EVERETT — What makes a bad trivia question?
Ask Darren Nielson and he’ll say it’s a fact your average person wouldn’t possibly know off hand; like the number of steps in the Eiffel Tower, or the height of the Space Needle. It’s those kinds of questions Nielson tries to avoid in the dozens of questions he spends hours writing each week.
Nielson, 54, of Everett, made a living for more than a decade assembling airplanes for Boeing. But a year ago he left his job and began professionally hosting trivia nights at bars and restaurants throughout Snohomish County.
The trivia MC tasks teams of players with answering 48 questions across five themed rounds on topics ranging from geography, literature and history to general pop culture. Nielson said many people assume he grabs his questions from the internet for convenience, but he actually writes each one himself.
Neilson calls himself a “trivia vampire” because he works into the wee hours, jotting down ideas in a spreadsheet on his laptop. While some type away from the comfort of a quiet cafe, Nielson’s office of choice is a noisy bar, preferring the comfort of live music over silence.
Nielson wants his trivia to be interesting, clear and insightful. He admits that his questions often can become too long or convoluted, but it’s all in an attempt to be informative. “Achievable” is the word Nielson uses to describe a good trivia question.
“I don’t want people to go away feeling like they’ve been defeated by my questions,” Nielson said. “I want people to do good — not too good, though. I don’t want to feel like I’m cheating them out of a knowledgeable experience.”
The challenge for Nielson isn’t coming up with the questions. He said ideas will just click when he least expects it. For example, one question he used was, “This beverage place at the mall shares a name with a Roman emperor?” The answer: Orange Julius.
The real art of planning a trivia night for Nielson is crafting the perfect balance of questions both young and older audiences would get. So he’ll have a music-themed round with a question about Britney Spears followed by one about Frank Sinatra.
Nielson stockpiles questions in an effort to never have to use the same one twice at a venue. At one point he had 19 weeks worth of questions saved away, but quickly burned through them after amassing more and more clients. A lot of time and effort goes into Nielson’s trivia nights. So why all the trouble? Why write out original questions at all?
“Because this is mine,” Nielson said. “This whole thing is mine. This idea. This business. And so I want everything to be mine. And I am not saying that I don’t borrow ideas, because I do. But I still make things my own.”
Before spending his nights in rowdy restaurants leading trivia, Nielson spent his mornings assembling airplanes for Boeing. He worked as an assembly mechanic for 13 years out of the Everett plant.
The job was physically demanding, and left Nielson feeling unfulfilled. During his lunch breaks, Nielson would use his free time to play online trivia quizzes to stimulate his mind. He’s a huge fan of websites like Sporcle. In fact, Nielson has been a trivia aficionado for as long as he can remember.
“I like knowledge in general. I like knowing things,” Nielson said. “And I got to a point where nobody in my family wanted to play (Trivial Pursuit) against me.”
Playing trivia made Nielson feel better and helped him get through the day. It was the least he could do to exercise his mind, something he said his blue-collar job did not. He took his love of trivia a step further when he started running trivia night at Brews Almighty in Everett.
Joseph Kutz owns the beer shop and is a friend of Nielson’s. The two have known each for eight years and even were members of the same cover band, The Almightys. Kutz played drums and bass and Nielson sang. In summer 2020, Nielson started hosting trivia at the shop, with free beer initially as payment.
Kutz had never hosted trivia at his establishment before then, but agreed to let Nielson give it a shot. Ever since, Nielson has brought in a crowd for weekly Wednesday trivia at Brews, sometimes as many as 60 people by Kutz’s estimates.
“He’s got charisma,” Kutz said. “He’s got a good aura about him, for sure.”
Nielson enjoyed hosting, but at Boeing, he was unhappy. In November 2020 he had finally had enough and left the company in search of a different line of work. Word got around about Nielson’s trivia got around and over time he landed more and more hosting gigs. Nielson said he found a market for his services as people were clamoring for something to do with COVID shutting most social gatherings down.
“So COVID actually was a boon for me. Because karaoke was shut down. Live music was shut down. Somehow, I made it through,” he said.
In January, Nielson launched his business, Savvy Minds Entertainment. As of September, he had three regular clients with others in the works.
Right now Nielson earns enough income to get by, he says, but his dream is to run multiple trivia events every weeknight. He has also thought about holding private events or expanding into bingo and karaoke. His biggest dream by far is to lead a trivia cruise. But for now, Nielson says he is content.
“I came from a job that was not appreciative of my work, where I was a number. And to do what I’m doing now, and being able to do my own thing, work my own hours, make whatever this is all mine, is a great feeling.
“The best feeling is when you get done with your work, and they applaud you,” Nielson said. “It’s such a nice feeling to do what you love to do, and be appreciated for it. There’s nothing that can beat that. It’s just a phenomenal feeling.”