Pub Trivia is Dead
Josh and Liam Hewitt
By Kian West
I CONSIDER MYSELF LUCKY FOR HAVING MET TWO OF THE MOST INCREDIBLE BROTHERS, JOSH AND LIAM HEWITT. THEY RUN STAGWIZ AT THE STAG AND HUNTER HOTEL; IT’S TRIVIA, BUT IT’S ALSO KIND OF NOT. IT’S HARD TO EXPLAIN IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN, SO I’LL GET THEM TO ATTEMPT IT.
PERSONALLY, I’M GOING TO MISS THEIR PASSION FOR THIS SHOW AND I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO WATCHING WHAT THEY BOTH ACHIEVE NEXT…
I sat down in the function room at the Stag for a schooner and a chat with these two handsome men to get the sad news about the end of Stagwiz: why, how it all started, what’s next, and how they achieved what most people don’t – they built a community.
Can you start with telling me a little bit about yourselves?
Josh: [looking at Liam] You're up.
Liam: Hello, my name's Liam. What would you like to know?
J: You're going to have to speak up. Liam's quite a talker. That's why he does all the talking on Tuesday nights.
L: Where should I start? Well, I was born...
J: We were both born in Singleton. I'm thirty-three. I forget how old you are.
J: Good boy. [Now we live in] Mayfield, Carrington.
L: Yep, locals now.
J: I worked here at Stag for five and a half years, starting as a waiter, then barperson. Then finally a year as bar manager before I was poached by the university. I took over pub trivia here at the Stag in about 2012. The previous Operations Manager of this hotel – Aaron Hogg, who is a dear friend of mine – was running trivia, and it was just a base trivia. It was like, a long table on the stage in the restaurant asking questions about, you know, who was Prime Minister at this time? Who was the Melbourne Cup winner at this time? Or sport, geography… It was typical trivia: competitive, like people would come in just to show off how smart they were. With the exception of a few, it attracted a pretty arrogant cross-section – an intellectually arrogant cross-section of people, I'd say.
L: Yeah, the kind of competitive trivia where no one really has fun. They just want to win.
J: Yes, that's it. They're all sitting there going, ‘They're winning – fuck,’ and getting really antsy about it. If anything I said was wrong – like, if I gave an answer that they felt wasn't right – I would have old women storming the stage, going [old lady voice] ‘Well, I've Googled this and this is not right,’ and carrying on. And I'm there going, ‘Okay, please, stop. Get off the stage.’
[laughing] ‘I'm not getting paid enough for this.’
J: Yeah. I started to get really annoyed with it, of course, and so started to look at ways that I could just take the tension off, really. So I started wiring my laptop into the hotel's in-house and using musical cues from, like, Mario Cart 64. I would say, ‘Time to get your answers in,’ and hit a button, ‘Doo doo doo do da doo do’. You know, just to take that tension off and get rid of some of that snarky competitive atmosphere. It just built from there. It just carried on and on and on. I would tweak it every week and go, ‘Let's try this, let's try that, here's another way I could make it more entertaining.’ I went through some shitty costumes. I went through a phase where I was wearing a lab coat.
L: I was just about to say that. I think it's first thing I ever remember going back to trivia, before you employed me, was in the backroom – you were wearing some lab coat and had I think Rob Zombie or White Zombie as the intro.
J: That's right, I used an old White Zombie song for my intro.
L: Yeah, pretty fun but even back then, the questions were still pretty standard.
J: Spun the oldies out.
L: It did. It was a good way to drive them out forever.
J: I could tell they were getting the shits because there was an influx of younger people at this point. You'd have walk-ins who were going, ‘Oh, this sounds cool.’ I started to go off-script a bit and not just read the answers. I'd start fucking with them a little bit and being maybe a little less tolerant of rudeness, I would say. Then the big, big renovation of the front bar started to take shape – they ripped out the old suspended ceiling because it used to look like an RSL. It was like a sports bar with downlights and a ceiling that high.
J: Mick Starkey, the owner – the governor of these parts – put in the big beautiful new stage, knocked out the front doors, [put in] a sound system that was shy of two hundred grand.
An expensive sound system.
J: It's big and it's got, like, chains thicker than these two fingers – that sounds wrong.
[laughing] Big thick chains.
J: Big thick chains hanging the speakers off the ceiling. We had a short-lived run of movies in the main bar, so he put a data projector in. It didn't last long because we realised that people didn't like sitting on bar stools staring at a screen for two and a half hours – you've got to have a lounge area. The screen was then relegated to big sporting events and things like that, but it was when that screen went in that I begged him and said, ‘Let me move this trivia night to the front bar and I'll give you something special.’
