Which designer got "Marky Mark" Wahlberg to strip down to his undies in the early '90s? The Victorian Era began in which century? Which country singer said, "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap"?

If you can answer these random questions (heard last week at the 331 Club's trivia night) and could do so after draining a table full of beers, then you have the makings of a pub-quiz mastermind -- or, at the very least, you have a penchant for useless information that could win you some nice swag.

Nowadays, trivia nights are nearly as common as bingo in the Twin Cities bar scene.

In the past year, the Trivia Mafia has emerged as one of the top providers of these brain-stimulating (and beer-drinking) competitions.

The Mafia went from hosting one trivia night in 2007 to overseeing a network of quizzes (20 total) in bars stretching from Minneapolis to Hugo to Apple Valley.

On Sunday, the Mafia will celebrate the three-year anniversary of its first trivia night with a blowout party at its home base, the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis. The night will feature a pumped-up version of the amusing antics and clever games that make its trivia experience different.

The brains behind this operation are multi-platform tastemakers Sean McPherson and Chuck Terhark. McPherson plays bass for Heiruspecs and is one of the independent hip-hop scene's true characters, while Terhark is a member of the Como Avenue Jug Band and chief organizer of the Zombie Pub Crawl (and a Metro magazine editor by day).

Brains and beer

"We wanted to do a trivia night that our friends would go to," Terhark said.

McPherson calls it a party with a purpose. I couldn't describe their trivia night at the 331 Club any better. While the duo uses Trivia Mafia as the company's umbrella name, the Sunday night affair at this small bar is simply called "Chuck & Sean's Trivia." The duo, with help from rocker friend Martin Devaney, dream up questions every week with inspiration from NPR's "Morning Edition," the New York Times magazine and Wikipedia.

Last week, the 331 was packed with trivia-goers, many of them in their 20s and 30s. Cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon covered the tiny tabletops, while the DJ provided a soundtrack of hip-hop and indie rock between questions.

The night consists of four rounds with about 30 questions total (some local, many broad-based), plus a sound round ("Name that tune") and an image round (on Sunday, the images were "People you thought were cool, but who are, on the contrary, Scientologists"). Your team (six people, max) writes down the answers on a game sheet provided by the hosts.

Team names are important -- the more ridiculous the better. Members of Tickle Wolverines seemed like your average group: dedicated, smart, a little sassy. Most of them drove in from the suburbs because "people are a lot smarter here." Other teams were Bewbs (pronounced "boobs") and I'll Catch You in My Death Bag (a "Twin Peaks" reference).

With competition so stiff, the hosts and competitors alike must stay vigilant, scanning the crowd for cheaters. In the age of smart phones, jumping on the Internet can be a temptation. At the bottom of the Mafia's trivia sheets is this cautionary note: "Use your noodle, not your Google!"

Mob mentality

After seizing the trivia night at the Green Mill's St. Paul location the year before, the Mafia dons were summoned in January 2009 to an annual meeting of the pizza franchise's corporate bosses. Turns out Green Mill COO Paul Dzubnar loved their trivia and wanted to expand it. After wowing the suits, McPherson and Terhark walked away with a dozen trivia nights. That break helped turn the Mafia into a bonafide business.

The Mafia is by no means the largest trivia organization. Others oversee more bars. Some are more sophisticated. McPherson and Terhark give praise to the scene's godfather, John Cosgrove, who runs a full-time trivia enterprise and a popular quiz at Brit's Pub.

"That's the Cadillac of trivia nights," McPherson said.

"We're the Subaru," Terhark said.

Still, the Mafia is rolling along nicely. The 331 Club's owner, Jarret Oulman, said its trivia night is a money maker. It's the bar's third busiest night of the week after Friday and Saturday, he said.

For this Sunday's anniversary party, the Mafia has pulled some strings with their famous friends. McPherson convinced Twin Cities rap star P.O.S. to participate in a celebrity trivia round. In a "this is your life" segment, the rapper will compete against fans to see how well he knows his career. "I'm going to find some ninth-grade Minnetonka freak on MySpace who knows P.O.S. better than he knows himself," McPherson said.

To which P.O.S. told me last week: "I'm expecting to get stumped."

For all you novice trivia-goers, Terhark said not to worry, "it's a myth that you have to be really good at trivia to enjoy yourself at a bar trivia night." He added: "We do give a prize for last place."

That said, you've had this whole story to think about Marky Mark, the Victorian Era and that cheap country singer. Have you figured out the answers?

They are 1) Calvin Klein, 2) the 19th century and 3) Dolly Parton.

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909