for a while and at NY1 for 15 years. At what point did you realize you had become a real New Yorker?

Well, of course there is a contingent of New Yorkers who think that unless you were born here you never become a real New Yorker, but I don’t think that’s either fair or accurate. I’m not sure when exactly in time I felt like I became a real New Yorker but to describe it, you just get this sense that you understand the quirks of the City and you also find them as endearing as they are annoying. It’s everything from knowing that at 4:30 in Midtown it’s impossible to get a cab because they are all on a shift change, you know, which should be an outright frustration. But all of a sudden, as a New Yorker, you turn that into “I know how to get out of this situation because there’s this place where I know the cabs are always letting people off” or “I know the M57 bus runs right past here and that will be faster anyway.” So it’s sort of like you have this inventory of creative solutions about how to get over some of the frustrations of the City. Also, I love the stories, and you see this particularly if you watch NY1, about these quintessential characters and institutions of New York life that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Like, there was this great controversy before Christmas about whether they were allowed to serve this cheese pot at Sardi’s. Apparently at the bar they’ve always had this cheese out that you could kind of just dip into and the Board of Health gets involved and it got all complicated and then something that has gone on for decades is all of a sudden off-limits. It’s stories like that–just quirky New York things that bring me delight to read and learn about and that’s how I know I’ve been here for long enough that I’m a real new Yorker.

As I’m sure you’re aware, NY1 has a bit of a cult following in this town. What do you think it is about the network or the people involved that inspires such loyalty among New Yorkers? I mean, surely it can’t be the cutting-edge graphics . . .

Ha, yeah, absolutely not, if anything that is almost like counterintuive marketing, where people are so tired of the over-slick look of some of the news programs that they’re like, “These guys must be about covering the news seriously because they’re clearly not trying to fool me into watching with dazzling graphics.” I think at the journalistic level we’ve just been lucky in that there are some great people on staff. And if you look at the main anchors in particular, there has been remarkably little changeover in that work force in the 20 years that the station has been on the air. I mean, I’ve been there for 15 years, Roma Torre has been there since the beginning, Lewis Dodley’s been there since the beginning, Kristen Shaughnessy, who does weekend mornings, has been there for longer than I have. When you look at the other stations, they have not had the same people in the same places for as long, so it gives people a sense of comfort and trust. I also think a lot of it is just the brilliance of the concept when they came up with it 20 years ago, which was that it’s crazy that in a city this big we need to clutter the TV news programs with this story from Babylon, Long Island, and this story from Sleepy Hollow, New York, and this story from Parsippany, New Jersey. There’s more than enough news in the five boroughs and we should have our own station- that was one of the founding principles of NY1 was that this city doesn’t need metro-area stations, this city needs its own news channel. I think that core principle of what NY1 is was something that there was a demand for in the market and, you know, once you have an audience and you continue to serve that audience then you have a loyal audience and I think that’s what’s happened over the past 20 years.

Speaking of your colleagues, can we expect any surprise guests at the trivia event on January 25? [Ed. Note: Roger Clark, please!]

Nothing planned so far. It’s hard enough to get us all in the same place once a year for the holiday party, but we’ll see. I’ll try to sprinkle some invitations around but I don’t want to build any hope on that . . .

OK, fair enough. So I know that this event isn’t your first foray into trivia. What is your relationship with trivia and how did you get involved with this event in particular?

Well, I loved game shows growing up. My parents watched game shows, my grandparents watched game shows, so I have always loved the genre. Then, out of the blue in 2004, I had opportunity to host a quiz show on the WB called Studio 7, and that led to an opportunity with the same production company to do The World Series of Pop Culture, which I think is the best-known of my forays into televised game shows. So apart from being a fan of game shows, I definitely hadn’t set out to host them but then I got an invite to host one and it got me hooked on them, so I basically stumbled into something that I would have enjoyed doing if I’d thought of it myself. I tried to keep it going–to keep that brand going–so I do the trivia question on the website [Kiernan’s news blog, Pat’s Papers] every day just to keep my pop culture trivia mind sharp. Then I had the opportunity a little more than a year ago to team up with David Jacobson who runs TrivWorks. The focus of that company was corporate team-building trivia events, but he and I have been working on ideas to not only build that part of his business but also to build a market for live events like this one, so this is our second event at The Bell House and I’m really looking forward to it.

