When Canadian economist Eric Monkman decided to take part in a British quiz show called University Challenge, he figured it would be a fun way to spend some free time while finishing his postgraduate degree at Cambridge University.
Instead Mr. Monkman has become the show's superstar, winning over millions of fans with his remarkable knowledge, quirky scowls and boisterous answers. He's been talked about by every major newspaper in Britain for weeks, profiled on BBC Radio and named one of the best contestants in the program's 48-year history. Social media has been buzzing with "Monkmania" and one columnist in the Daily Telegraph gushed, "He has a name like a medieval superhero, the vocal volume of a jet plane, and the fiery intensity of a romantic lead from the golden age of Hollywood."
It's all come as a shock for Mr. Monkman, who has led his four-member team from Cambridge's Wolfson College to next week's final against a foursome from Oxford University's Balliol College.
"I never expected that I would get the level of attention that I've got pretty much ever since I first appeared on [the show]," he said in an interview. "I think people have had things to say about me whether good or bad, mostly good now. It's interesting when they first started [watching] there was a bit of a feeling that I was not quite right. I think now people have more or less come to like my idiosyncrasies."
Mr. Monkman, 29, had never seen the program when he enrolled in Cambridge to pursue a master's degree in economics a couple of years ago. He'd always enjoyed trivia and he'd participated in Reach for the Top while in high school in Oakville, Ont., and played "Quiz Bowl" during his undergraduate years at the University of Waterloo. He spent nearly two years working for the public service in Ottawa before heading to Cambridge in 2015. "When I decided to go back to school at Cambridge, I decided that I wanted to try out for this University Challenge," he said.
He quickly discovered that University Challenge was no ordinary game show. It's one of the most popular TV programs in the country with a cult-like following that analyzes each contestant's performance and feeds off the country's love of quizzing. It's famous for its tough questions, fierce rivalries and caustic host, journalist Jeremy Paxman. A total of 28 teams take part in a complicated tournament format that's taped months in advance and broadcast once a week on BBC2.
Mr. Monkman said Wolfson had no tradition of competing in University Challenge so he had to assemble a team with a group of fellow students. They put up posters around the university to encourage students to join and then required potential team members to sit a 100-question exam in order to crack the final lineup. Mr. Monkman was named captain and he was joined by fellow Canadian Justin Yang and two Brits, Ben Chaudhri and Paul Cosgrove.
For practice, Mr. Monkman watched old episodes and read a book on University Challenge questions that he found at a church yard sale. "One advantage of not having watched the show regularly like many British quizzers is that all the old shows were new to me," he explained. He spent hours examining past shows, banging his hand on a table when he knew the answer before the competitors. "It was like playing against two teams at a time. My hand got sore, though." The other teams from Cambridge colleges also met once a week for mock matches.
When this season's competition began airing last fall, Mr. Monkman became an instant celebrity and viewership rose every time Wolfson competed. His trademark intensity became so popular that several media outlets put together collages of Mr. Monkman's facial expressions and commentators obsessed about his aggressive answering style.
But he insisted that it's no act. "I certainly didn't have any idea of trying to look good for the cameras or trying to change how I am for television consumption," he said. "To be honest I didn't realize just how popular a show it was so I was really just trying to treat it as if it was a tournament that wasn't being recorded, which maybe explains why I acted the way I did."
When Wolfson made it to the semifinals last week Mr. Monkman was up against another Cambridge team from Emmanuel College, led by his friend Bobby Seagull. The match became a social media frenzy with one fan tweeting; "This is Ali v Foreman, but with jumpers on." Wolfson scored a narrow 170- to 140-point victory, with Mr. Monkman answering questions on everything from Latin verbs to stained-glass windows in northwestern England, Greek prefixes and early 20th-century Nobel laureates.
Although he graduated last summer and has been back in Canada looking for work, Mr. Monkman travelled to London last week to watch the episode and relive the victory. He and Mr. Seagull also did a round of media appearances. He isn't sure if he will be back to watch the final against Balliol, which will be aired on Monday, but he'll follow the reaction from Canada. The final was taped weeks ago and contestants were sworn to secrecy.
Asked to sum up the last few months as a media sensation, he laughed and said: "It has been a whirlwind just watching what's happening."