One Question Quiz
A stressed out adult. Image: Whitebait Media (additional design by Archi Banal)
A stressed out adult. Image: Whitebait Media (additional design by Archi Banal)

Pop CultureJanuary 13, 2024

I went on a kids’ quiz show and it was a deeply humbling experience

A stressed out adult. Image: Whitebait Media (additional design by Archi Banal)
A stressed out adult. Image: Whitebait Media (additional design by Archi Banal)

Summer reissue: Alex Casey spends a day getting owned on the set of TVNZ’s Brain Busters, the longest-running kids’ game show in Aotearoa. Warning: includes video. 

First published on July 8, 2023.

Sweat is dripping down my neck and my turtleneck has cut off the blood supply to my head. My flyaways are standing to attention, just like everyone else in the studio, waiting to hear what the hell is going to come out of my mouth next. Hours, days, years seem to pass as I stare at Brain Busters host Chris Kirk and he stares back, pityingly. This was just supposed to be a simple warm-up question: where would you wear a mouthguard?

Where would you wear a mouthguard? A monkey is crashing cymbals behind my eyes. Where, on god’s greenest earth, would you wear a mouthguard? You’ve got your mouthguard, so where would you be wearing it? The bright lights sear a hole into my already empty skull. “The… field?!!??!?!” I plead, sticking the landing with the highest terminal rise ever uttered from Cape Reinga to Bluff. My podium flushes red, along with my face, as the universal noise for WRONG rings throughout the Brain Busters area.

“The mouth,” Chris replies gently. “You would wear a mouthguard in your mouth.” 

Mouthguard panic ensues. (Photo: Whitebait Media)

I’ve never been great at quizzes. I don’t like the tension, I don’t like the creeping doubt, I don’t like the puffed chests of those who bring Mr Spock energy. I’m also bad under pressure, and the only fact I know with total confidence is that Glorafilia by Zed was named after the guitarist’s Mum’s needlepoint book. At the last pub quiz I went to, my main contribution was knowing the two colours of Freddy Kruger’s jumper, and even then I changed my mind at the last minute from “red and green” to “red and brown” and lost us the point anyway. I haven’t slept since. 

With all of this neurosis in mind, I am about the single worst person you could recruit to go on a quiz show. And yet, there I was on the set of Brain Busters, New Zealand’s most successful and longest running kids’ game show. Airing weekdays on TVNZ2 since 2020, the series takes our country’s brightest young minds through a series of mental and physical challenges to win up to $750 cash. Part Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, part Mastermind and part Ninja Warrior, Brain Busters has already given away $250,000 to over 2,400 New Zealand kids over three years.

For this 31-year-old, my first test of intelligence begins before I’ve even set foot inside the studio. It’s clearly a busy day in the concrete industrial Christchurch suburb of Middleton, and I can only find two free car parks near the Whitebait studio. One is a 24/7 towaway outside an empty-looking nearby cafe, the other is a beautiful tree lined space right outside the Whitebait entryway. The catch? It is founder Jason Gunn’s carpark. It’s a money or the bag situation: risk getting towed, or risk angering a national treasure? A patriot, I take the towaway risk. 

“Good choice,” says producer Reuben Davidson at the door. “Plus, it will be good for the story if you get towed.” These bastards are messing with me already. As we walk through the hallowed halls of Whitebait, Jason “Farty” Fa’afoi and co smiling down upon us, Davidson tells me about the genesis of Brain Busters, first conceived as a kids’ version of The Chase for TVNZ. Hiring some top secret quiz experts to consult (Davidson wouldn’t tell me who, despite repeated requests), they came up with an original format that consists of four distinct rounds. 

The quickfire Mega Memory round is harder than it looks. Image: Whitebait Media

The quiz questions for the first Mega Memory round are written by a panel of 10 teachers and are designed to be closely aligned with the curriculum. I think back to what I learned in year nine, and all my brain comes back with is a rudimentary recipe for hokey pokey from science class, and a reminder that one of the smartest year nines at my school now works at Microsoft. Every question must have at least two supporting resources to prove they are factually correct. “One comedian suggested we just google the questions on the way in to work,” laughs Davidson. “It’s a little more complex than that.”

Every morning before a Brain Busters shoot, the production team meets to comb through the entire list of quiz questions for the day – each one has to be read at least five times. Every set of questions is then sorted and filed away in a hard black plastic case, the sort of case a bomb might be hidden inside in an action film, and then lined up behind a curtain in the studio. “This is serious business,” I remark, gingerly stepping past the question cases as if they might actually explode. Davidson stops in his tracks and turns back to me. “This is a serious show.” 