The first night in the main bar was Halloween, so I thought, ‘Oh, well, I'll dress up.’ So I put on a dark coat and a wide-brimmed hat and started using Ian the clown, we call him – I'll explain that story later, why he's called Ian. It's pretty much a direct line from there to now, with just that weekly update. That weekly sort of, ‘Oh, I'm not sure about this. I think I might just make that a bit more intense or a bit scarier or a bit...’ And it's just been a gradual evolution to where we stand now.
It got to the point where the lighting was automated so I didn't have to worry about it. I would control my own audio, I'd control the visuals, which is just like a keynote presentation on steroids, basically. Then when it got too much for me to do the two hands and host – and my little brother kept playing trivia and winning because I was writing the questions, and generally he knows what I know – I hired him.
Was it to take you out of the game?
L: Yes, it was to get rid of me. It was getting awkward, winning. It got a little bit weird when I won the jackpot prize for two hundred dollars and people were like, ‘Hmmm, errr…’
‘This isn't cool.’
L: ‘It's entirely random.’ I guess that's where it started – probably that particular event...
‘Bro, you've got to stop playing. How do I get you to stop playing?’
L: Pretty much.
J: When it moved to the front bar was when it became ‘Stagwiz’, I guess. It had the name out there but it wasn't what it is now, of course. I ran it in that bar for a year, tried to leave. When I took the job for the uni, I now said I was leaving, but it was too popular. We'd fill that bar. We were getting, like, eighty to a hundred people a week.
On a Tuesday.
J: Yeah, and so Mick, the owner, and Aaron, the old operations manager, encouraged me to get an ABN and keep doing it, so it was just a gig. I did that for a year before I wanted to upgrade again and that's when I brought you on.
J: It’ll be two years ago on Halloween. And from there it just went [clap] – we just went nuts. They bought a smoke machine, we used that. Every time the hotel bought new toys for the live bands, we'd incorporate it. We'd start stealing it.
L: Upgraded the lights a couple of times. They started off a bit shoddy but they got better...
J: Lighting sequences. You know, still nearly every time I see Mick, I'm bouncing up behind him going, ‘Are you getting any new stuff? Are you getting some new toys for the stage, mate?’ I remember him joking once and he went, ‘Do you want a rotating platform?’ And I went, ‘Stop it.’
You've got a pretty strong association with Halloween then.
J: Yeah, I think it sort of spilled over from – well, that was the day that it changed, I guess, and I went, ‘Oh, there's something to this, there's something to a show.’ People were into it that night – that first night I started dressing like a deep south cult leader – and that's kind of when the concept came to me. I realised that what the old trivia night, and what I think many other trivia nights are lacking was a sense of community or family to it. So I realised that if I started – if it looks like a cult, acts like a cult, sounds like one, walks like one – then it just about is. And realised that if I marketed it that way and made it look that way, people would arrive and feel like they were part of something, that they belonged to something. We started to get people who felt, like, a membership to it – it's not a club, you don't sign up, you just come back. You just stay with us.
Like a cult.
J: Yes, you're ours. And that's how we managed to keep the dead horse kicking, is that people felt membership, they felt ownership for it. I have people who apologise to me for not making it: ‘Oh, sorry I didn't get there last week.’ And I’m like, ‘That's alright, that's okay.’
‘You owe me six dollars.’
J: It's just a bit of fun. Shit, I didn't realise it would have this effect. And as a result, the current crop along with some who can't make it anymore are some of my dearest friends and Liam's too now. And one of my favourite, favourite things is to watch them become friends with each other.
Some people off some team might invite me or Liam to a party and we'll go and we’ll see other people from Stagwiz because they've made friends. And when the questions are over and when Liam's marking rounds, I see them – they're bouncing between tables saying hello, they go out for a dart or take photos together, and that's what I've been gearing for the whole time: to get that family atmosphere.
L: It took off...
J: Yeah, I didn't craft this. I kind of had this idea, but it was the punters that wrangled it. They made Stagwiz more than I ever thought it could be, even though it's just a little – I never forget it's a trivia night in Mayfield. But I think it's because of their efforts, their passion for it, that made it so much more.
How do you explain it to people who haven't been? Surely you have moments where you're chatting to someone and they're like, ‘Josh, what do you do?’ And you do the uni thing, but ‘Oh, I also host trivia.’
J: Yes, I'm also an undead cult-leading monster on a Tuesday night. Outside of that big spiel I just had, we're an antidote to boring pub trivia. I've heard so many complaints about pub trivia and, well, how it used to be for us and for me – it was dull, aggressive, had a host who's not entertaining.
L: Someone who's yelling too closely in the microphone.
