Trivia questions come and go in a few minutes. Hour Bonuses are cheap and plentiful. One Action Trivia trips over the next. Even the mighty Super Bonus can never claim more than 50% dominance over Trivia's struggling hordes. Clearly there was a crying need for an all-encompassing, contest-spanning trivia unit of ultimate hazard.
And so was born the Ultra Bonus!
The Ultra's format is devilishly simple. Typically, three words or phrases are announced over the air shortly after the first question. Teams are invited to figure out the hidden connection between them. Every hour on the hour (when teams remember to read 'em), three more clues are revealed.... but the point value for guessing the connection is lowered. A successful answer at 2:05 AM scores higher than the very same answer at 3:05, which in turn is worth more than a 5:30 identification. And so on, until the eighth and last set of clues is provided, a little after 7 o'clock.
For years, the precise point value of the Ultra Bonus was an elaborate secret delivered in faux-ominous 'MWUH-HAH-HAHHH' tones. However, most teams score Ultras on a sliding scale, either 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 or 10-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Some Ultras have been gotten after one set of clues, but not many. Other Ultras have gone unsolved, but again, not many.
It is particularly unlikely today that a future Ultra will shut every team out, because hosts have taken to filling their eighth set of clues with obvious giveaways, thereby enabling competitors to slink into Baxter for their single mercy point.
Similarly, some Ultra Bonuses of the past provided just 2 or even 1 clue per hour, but the 24-item format is fairly entrenched. (The 8-clues-and-out Ultra Boni were a little TOO impenetrable.) Another benefit of the three-clue rule of thumb is that it permits teams to organize its items into amusingly or cleverly related subsets that are almost always unhelpful to the authentic answer.
Another humorous aspect of the Ultra Bonus often arrives between the end of the contest, and when the final scores are tabulated and announced. Hosts have often entertained their audience and themselves by reading several of the incorrect guesses received during the night. Because there is no penalty for wrong answers, players are encouraged to let their imaginations run free. Most teams submit multiple attempts as the night progresses. This can lead to some strange attempts.
Some guesses that made a kind of sense at 2 AM are thoroughly repudiated by later clues. As for other guesses.... well, there is no explanation.
Wrong guesses have been as simple as "They're all redheads" or "They're all cartoons," or as dementedly unlikely as "They're all things mentioned in the Paul McCartney & Wings' song "Venus and Mars/Rock Show" or "They're all names of the black men left untreated in the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study." And a late-80s Ultra just wasn't complete without one (or five) guesses of "They're all people who have never been in Cliff Claven's kitchen."
Probably the most infamous Ultra Bonus occurred in December, 1986. Andy Laitman of the host, The Giant Pygmies of Beckles, came up with a list of Robin's "Holy ---, Batman!" expletives. The clue list was a bizarrely evocative one, as compared with earlier efforts. "Interplanetary yardstick"? "Human pressure cooker"? "Priceless collection of Etruscan snoods"? This wasn't your father's Ultra Bonus.
The contest was a very tight three-way race until Team #3 faded late. After a long wait, Giant Pygmies announced that after eight hours, teams All the Sugar, Twice the Caffeine and We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes were deadlocked. This led to the hard-to-forget "Tonga" tiebreaker, which is still commemorated with an on-air Tonga question per contest. But the very existence of the tie score was precipitated by Laitman's Ultra Bonus.
Solved by All The Sugar early for 7 big points, but not solved by We Begin Bombing at all, the Ultra Bonus turned a 7-point Bombing lead into a flatfooted tie. Of course, this triumph only led to a more painful finish for All the Sugar when they lost by the narrowest margin in contest history. Traumatic proof, if it were needed, that the Ultra is at its heart fundamentally cruel and haphazard.
The list below shows that Ultra Bonuses predated that 9 AM drama. But the emotion of the Tonga finish, matched with the ingenious Bat-theme, cemented the Ultra into Williams Trivia's firmament for good.
