- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Jack Mingo and Erin Barrett say they are not getting invited to parties anymore.

Calling themselves the Fun Guys, the California couple have made a career out of the trivial, writing a newspaper column and books of arcane fact and helping create trivia games. They have access to thousands of tidbits, trifles and minutia — the reason, they believe, for the dearth of invitations.

“Having little bits of information doesn’t exactly endear you to your friends,” Ms. Barrett said.

In fact, Trivial Pursuit, first produced in 1982, is far from being their favorite game.

“We just have a few problems with it,” Mr. Mingo said.

He and Ms. Barrett end up arguing about and checking the facts on the game cards and, secondly, nobody wants to play the game with them, they said.

“They assume, erroneously, that we remember every fact we’ve written,” Mr. Mingo said. “We know some trivia, but we have a lot of gaps in our knowledge.”

Mr. Mingo, 52, and Ms. Barrett, 36, agree that trivia is popular because it satisfies human curiosity, including their own.

“People love trivia because it makes them feel smart,” Mr. Mingo said. “It gets you thinking about, even if it’s for a few seconds, something other than everyday life.”

Playing trivia games can be “a satisfying experience,” said Mark Morris, director of public relations for Hasbro Games in East Longmeadow, Mass. “It’s fun to know something, and it’s even more fun to know something when everyone else in the room says, ‘How did you know that?’”

Trivial Pursuit, a game Hasbro has manufactured since 1991, “proved to the world that adults would play and would buy games,” Mr. Morris said, adding that since 1982, the game has sold 75 million copies.

“It’s fun to know these funny little facts,” he said.

Last week, Trivial Pursuit debuted its 1990s edition, featuring questions and answers about “a decade when Air Jordan ruled, Nirvana rocked, and Vanilla Ice rapped.” One famed figure of that decade — Democratic campaign consultant James Carville — helped celebrate the game’s latest edition at an event at Union Station with rare ‘90s memorabilia collected by a former Smithsonian curator.

A native of Alabama who grew up in Hong Kong, Ms. Barrett took an interest in the trivial seven years ago during the dot-com craze. She contracted with gaming companies to research and write trivia questions after studying biology at Samford University, in Birmingham, Ala. She had planned to attend medical school, but was sidetracked staying at home to raise two children from a previous marriage.

In 1996, Ms. Barrett moved to California, where she freelanced newspaper articles. A year later, she took up writing facts — the term she prefers — contracting with different gaming companies until 2000. She met Mr. Mingo in 1997 while she was working for a California gaming company.

“He was actually my boss,” Ms. Barrett said, adding that her husband jokes that he married her to avoid a sexual harassment case.

Mr. Mingo, a Wisconsin native, moved to Berkeley, Calif., at age 24. He earned a degree in social relations and art and media, then worked in various jobs, including as a school bus driver, crisis intervention social worker, video technician and writer for a psychology journal.

“I jumped careers as often as I changed my clothes,” Mr. Mingo said. “The good thing about writing is it’s several jobs.”

Mr. Mingo started writing in kindergarten, he said, but didn’t get published until about 20 years ago. Since then, Mr. Mingo has written more than two dozen books alone or as a co-author. His works include the “Bathroom Companion” series of books and “The Official Couch Potato Handbook.” He and Ms. Barrett co-authored “Al Capone Was a Golfer,” “Dracula Was a Lawyer” and “Doctors Killed George Washington,” all published in 2002. The two have been working together for the past four years.

“Jack and Erin are a terrific set of authors to work with because they are so smart and fun and willing to think outside of the lines,” said Heather Jackson, executive editor of Rodale Inc., a publishing company based in Emmaus, Pa., that published three of the couple’s recent books. “That’s what also makes them great at what they do, and successful, too.”

In 2000, Ask Jeeves Inc. approached Mr. Mingo and Ms. Barrett about writing a series of books called “Just Curious Jeeves.” The two wrote that and three additional “Just Curious” books about history, science, and animals and nature.

“We wrote books together and dropped what we had been doing,” Ms. Barrett said.

About the same time, Ms. Barrett and Mr. Mingo started cataloging and indexing the facts they collected to answer more than 30,000 trivia questions about history, culture, biographies, science, sports, arts and music, household tips and corporations and products. They had gathered the facts from reading and using the Internet, newspaper and magazine archives, libraries, and specialists in the field, double-checking anything they found. In early 2002, they submitted a proposal to several hundred newspapers to run a trivia column, Random Kinds of Factness.

So far, they have about a dozen subscribers for the five columns they write each week.

“It’s been a very slow process,” Ms. Barrett said.

Jim Krumel, editor of the Lima News in Ohio, says the column’s appeal to readers comes from the “oddball facts in quick, short bursts.”

“Jack and Erin seem to have a knack for providing fun information about subjects you don’t necessarily think about,” Mr. Krumel said. “In an era of 9/11, funding cuts, war, etc., it provides a little entertainment in the newspaper for our readers.”

Mr. Mingo considers what he and Ms. Barrett do to be “the perfect job for our temperaments,” he said. “Both of us enjoy asking the questions and start arguing who is right. Then we run to our sources.”

“It keeps the marriage interesting,” Ms. Barrett said.

“It’s much more fun to argue if Plato lived before Sophocles,” Mr. Mingo said.

“I don’t think he did,” she said.

“We’ll discuss this later, young lady,” he said.

As Ms. Barrett said, “We work together. We play together, and we’re always together. And it works.”

This enjoyment makes the couple good at their jobs, said Jan Johnson, their publisher at Conari Press.

“They seem to have fun. They’re funny. And their enthusiasm just spills out onto the page,” she said.

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