J: Or a disinterested girl hunched over the bar reading questions about Seinfeld – she just doesn't give a fuck, she doesn't care.
She's a bartender who's been roped into reading it out this week.
J: At this point, it's almost like trivia's secondary to it. It's just entertainment.
L: We kind of stopped focusing on actually making it in any way hard. It's usually just for a laugh or, ‘Check out this cool thing.’
It’s like, ‘What are the things we've seen this week…’ or ‘These are the raddest videos I've found.’
L: Pretty much.
J: It's crossed the border into almost a comedy show.
L: The best nights are the ones where the entire room's laughing, and the questions aren't hard but it's funny.
J: To a stranger I would say that, plus of course the charity aspect, which is another reason why it’s gone on as long as it has.
L: It's become a part of Stagwiz, instead of just being a random trivia night, where we just get paid to read questions. People probably wouldn't give as much of a shit if they weren't also really giving a big monthly donation to different charities.
J: That's it. It's the cause too.
So the way it works, which was actually Mick Starkey's idea, because he knows about charities – he's been with the Variety Club and all sorts of stuff, and just being a venue owner in Newcastle – they all know about it, they like to think. So the way it works is, you come in. At six-fifteen the jailer appears – that's Liam.
L: That's me.
J: I've got to stop gesturing because I realise you're recording here. He appears in his gear and the ceremony is that he carries the lantern out from the bar, places it on the stage. He's got a little plastic bunny mask on now. We've upgraded our gear a bit. We decided we'd go turbo for this last season, as it were, like Super Saiyan stables.
You grab an entry form from the stage, write your team name, and it's a gold coin minimum per person to play, which you pay as a toll to the jailer, who puts it in the jar. And all those donations, every month, go to a different charity. And how the charity gets selected each month is, when you pay that gold coin, each member of your team gets a jackpot ticket – so you put your name and your team name on it, it goes into a barrel. The last Tuesday of the month, we draw that barrel, pull the name out, and provided that person is there – you have to be present to win – that person gets two hundred cash from the pub and the opportunity to select the beneficiary of those dollars for the following month.
So it rolls over, ticks over, and at the end of the month, we do a big thing where I announce the totals raised for that charity and then we move to jackpot, draw the name, bang – two hundred bucks. ‘You don't have to pick it now, but if you let me know by next Tuesday, that's cool.’ And they have a good think and there's been some really big moments as a result of that, because people pick things that are close to their heart. They might have lost a family member. We've had ones for domestic violence that I can tell are personally motivated, and that just rocks me. When someone contacts me and says, ‘This is the charity I want,’ I can hear it in their voice that there's a reason why they've gone for it. It's like it's telling us a little bit – which is special for us.
Like one of the biggest ones we had was – before we really got to know people… I'm not sure where I should start with this. I'm going to talk about Jake. I should just jump in.
Our brother took his life four years ago. Our little brother, Jacob. You know, I could talk all day about how Stagwiz has brought us closer together, because it definitely has. Liam is the most important person in the world to me, hands down.
One of those special moments came because the anniversary of his passing is in June. Before we were fucking Facebook friends with everyone who comes to Stagwiz, generally they didn't know, the crowd didn't know. This would be two years ago, during your first year [Liam], roughly.
Anyway, so this person won this jackpot. She had to select a charity for June and she goes for Beyond Blue. I screenshotted this message and sent it to Liam and said, ‘She's gone with Beyond Blue, this month of all months.’ That was just… That was probably a prime example of how it's, I guess, shaken us in a good way.
I'm not sure where I was going with that, but on that last Tuesday of that particular month – and the anniversary is on the twenty-seventh, two days before my birthday, which is gold timing, thanks mate. We're at this point where we can have a giggle. It's how I deal with things.
So last Tuesday of the month. It was pretty close to that date. Our parents came down from Singleton to be there and this crowd – most of which are still with us – that whole month had been secretly raising money that we didn't know about, and still giving their donation of a Tuesday. And on that night, they jumped up and sprung five hundred cash on us.
L: Yeah, that was a big surprise. A little bit hard not to break down a bit on stage. It was a big moment.
J: Well, I did my face-paint extra thick that night. Like I'm in the middle of a segment here, I'm just about to announce it, and Falon was the chosen one to jump up and go [click]. I looked at you and I looked at Mum and Dad and I was like, ‘There's five hundred bucks in here.’
L: And I think it was already a really big month to begin with, on top of that.
J: Yeah, people got wind of it and were digging deep. That was the month that we got interviewed by the Herald too, because Mum dobbed us in. Mum messaged the Herald and said what was going on, that there was this chance selection of this charity during this month that not everybody knew about, and so the Herald turns up, which is lovely.
So have you both always liked scary movies and metal, as in the music, the genre of Stagwiz?
