While I've been working and sewing and primping and occasionally feeding the rodents entire bananas because I like to see them pretend to be little cave-rats falling upon a whole dead mammoth in their savage hunger (not very well -- I should note here that if I don't pull some of the peel off the banana, it takes them a good long while to scrape together the motivation to chew their way into it), I've had a constant stream of stuff running on YouTube.

Most of it has been a British show called QI. QI is technically what's known as a panel quiz -- these are not much seen on American TV anymore, although they were popular on the radio in the 1940s and 50s. The object is not so much to know everything and be right, as it is to share random information and be hilarious. Hollywood Squares is probably the closest that's been on TV, although it's been off the air for a while, and in that case the celebrity squares got to be funny while the competitors were alarmingly serious; currently the only comparable thing the US has is the NPR radio quiz Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. The "contestants" on QI are pulled from a pool of people who are already reasonably well known for being both generally intellectual and very sharply witty, rather than mundanes who are competing seriously for money; there are no prizes, and while there are actual scoring elves keeping track of points, the awarding thereof is so loosely handled that occasionally the winner announced at the end of the show is the audience, because some bright soul has shouted an answer at the stage after the panelists have each gotten it wrong three or four times.

The host of this is of course Stephen Fry, who is himself very famous for being affably funny and having a brain the size of a planet. ("I met Stephen Fry once," said another comedian. "It was like hanging out with Google.") A long time ago Fry earned himself a first or a 2:1 or something like that in English lit from Cambridge, but that hasn't stopped him from cramming his head full of everything else he can get his paws on, even if it has nothing at all to do with poetry or classics.

Well, other people think it has nothing to do with poetry or classics. Fry seems to think it's all as intricately connect-y-up as I do. I have yet to hear him completely fall down in a conversation about anything, at all -- even if he doesn't know about the subject at hand, things tend to click for him in this wonderful, fancifully analogical manner, which results in a lot of odd and often ha-ha-only-serious comparisons. QI is one of the few things I've ever seen that is never ever boring. The panelists are generally with him in this regard, which is unsurprising, as I'm pretty sure either he or someone much like him picks them out. The title itself, aside from evoking IQ in a topsy-turvy fashion, is said to stand for "quite interesting", and their philosophy is that absolutely everything in the entire universe is quite interesting when looked at from the appropriate viewpoint. I find it very heartening that this show has been running for ten years now. At least someone on planet Earth values education for its own sake.

Alan Davies is a permanent panelist, and Davies is the reason that whenever I see someone acting like a complete twit on a talk show I always add the caveat "...or this is a prepared comedic bit." His job on QI is to be the Designated Idiot, and chime in enthusiastically with the wrong answer when the rest of the panelists have gotten so suspicious of bluffs and double-bluffs that they sit there in silence, eyeing each other warily with their hands hovering over their buzzers. I actually know Davies from a mystery series called Jonathan Creek, where he played the titular character, a technical engineer whose job was devising new illusions for a professional magician, and who was repeatedly grabbed by the back of the collar by a reporter friend of his and hauled off into solving bizarre locked-room murders. It was one of those series which would not have gone over well had the star not been smart enough to grok what was going on in the script, and Davies more than qualifies; he and Fry have unsurprisingly become pretty good friends over the years.

Fry characterizes Davies as one of the smarter people he knows, which is quite something coming from him. Aside from being frighteningly bright himself, Fry has managed to collect a load of other braniacs over the years, starting as an undergrad. One of the semi-regular panelists (Sandi Toksvig) and a number of one-time and occasional guests (they haven't dragged Rowan Atkinson into this yet, but Hugh Laurie sat in on the first episode, and Emma Thompson appeared in series 6) were actually classmates of his, whom he met while they were all part of the Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe. This always turns out about how you'd expect it to turn out when you invite your college pals to come snark with you on TV, assuming of course that your college pals are also genius polymaths.

Most of the other regulars are standup comedians of one stripe or another. Dara O'Briain is a frequent flyer on the show; I wholeheartedly recommend that you check out some of his stuff, although you should probably be aware that he slows things waaaaaaay down for QI, and under normal circumstances he sounds like he prepares for his solo stage work by slamming eight or nine espressos and maybe chasing them with a handful of Ritalin. Bill Bailey is a bit avant garde and sometimes a touch too political for my tastes, but he's also a talented musician and uses it frequently in his act. Rich Hall, their token pet American, is actually the same Rich Hall who writes all the "sniglets" books -- for our friends across the pond, let me just say that witty wordsmithing is not something other Americans would immediately think of when they hear his Montana cowboy drawl -- and has a propensity for somehow managing to set himself up for some great punchlines two or three questions in advance. Rob Brydon's specialty is chasing the host into logical corners and being obstreperously Welsh. Phil Jupitus, Clive Anderson, and David Mitchell are all involved in their own brainy shows (Phil is permanently on the panel on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Clive Anderson hosts the UK version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?; David Mitchell rides herd on the speakers in The Unbelievable Truth and as it happens is also a former Footlight, although many years after Fry graduated).