Did you play any role in coming up with the questions or the “Why We Love NYC” theme?

The short answer is yes. David has been doing these trivia events for years, so he has a vast library of questions that he’s been using and has tested at various events so we always start with his knowledge base and then build up from that. I just emailed him a note this morning about a category I thought of out of something we were covering in the news on NY1. I don’t want to discuss the specifics of that for fear that people will study this particular classification of trivia, but I sent him a one-line note: “Hey, it would be fun to do a category on this.” He sent me back within 20 minutes half a dozen ideas for questions about it. So he and I will collaborate in the days leading up to the event and really pin it down. One of the big challenges for an event like this–and sometimes the trivia events don’t put enough stock in this–is that you really have to sit down and look at the difficulty of the material, because of course you are always trying to find that sweet spot where the material is familiar but not easy. It needs to be something that feels like it is attainable but isn’t so attainable that everyone in the room gets the answer.

Do you have any advice for the competitors? Any tips on how to prepare for this specific quiz? As you know, some people take this really seriously . . .

I’m not sure you can really study for it. The questions are all original so it’s not like you can go back to a prior quiz and memorize it. This event is going to be ideal for the person who is a proud and aware New Yorker and also somebody who’s got a head for pop culture. I mean, there are people who proudly say that they only get their news from the BBC or something. If you’re that person of the world who only gets their news from the BBC or the Economist then you’re probably not going to find that the questions are in your area of expertise. But, if you read the NY Post and Gothamist and watch NY1, and you enjoy pop culture then you’re probably closer to the space we are going to be in.

You live and work in Manhattan, but do you ever get the chance to venture into Brooklyn for anything non-trivia related?

I do. My wife and I have spent a lot of time in Williamsburg lately. We have some friends who moved there and they introduced us to the neighborhood, and A) its restaurant appeal, and B) its restaurant pricing appeal. The first time we had a meal there the bill came and we were like, “Are you sure this is everything?” It’s crazy because it’s more in line with what I grew up with in Canada or when I travel elsewhere but in Manhattan you get accustomed to what things cost there because you’re just supposed to take it at face value that that’s what they cost.

One of Pat Kiernan's favorite hangouts: The Gutter (photo by Tien Mao)

Do you have any favorite Brooklyn hangouts in particular?

Well, the big hit with our kids on our last visit was The Meatball Shop. We also did a bowling night with some of the NY1 staff with the people at Gothamist and we went to The Gutter for that. Again, it’s everything that you enjoy about getting together with a group of people to go bowling without the sticker shock of some of the fancy Manhattan bowling places.

As a longtime NY1 watcher, I have to ask: Do you have a favorite commercial on NY1?

One of my timeless favorites was the Carmel commercial with the guy on the street yelling “TAXI!!!!” but sadly, I think they may have finally retired that one. But one of my other favorites just because of its sheer . . . let me find the right word . . . because of its sheer earnestness, is the Grand Prospect Hall commercial. I mean, you truly feel like if you booked an event there you’d be in good hands because that couple in the commercial would be overseeing your event and they’d just give you this sense of confidence and years of experience. It’s not a fancy commercial but it’s a classic NY1 longstanding advertiser commercial: it’s on there because it works.

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Why We Love NYC: A Pop Culture Trivia Night Celebrating the World’s Greatest City ” will take place at 7:30pm on Wednesday, January 25, at The Bell House. Contestants will be competing for an array of prizes representing “quintessential NYC experiences,” such as tickets to Godspell, a lecture at the 92nd Street Y, a Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour, or Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis. Tickets are $25 and will likely sell out soon, so recruit your smartest friends and get on it. Also, a quick pre-game review of 80s foodstuffs can’t hurt.