It may take quizzing seriously, but Brain Busters isn’t interested in cutting anyone down. “This is not The Weakest Link,” Davidson explains. “The kaupapa is that every player has to leave a little taller than when they arrived.” Watching host Chris Hirk banter gently with the competitors about their hobbies – including one kid who built a functioning robot arm on his own??? – I can only hope that kindness is afforded to dim journalists who still don’t know, even after having it explained to them by a patient friend with a Powerpoint presentation, how tides work.

In a small saving grace, many adults have braved the Brain Busters studio before me and many have performed abysmally. A special celebrity season saw the likes of Simon Bridges, Chlöe Swarbrick and Anita Wigl’it battle it out in the arena, and led to such humiliations as Bridges wrongly asserting that the next colour after red in the rainbow is yellow, and that you can order a deep-fried pineapple ring at Burger King. “We had to give all of them easier questions than we would normally ask our kids,” Davidson laughs. 

Quizzing with the Stars. (Photo: TVNZ)

Wigl’it took out the whole thing, even acing the Ninja-Warrior style obstacle course in full drag. If she can do this, basically backwards and in heels, then surely I’ll be fine?

Any encouraging self-talk was soon pulverised as I watch the Mega Memory quickfire round get underway from the sidelines and realise all these kids are buzzing in within milliseconds. How far from the tryline is halfway in league? In what game would you find “the aether”?? How many s’s are in Mississippi??? I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW MANY S’S ARE IN MY OWN NAME. I am sweating profusely already, the decision to wear a tight black turtleneck to evoke smart woman Elizabeth Holmes was a mistake. Maybe I could go check on my car and just… leave? 

After Mega Memory comes a specialist round, where the remaining kids can choose from a range of categories. Before each kid approaches, a man in black has to run in and manually install the podium for them. “We used to have a hydraulic plinth, but it had to be removed,” Davidson explains quietly. One of the mystery quiz experts kept a spreadsheet with a column dedicated solely to how much time was spent per day watching the hydraulic plinth rise and fall. “It looked cool, but it was just too slow,” sighs Davidson. 

The plinth round wraps up, which means it is now my time to shine. And when I say shine, I mean literally. I can feel sweat dripping down my back and beading on my forehead. “I want a no-prisoners approach from you,” Chris quips as I wobble my way towards the bright lights. “Anything under 100 I will consider a fail.” The three kids I’m facing – Tinka, Heaven and Xander – introduce themselves. They’ve all done Brain Busters before, and have two key pieces of advice for me. Don’t fall off the stage, and keep your hands on the buzzer. 

With their wisdom ringing in my ears, I take a few steps onto the set and nearly fall into one of the gaps between the pods. Once at my station, the lovely floor manager immediately rushes over with some powder for my shiny face, and then back again with some hairspray for my frazzled flyaways. “I grew them myself,” I bark, unable to modulate my voice. I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans, and get to know my competitors. Tinka, to my right, won her episode. Heaven, on my left, came very close, and is presumably now out for blood. 

The sweat is real. (Photo: Whitebait Media)

Soon enough is the warm-up round and mouthguard-gate, where I find myself demanding that they take the decision upstairs. It’s technically correct, you could wear a mouthguard on the field, the court, the ice rink, no??? Somebody do something, somebody call someone! Everyone ignores my outraged yelps and move onto the next question, almost as if engaging with a beet-red 31-year-old, on the cusp of passing out in a too-tight turtleneck while arguing about semantics in a practice round for a children’s quiz show, is embarrassing. 

Next, we are into the proper round. No time to dwell on my past mistakes, time to bite down on my invisible mouthguard of knowledge in my MOUTH and leave it all on the FIELD. Chris records his normal introduction to the studio and the contestants. Tinka says it’s very cool to be back and she’s feeling “way more confident than last time.” Heaven says she is aiming for at least 100 points. Xander is planning on answering the questions even faster this time. All I can gurgle is that I am “hot and stressed” and something about media studies. 

I wipe my hands on my jeans one last time as things get underway, and immediately I am left in the dust again by Heaven, who is so composed that I am beginning to think she might actually be channeling the divine. Are cheetahs fast or slow? Fast. What lyric comes next in this waiata ‘Tutira Mai Nga–’. Iwi. Waitangi Day is on the sixth of which–? February. I can’t get a single point on the board and am leaning over my podium, hysterical. Nothing will prepare you for the stress and difficulty of listening to a question and pressing a buzzer at the same time. 

We are a third of the way through the 90-second round and I’m terrified I won’t get the chance to answer a single question, humiliating my entire network of friends and family, bringing The Spinoff into disrepute and having my degree rescinded and shredded by the University of Auckland. “True or false, bananas grow underground,” Chris asks as I whack the buzzer with the might of a mouthguard-wearing prop. “What was the question?” I beg. “I need an answer please,” says Chris. “No, they don’t!!” I shriek. “True or false,” presses Chris. 