Like many contest elements, the Ultra's origins are now buried in murk. In 1984, Rule Six allowed teams up to six hours to solve a half dozen esoteric trivia questions, calling the whole procedure an "Ultra Bonus." Though it shares the name, this is not the since-recognized Ultra format. In fact, Rule Six's Ultra set-up unknowingly mimicked the very first Hour Bonuses offered by Morgan in 1968, which were themselves just one question apiece.
The connective similarity of Rule Six's "Ultra Bonus" to earlier contests is not unique. Chicago 60609's Ultra Bonus, a listing of Iranian hostages, exactly mirrored an Hour Bonus offered by Grape Nehi three years previous. Nehi's "Mystery Category" Hour Bonus began by reading three of the names, revealing an additional trio of hostages every 15 minutes.
Another example of the 15-minute format can be found in the 1983 Phasers on Stun contest. Four sets of names were announced every 3 questions or so, with the common thread being that all twelve names were those of TV doctors. In both cases, higher points were awarded to the earliest solvers.
Such offerings were then referred to as "Graduated Bonuses," and they are clearly one-hour-long Ultras. It seems likely that the germ for the Ultra Bonus may have gestated in players' memories of the Graduated Boni.
Some players of the time believe there were Ultra Bonuses in 1983 or earlier. A remembered topic (precise contest unknown) was "Names of Authors Engraved in the Stonework Around Stetson Hall".... although that subject was also used as an individual on-air question in at least two contests. But would those ten literary geniuses, staring at Ultra Bonus clues scrawled on a blackboard, be able to crack next semester's hidden theme? That is Absolut speculation. MMmmmm..... Cervantes.
No, things are as they should be. Though we know much about the Ultra Bonus, its full depths, its primeval origins, and its evil void of foulness remain an unconquered mystery.
ULTRA THEMES THROUGH THE YEARS:
1983 and previous:
Though there may have been one or two Ultras before 1984, there sure weren't many.
Host: Rule Six
Theme: Six individual extra-tough 2-point questions, read in pairs at 2 AM, 4 AM and 6AM, covering six traditional trivia realms. Not an Ultra Bonus as it would come to be known.
Host: Chicago 60609
Theme: Names of the U.S. Hostages Who Were Held 444 Days by Iran
Host: Nasty Big Pointed Teeth
Theme: NONE; no Ultra Bonus.
Host: Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius
Theme: Words Printed on the Wrappers of the Toilet Paper Rolls in the College's Bathrooms
Host: My Second Favorite Organ
Theme: People Depicted in Thompson Chapel Windows
Host: The Giant Pygmies of Beckles
Theme: Words or Phrases Used to Complete Robin's Cry of "Holy ____ , Batman!" from the TV Series
Host: We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes
Theme: Last Names of Williams College Custodians
Host: I Don't Have to Answer That Question!
Theme: Words or Phrases Scratched Into the Trays Used in Baxter Dining Hall
Host: A Judo, A Chop Chop
Theme: Items Included as Giveaway Premiums Inside Breakfast Cereal Boxes
Host: Silly Me, That's Not the Talking End
Theme: Adjectives Used in 'The Williams Record' to Describe the Lighting Situation on Campus
Host: Leave the Gun, Take the Cannolis
Theme: Items That Were Seen/Found on Gilligan's Island
Host: Harry "Snapper" Organs
Theme: Things Depicted on State License Plates
Host: Son, You've Got a Panty on Your Head
Theme: Old-Style Etchings Printed on the Board of "Trivial Pursuit"
Host: Oxygen is For Losers
Theme: Licensed Barbie Accessories
Host: Five is Right Out
Theme: Titles of the Individual Contestant Prize Challenges, from "The Price is Right"
Host: Phasers on Stun: The Next Generation
Theme: Brand Names of Beers
Host: Not Everyone Keeps Their Genitals in the Same Place
Theme: Sample Nouns Used in Schoolhouse Rock's "Nouns" Song
Host: Phasers on Stun: The Next Generation
Theme: Last Names of "Monty Python" Characters
Host: Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun to Be WIth
Theme: Words from Everyone's Favorite Singalong, "The Mountains."
