Hapax Legomenon! ‘University Challenge’ and the Nerd Cult

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Watch University Challenge on BBC 2 every Monday at 21.00 (CET).

On April 10th 2017 at 21.00 (CET) you may have missed the event of the year. After several months of weekly matches, people around Britain (and the world) sat down at home or in the pub to watch this match that was hyped with a Mayweather vs McGregor-level intensity. “I have never been this excited since Pacino and De Niro finally came face to face in Heat,” someone wrote on Twitter. It was the showdown of the century: Monkman vs Seagull.

Though their names may suggest that Monkman and Seagull walked straight out of a Japanese combat game, in reality their facedown was visually less spectacular. Rather than crushing each other with uppercuts and roundhouse kicks, the two flexed their brain muscles over German art historian Erwin Panofsky, the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and stained glass in North-West England. If there ever was any blood, it was only metaphorically.

Economics student Eric Monkman from Wolfson College – Cambridge and Bobby Seagull, an education masters student specializing in Maths from Emmanuel College – Cambridge, were contestants on the British quiz programme University Challenge. First aired in 1962, the iconic quiz programme is not your everyday game of Trivial Pursuit. With questions such as, “What is the only large satellite in the solar system to move in a retrograde orbit?” and “The ancient kingdom of Colchis and Kartli-Iberia are part of the territory of which present-day country?”, the average university graduate would count themselves lucky if they manage to answer as little as five questions correctly per episode. And so University Challenge only stars the crème de la crème of the British universities. On top of that, as of 1994, the questions are read out by none other than Jeremy Paxman, a journalist notorious for turning into an utter shark when interrogating politicians on Newsnight, and whose abrasive interviewing style makes the interrogation scene from LA Confidential look like small talk with a former classmate. So if the questions themselves won’t crash your confidence and self-worth, then Paxo’s occasional patronizing mockery and soul-crushing disappointment surely will.

Yet, with its impossible questions and ultra-brainy contestants, you cannot help but watch University Challenge with a mixture of complete perplexity and ironic bemusement. We will never be this clever so all we can do is be amazed by the contestants’ outlandish intellect and nudge fellow viewers on social media like two class pranksters; dude, we should totally make a meme out of this nerd. Indeed, University Challenge is the perfect environment for the birth of cult heroes like Monkman and Seagull. With his emphatic answering style and intense focus, the Canadian student Eric Monkman was quickly turned into #Monkmania – with memes, merchandise, and the lot. Bobby Seagull stole the hearts of the audience with his magnetic enthusiasm, while sporting colourful ties in every episode. So, rather than being the subject of everyone’s daily tauntings, the way these “nerds” were discussed on social media was like hearing high school kids talk about Regina George; “I love Monkman more than I love my children,” a fan told the BBC, and “we now know God walks among men,” someone wrote on Twitter.

Being Eric Monkman

Aside from Monkman and Seagul, University Challenge has seen many other noteworthy appearances. Apart from contestants who participated and became celebrities later, such as Stephen Fry[1] and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, it is now enough to simply be on the show in order to become famous. Corpus Christi captain Gail “the human Google” Trimble was probably the smartest person to ever take part in the show, correctly answering two-third of her team’s questions. Ralph Morley from Trinity College – Cambridge famously backchatted Paxman when he was baffled that Morley had answered the question correctly when Paxman hadn’t even got past the introduction. Morley replied with the savage comeback, “well what else was it going to be?”. Another star (and favourite of yours truly) is Ted Loveday, a law student from Gonville & Caius college – Cambridge. In 2015 Loveday became an utter legend by providing Paxman, who was only four words into his question, with the correct answer; Hapax Legomenon. The curly, cable sweater wearing student then celebrates his triumph with a cheeky grin while his teammates look at him as if he just dropped the sickest line ever. That same year, Loveday and his team walked away with the trophy, crushing Magdalen College Oxford with a relentless 255 against 105.

As for Monkman and Seagull, they both led their teams deeper and deeper into the competition. In the meantime – the episodes are filmed months in advance – Monkman and Seagul’s bromance had been burgeoning on social media and internet fora where they praised and commented on each other’s performance under the eyes of the entire world, which had become infatuated by the two’s personalities and awe-striking intellect. By the time the two met each other again in the semi-finals, they had become the show’s bromantic It Couple, the Seth Rogen and James Franco of University Challenge.

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Monkman defeated Seagull in the semi-finals but their friendship was so pure that I was convinced that he would do his mate proud by winning the finale, smashing his opponents John Wick-style. In my mind, the two would then walk off to the sunset together and spend weekends punting in Cambridge, discussing Heidegger or the Navier-Stokes equation. However, in the finale against Balliol College – Oxford, Monkman faltered: during the starter questions, eager to get the follow-up questions, he repeatedly leapt in before Paxman reached a full stop, causing his team to lose precious points for interrupting the question without giving the correct answer. Eventually, Monkman and his team lost with 140 to 190. Perhaps the pressure and his nerves got the better of him, or maybe Balliol was simply too clever for him. Either way, not even William Shakespeare or Game of Thrones could depict a hero’s fall from grace so tragically.

While at first University Challenge may not seem as the most exciting way to spend your Monday evening, it is probably the most remarkable quiz show there is. The best, and perhaps the most British thing about University Challenge happens right before the end credits. After 30 minutes of being targeted with the most complex questions, the contestants are, right before Paxman closes the show, expected to wave and say goodbye to the viewers. While some cocky contestants fully embrace the moment and salute the audience with the cool confidence that would make George Clooney feel inadequate, we see most contestants, who just outsmarted at least 98% of the population, sheepishly waving at the camera as though they were saying goodbye to their grandaunt. Maybe this is why some of the contestants have gained their cult status; it is not just their immense intellect that makes them cool, legendary even, but also the fact that these contestants have, at all times, retained their awkward nerdish charm.

[1] Who re-entered the competition in the 80s comedy classic The Young Ones.

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