“FALSE,” I bellow loud enough to awaken even the deepest underground banana. “Correct, you’re on the board.” From there, I get too high on my own supply and let my guard down, and of course Heaven sweeps back in with a run of phenomenal millisecond responses. All is not lost though: in the final seconds I manage to scrape back a few points by asserting that Elmo is red, and that there are 10 pins in tenpin bowling. Although enough to earn me a spot in Mensa, it’s not enough to give me the win. Heaven is ahead with 90, and I am left for dead on 40. 

Next up in my journey is the Brain Buster obstacle course, an enormous Ninja Warrior-style steel apparatus. We are kitted out in harnesses and helmets and a crew member takes us through safety protocols. Heaven, my greatest ally and worst enemy, can tell that I’m nervous. “Don’t worry, it’s really technical,” she whispers. The group of kids rush excitedly from station to station, while I hobble behind to keep up. “Everyone be careful of Alex!” Heaven tells the group. I’ve never felt both so taken care of, and so much like a crumbly old Cruskit, in my entire life. 

Me and Heaven in obstacle hell. (Photo: Whitebait Media)

As the crew members explain some complicated DNA ladder that involves a series of switches, Heaven whispers some more advice. “Don’t forget to breathe,” she says. “If you forget to breathe, your hands will shake and your eyes will go blurry.” I look up the clattering trap doors above, the zipline across the studio, the webbed tunnel of doom. A crew member asks me about my T-shirt – a metal-inspired Gandalf T-shirt – and laughs that I will certainly need magic on my side. Pray for me Heaven, because I am going to need a miracle here. 

As we get clipped into the zipline, she leans over and gives me one final piece of wisdom. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s actually really scary.” 

With that, we are off. I shriek as we careen down the zipline to our first destination, shedding my harness swiftly but also double-checking I didn’t shed my leggings with it. Down a pole we go – probably not the time to show off my pole fitness moves – and then off to plod along some hexagonal steps. “Alex taking her time there…” commentator and Black Fern Tyla Nathan-Wong would later observe. Heaven is already so far in front of me as I scurry around, scared, looking for the keypad that will release a terrifying trapdoor to lead me to the next part of the course. 

It’s when I start slithering through a long, clear tube laced with a thick web of elastic string that I suddenly realise how exhausted I am. I’ve already done a zipline, Magic Mike’d off a harness, slid down a pole and scaled a wall, perhaps this is the perfect time for a kip? As my giant helmeted head fails to find a path through the web, I simply lie there for a moment, laughing hysterically. Gandalf was right, I shall not pass. “Slight hesitation and great facials there Alex,” Nathan-Wong encourages in her commentary. “Keep it up!” 

Heaven has nearly finished the course when I finally free myself from the webbing. As I wobble across some suspended steps, I yell out in a voice I do not recognise, uttering a phrase better suited to the trenches in a war movie than some idiot in a bright orange helmet and a Gandalf T-shirt on a children’s TV show. “Heaven, no!” I howl. “Heaven, wait for me.” She’s already at the finish line when I finally descend the DNA ladder after switching some switches in the right order, now needing to do a series of army crawls to get through the final obstacles. 

At the last hurdle, I can’t go on anymore. I throw one arm out and mouth “help me, Heaven” and she, 12, pulls me, 31, through to the final podium. “You showed her up a bit on the Brain Buster there,” Chris says to Heaven in her post-match interview. “I thought we talked about taking it easy?” “Sorry,” she smiles. At this point in the day, I have nothing but love and light for my fellow competitor, she who destroyed me by quickly asserting that a cheetah is fast, she who protected my geriatric frame from the unruly kids, she who pulled me through to the bitter end. 

Me and Heaven made it through hell. (Photo: Whitebait Media)

Before my time on Brain Busters is up, I’m invited to watch the final round for another episode: the almighty Amygdala. It’s reminiscent of a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire setup, where the final contestant left standing has to answer 10 questions, winning more money with every correct answer. If you get all 10 right, the prize money doubles to a whopping $750 – about a billion kid dollars. I sit in the darkness, aghast, as a clever wee dot takes the jackpot with ease, even getting doused in confetti and confessing that she will use the prize money to buy a dog. 

With that, the confetti was swept up and it was onto the next episode. I stumbled out of the studio and back into the carpark, truly stunned by what intense and thrilling experience I have just been through. Where else could you learn where to find an aether, the number of s’s in Mississippi, and the correct location to wear a mouthguard? Where else could you climb a DNA ladder, get stuck in a webbed tunnel and watch kids win extortionate amounts of money? More importantly, where else would you find a guardian angel in a 12-year-old named Heaven?

I didn’t win Brain Busters, but at least my car was still in the carpark. “Oh yeah,” Davidson adds, delivering one more gentle blow as we say goodbye. “Jason is actually in Australia right now so you would have been fine to park there.” Consider my brain well and truly busted.

Watch Brain Busters at 3.40pm weekdays on TVNZ2, or here on TVNZ+

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