Karan Menon remembers his first live television experience — winning the National Geographic Bee when he was in the eighth grade. In high school, he joined Quiz Bowl, a trivia-based competition activity encompassing different academic subjects.
“I’ve always been into trivia and different competitions,” said Menon, a junior majoring in computer science. “I’ve been a very curious individual. I love reading about different things. I just go to Wikipedia and get lost there for hours, and I’ve been doing competitions since a young age.”
When he got to college, Menon knew Quiz Bowl was something he wanted to continue participating in and decided to revive the team at USC, which had been inactive for years. The team, which consists of Menon, Brendan Glascock and Ann Nguyen, competed in the NBC College Bowl, advancing to the final championship episode against Columbia University, which aired Sept. 7.
The show consisted of four rounds of face-offs in a bracket-style tournament, each taking place in a different episode with questions covering topics from steel drums to Drake. Although they ultimately lost to Columbia in the final round, the USC team beat rival UCLA in the qualifying and quarterfinal rounds and the University of Alabama in the semifinals. For coming in second place, each student received a $25,000 scholarship.
Glascock, a junior majoring in computer science, did not have any Quiz Bowl experience prior to joining the USC team. He participated in Academic Decathlon in high school and figured that Quiz Bowl would be similar but with an expanded curriculum. When the Quiz Bowl team reached out with the College Bowl possibility, it was a no-brainer for Glascock.
“I’m a diehard game show fan. I’ve watched game shows all my life,” he said. “I jumped on the opportunity.”
After filling out applications, attending Zoom interviews and sending in various photos and videos to NBC producers for the College Bowl show, Menon, Glascock and Nguyen, a senior majoring in film and television production, received notifications of their selection and in the spring were flown out to Los Angeles, all expenses paid. Upon their arrival, the team was quarantined for two weeks before the filming began.
“I think the suspense of being in that hotel room and not [being] allowed to leave your room for two weeks really added to the excitement,” Glascock said. “We had nothing else to do but just think about what was about to happen.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, producers filmed the show without a live audience. For Glascock, who had no prior live television experience, this eased his nerves.
“It was a calming set,” he said. “There are lots of natural colors … the whole thing is made of wood and it kind of feels like a classroom. They have all these books and globes and things everywhere, so I think the jitters calmed down very quickly.”
Football star Peyton Manning, along with his brother and television host, Cooper Manning, hosted the show. Menon said he was able to form personal connections with each of them.
“Even though [Manning] is this huge football star, he’s a really nice guy,” Menon said. “Between each of our questions and before and after them, he would come up to us, chat with us, and he would know each of us by a first name basis.”
Aarya Patel, Menon’s childhood friend, recalls seeing Menon thrive in competition all the way back in middle school when he contributed to starting the National Geographic Bee at his school.
“I sort of knew that they could [make it to the finals] because I know Karan and I know how much he knows … especially considering his past.” Patel said. “It was really cool to see someone I knew on national television, especially with Peyton Manning.”
Menon and Glascock both said they did not expect to make it to the final round of the competition and were pleasantly surprised at how well the team performed.
“I went into the competition with no expectations. I was like, ‘I’ll just go here, have fun, try my best,’” Menon said. “So, when we made the championship competition, I was really excited and really proud of our team.”
On the night NBC aired the final round, Rock and Reilly’s, a bar in the USC Village, had a watch party to celebrate the College Bowl team’s accomplishments.
“It was like watching the Super Bowl,” Glascock said. “All the TVs in the bar were tuned to the one station, NBC, and people were cheering raucously for every single question, even the ones that I thought were trivial or easy.”
Since the show aired, the members of the team have received somewhat of a celebrity treatment on campus, said Glascock.
“Quite a few people have recognized me on campus,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll just be skating down Trousdale or whatever and somebody says, ‘Aren’t you the guy from that TV show?’”
Menon said he understands the strength of the Trojan spirit in a new way since being on the show.
“[This experience] really taught me the value of this USC community,” Menon said. “I became even more proud of the school and what it has to offer for us as individuals.”