Host: The Purpose of the Military is to Kill People and to Break Things
Theme: Words Used on Various State License Plates
Host: Oh No, Bette Midler!
Theme: Things Mentioned in the Arlo Guthrie Song "Alice's Restaurant"
Host: How DARE They Challenge Me with Their Primitive Skills?
Theme: Surnames of U.S. Supreme Court Justices
Host: Can't.... Do.... Plaid..... (thud)
Theme: Astrological Constellation Shapes
Host: Elvis Needs Boats!
Theme: Words or Phrases That Complete Homer Simpson's Gastro-Orgasmic Sigh, "MMMmmm.... _____."
Host: A Bunch of Mindless Jerks Who'll Be the First Up Against the Wall When the Revolution Comes
Theme: Words that Follow "Absolut ____," from the Absolut Vodka Print Ad Campaign
Host: We Make Holes in Teeth!
Theme: Superheroes' Secret Identity Surnames
Host: Gentle Tongue-Tongue, He Weeps, for He Has But One Tongue with Which to Taste an Entire World
Theme: Names of New York City Streets
Host: Chthulu Matata
Theme: Images Used on U.S. Stamps
Host: A Dead Postman Doesn't Deliver Much Mail
Theme: Types of Fish
Host: At 200 Miles Per Hour, There is No Diplomatic Immunity
Theme: Images That Share the Names of Comic Strip Characters
(*NOTE: This was an all-visual Ultra Bonus, with hourly handouts.)
Host: I've Got Ives in My Pants
Theme: Locations of U.S. Nuclear Power Plants
Host: Pokemon Labolatory
Theme: Products to be Randomly Mentioned at the End of Songs by Schizophrenic Singer Wesley Willis
Host: Make Way for Ducklings, Motherfucker
Theme: Opponents of Bugs Bunny
Host: The Funk of 40,000 Years
Theme: Surnames of Current Williams Professors
Host: Holy Sack and the Resident Vomit Specialists
Theme: Holes (NOTE: This was an all-visual bonus.)
Host: I Say It's Duck Season, and I Say "Fire!"
Theme: The 26 Letters of the Alphabet (Note: This was an all-handout bonus with visual and audio elements, including props and food.)
Host: Neutered Vampires Who Cheat at Kitten Poker
Theme: Towns in Massachusetts (Note: This was an all-visual bonus)
Host: Joanie Loves Trotsky
Theme: Meanings Behind the Names of Teams Playing This Very Contest
Host: Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Hellbound Zombified Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Living Dead Part IV
Theme: Titles of Shakespeare Plays (Note: This was an all-visual bonus)
Host: Click Here to Get Huge
Theme: People and Things That Are (Or Were) Second
Host: Mortal Wombat
Theme: Bad Guys in Video Games
Host: Worker and Parasite
Theme: People and Characters With Missing Body Parts
Host: Deine Mutter ist Geekenvermachtstaffle
Theme: Titles of They Might Be Giants songs
Host: Gratuitous Use of the Word "Belgium"
Theme: Current U.S. Senators' Surnames
Host: Awesome Sauce: Grammar For Pussies Like You
Host: Suite, Suite Lovin'
Theme: Body Parts
Host: Lay Men: JC Superstars: Take Me, Caiaphas
Theme: Things That Kill Kenny on "South Park"
Host: The Ubernebulous Space Otters of Alpha Centauri
Theme: Things Associated with Salvador Dali
Host: I'm Oxford Dot Com
Theme: The Circles of Hell from "Dante's Inferno"
Host: Stink, Stank, Stunk!
Host: Silence in the Hub
Theme: Words That Are Worth 14 Points in Scrabble