Jo Brand is very dry and often blithely filthy, and is particularly hilarious to watch because she is one of the very few women who can goad Fry into play-flirting with her. A lot of gay men love playing that game with straight women, but Fry has a sort of an oddly shy streak that stops it most of the time -- he will cheerfully discuss the gritty details of the mating habits of any one of a large number of species in an intellectual fashion until the sun collapses into a black hole, including humans, but the second anyone threatens to apply it to him, he starts to turn colors and hide behind his notecards. Brand can, and does, get away with it constantly.

QI also invites more generalized celebrities onto the panel from time to time. Happily, since these guests are vetted by people who work well with Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, it's very rare when someone shows up and turns out to be a brainless git who spends the entire show flopping around lost and helpless, as sometimes happens on things like Have I Got News For You. They once managed to involve Brian Blessed, an extraordinarily large man both in physical presence and personality, whose film credits look like an encyclopedic list of every major RSC production of the Shakespearean histories in the past forty years, plus the king of the vulture people in Flash Gordon. Especially charming is when Fry accidentally discovers that someone he's dragged on stage is even smarter than he thought they were. They got Daniel Radcliffe to do the Hocus Pocus show in series H; Radcliffe looks fucking terrified from start to end and like he's one slip away from addressing the host as "Mr Fry, sir", but he nails the answers to two of the obscure historical questions that are actually designed more to elicit smartass comments than correct responses, and Fry spends the whole time beaming at him and trying to get him to talk back as an equal. Victoria Coran, who last I checked was David Mitchell's fiancée, got something similar when she demonstrated both an amazing ability to ignore the boys and calmly think things through until she came up with the right answer, and a willingness to make fun of them all for charging immediately into the gutter whenever anyone says anything that could be misinterpreted even slightly.

Experts are also unearthed from time to time. Usually this results in Fry getting distracted babbling about something like string theory, at which point the rest of the class decides to horse around while Teacher is paying attention to someone else. Brian Cox looks about fifteen and dresses like he should be smoking cloves moodily outside a café somewhere, and started a lengthy interlude of high-level nerdery by mentioning the Large Hadron Collider. Ben Miller managed to both set off a chain reaction of minor delinquency between Sean Lock and Alan Davies on the other side of the table while he was explaining causality and provoke one of the more infamous instances of the panel just flat-out breaking the host, which he did by capping off a series of jokes about antimatter, similar shirt patterns, and conjoined twins by snogging Rob Brydon.

Unfortunately for those of us in the US, QI is not easily found for sale outside of the Commonwealth. The official reason given is that QI episodes tend to involve a lot of images and snippets of songs for which the reproduction rights have only been negotiated for BBC-controlled areas, and for which re-negotiating the rights for worldwide release would be prohibitively expensive. The other unofficial major reason, I suspect, is that you can get away with saying a great many things on British television that no broadcaster in the US would touch with a ten-foot microphone boom, and of which even many cable providers would be wary. On a particularly good day, the panel can go maybe five minutes without finding a way to talk about penises. Most of them are not G-rated people in general, and from time to time even Fry, who is made of posh East-Anglia-boarding-school words, decides it would be funniest to respond to something (and by "something" I mean "usually Rob") with "Oh, fuck off." It's scathingly ribald more than intended to be offensive, but anyone who tried to edit this for US transmission would end up with episodes that were fifteen minutes long and composed half of bleeping noises. Mae West and Groucho Marx would have been right at home.

You can find most of the aired segments on YouTube just by looking for "QI" and the episode number you want. Each series is centered around the corresponding letter of the alphabet; they're on J05 or 06 just now, and there are big lacunae in H, but most of the rest of the series is up there somewhere. Starting about halfway through they began airing an XL version on BBCHD that's about 45 minutes long instead of about 30, and they're usually worth scaring up for the extra fifteen minutes of sophisticated cock jokes and Fry turning impressive shades of red right before the will to continue physically leaves his body for a few moments, and he has to put his head down on the desk to finish laughing before going on to the next question.

Comments

  1. I like QI quite a lot, but one thing that disturbs me is that there seems to be a rule that there should be a maximum of one woman in the panel.

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    1. They get a bit better about that as time goes on, and in fact there's one in a recent series where the panel is three women, plus Alan Davies, who wisely keeps his mouth shut most of the time. Fry tries his best, but he loses all control of the class around the part where they start exchanging bra sizes, and ends up turning pink and huddling behind his notes.

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    2. Yes, just yesterday I saw the exact episode you're referring to :)

      But that was the first and so far only one. Still, it was proof that even when the majority of the panel is female, talk still degenerates into underwear-related silliness within minutes.

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    3. This is different from the cock jokes how?

      And I rather suspect they did that because it made Fry turn funny colors. He's fairly predictable in that regard -- women are, as he continually says, not really his area -- and the panel can be merciless at times. Alan's overt function on that show is to be the court jester, but his more subtle one is to draw attention to himself by pretending to stick a pencil up his nose or something when the host has just given up to the point of putting his head down on the desk in despair.

      Most of Fry's friends are protective of him, actually, if you'll notice. They still pick on him in public, but the ones who have known him for many years seem to have a tacit agreement to pick on him for the braininess and gayness, both of those being subjects where he is capable of cheerfully defending himself. They leave other things quite alone, at least when on-camera.

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