L: Pretty much.
And then does it escalate that? Because it becomes part of what you do every week, do you find that it's this weird sort of circle where you have to watch more scary movies and listen to more of this and that?
L: Yeah, we do a lot of research, I guess, but that's just what we watch a lot and listen to a lot.
J: That's just the nature of things.
L: I guess the hardest part is actually not just doing that, I suppose – drawing on what we see and what we know, which is horror movies, which is scary movies or comedy movies that no one else really finds that funny. That's probably the hardest part – actually doing things that might appeal to everybody else.
We're here today because you guys are wrapping things up Halloween, 2017. Is it the end or is it the beginning? Is this the end of this chapter and actually the beginning of something else, or is it sayonara?
J: It's the end of Stagwiz, so we can do other things with our lives.
Get Tuesdays back.
J: Yeah. It's going so well, it's literally wanting to end it on a high because it hasn't declined, but it will. If we keep belting it for years and years, it will. Everything does.
L: The best things end short. Leave them wanting more, basically.
J: Liam is studying to be a sound engineer. This makes it tough. Stagwiz makes it tough because he's going to need to be getting experience and he studies at TAFE. I've got a mental health blog I need to get back into. I can carry a tune so I wouldn't mind maybe starting a band or a podcast or even – I was talking about a radio show on Apple Music, even.
J: Nah. I want to teach myself graphic design. There's all these things that life is calling to me.
Time to focus some of that energy on something else.
J: Which is good. I've been thinking about killing it for about a year, when I was going to pull the pin – and originally I was looking at June this year, because I pissed off to Canada for a fortnight and I thought, ‘If I'm taking two weeks off, maybe I can just do it then.’ But then, actually, it was one of those nights where I was on stage and I was watching people make friends. I watched new friendships forge and I was receiving messages onstage, while I'm talking, from a girl I knew – a very close friend – saying how she'd met another girl at Stagwiz and she'd fallen for her. She was like, ‘Oh, I've fallen for her and I want to keep seeing her so I'm going to be coming every week so I can see her and talk to her.’ I remember seeing that and then walking over to you and going, ‘I can't fucking cancel this.’ I was like, ‘Look at them.’ It was like a movie and we looked at them and they were all mixed and matched. It's when I get up and go, ‘Right – answers,’ that everyone goes back to their tables, but in between, it's just a big social love-in.
You've talked about how there's such a close association with Halloween the whole way through, it does actually make a whole heap of sense that what you started on Halloween would finish on Halloween.
And it really ties in with the atmosphere and the culture that ties around that – it's got that dark, deep, scary association and it kind of makes sense.
J: I mentioned we were going turbo earlier, right? It's like the final boss for me. It's like Stag is going, ‘Now you see me in my true form.’ Like the end of a movie or the final season of a TV show. So we’re treating this as, ‘Come and see the final season, tune in. If you've been thinking about it for the last fucking five years, or two years since it became what it is now, now is the time because it will book out.’ It's going to book out every fucking week. Like, I have people saying, ‘Oh, can I get a seat to the last one?’ I go, ‘Good luck, good luck.’ Please go for it – by all means, go for it. Bookings haven't opened yet. It will be about two weeks out bookings open, and of course we've got the Harry Potter special. I'm encouraging friends – it's like, ‘Don't count on that last one, okay? Come next week or the week after,’ because they're all going to be good. The big bang is going to be the last, but pretty much since I called it, they've all been bangers.
L: Just been funny the whole time.
J: We've been having more fun, we're more passionate about it. It's just less like a chore because we know that I'm about to take it out to the farms – I've been telling people, ‘Stagwiz is going to the farm.’
What is the one thing you would like to teach Novocastrians?
J: What would we like to teach them?
L: Really investing in anything which is bringing people together.
J: If it's worth doing, it's worth over-doing.
L: That's it. I might just go fuck myself then.
J: Oh, well that too.
You both get to teach them something different.
J: Well this is exactly what I mean as in I'm the brains and you're the heart. I'm like, if you're going to do it, fucking charge at it. Make it over the top.
L: Believe in yourself and everyone else will believe in you too.
J: I'm not sure, I feel like I need a better answer than that. What would we teach them?
L: Follow your dreams and you too could run a trivia night, where you get to wear face paint and put your MS Paint drawings up. You can get paid to get drunk.
J: I really wish I had time to think about that one. That's a cracker of a question.
Josh and Liam Hewitt finish a stellar run of Stagwiz on Halloween. If you’ve not been to their trivia and want to experience something truly spectacular, we recommend making a booking and get to one of the final Tuesday night shows at the Stag & Hunter Hotel in Mayfield before it’s all over.