2012's Big Fat Quiz was rather notable -- aside from Jack and James pulling the pizza stunt, which apparently really did take everyone by surprise, I am flabbergasted by how much they managed to actually get Richard Ayoade to talk. He's generally quite terrified of unscripted TV, as he will note right out loud if you ever ask him. He's been doing this for years, and continues to be terrified of having to wing an entire appearance, which generally leads me to conclude that he's shy as a character trait and not as a specific insecurity about his appearance or acting, particularly since he seems to do fine when he's applying himself to fully-scripted endeavours like The IT Crowd, or things where large chunks of his presentation already exist for him to ad-lib around with people he already knows, like the time he popped up on Buzzcocks

(Confession: I really hate The IT Crowd. I dislike sitcoms in general. A lot of the individual exchanges are amusing, but the thing is just too stupid for words. I am an information industries professional, a woman, and at least a minimally-functional human being, and I find the overall plotting to be insulting on all three counts, starting at the beginning of episode one when what's-er-face doesn't walk right the fuck out of the crazy man's office rather than take a job that she does not want, does not like, was not what she was led to believe it would be, and is not qualified to do. The actors, on the other hand, are rather witty people in their own right, which leads to the gag reels being much funnier than any of the actual show.)

Ayoade is quite acutely self-aware and will often comment on his own behavior in interviews, on the theory that announcing that something is awkward will make it less awkward, because then people will quit adding that extra layer of stress by pretending that everything's fine. He seems to think he's a bit dysfunctional; I think he's just profoundly introverted and that it's not at all the same thing, but I try not to argue too hard with other people's self-concepts. He is rather unusual in that the strength of his avoidant response doesn't seem to have anything to do with the relative social status of the other person -- I've seen him terrified of random magazine reporters and surprise fans, and completely unbothered by standing next to the executive producer of his movie Submarine, who is a huge movie star in his own right.

Any of the autistic people still hanging around might want to take note: What he's doing in that interview with the friendly-but-clueless Scottish people is essentially what allistics think you're doing with the lack of eye contact. He's actually doing it for a reason not fundamentally dissimilar to yours -- he tends not to look people in the eye because it's overwhelming -- but in his case the reason it's too much is pretty much down to being somewhat neurotic and slightly too smart for his own good. Ayoade is fundamentally very shy, which is shorthand for "risk-averse and particularly worried about social rejection". (It's entirely possible to be quiet or reserved without being shy, but most people are very bad about telling the difference.) Because he's worried about getting indications of social rejection, and because he's got an unfortunate amount of brains, he tends to both over-scrutinize people for signs that they're unhappy with him, and start churning out elaborate fractal plan-trees about what he might do about it, such as scuttle under the sofa and conveniently die. Processing all the facial cues in real time makes this worse, and sucks up so many extra cycles that his choices really come down to either staring at the floor or losing the ability to talk straight.

(Normally Ayoade goes for option A, although I have seen him try like hell to override it and flail around in option B for a while, as he does through a large chunk of the middle here. More often it goes about like this, where he's so busy watching other people, and has such a high level of starting inhibition to overcome, that he says almost nothing until directly prodded. Once that's done, he doesn't exactly transform into a motormouth, but he does occasionally have a comment.)

Most people are nice, or at least think they are, and based on that paradigm right there, their reaction to someone not making eye contact is to assume they're not doing it because they're afraid of seeing rejection, and therefore the action they take is to try to reassure the person that rejection is not forthcoming. How they try to communicate this differs by person, personality, and circumstances. More outgoing people, especially those who deal with socially-shy children, will often move around in order to catch eye contact and smile. Other people who are critically shy themselves will often assume that something they did has been misinterpreted as rejection, and will backpedal furiously, sometimes right into an agonized silence, in order to avoid doing it again. Assholes will just assume their opinion is the only one that counts and demand you "pay attention" (i.e., look at them) when they're talking no matter how you feel.

The main difference is that Ayoade generally gives the allistic responses to all this that people expect, although as with all of my favorite interesting people, he remains stubbornly weird in some respects. (The famous sarcastic deadpan is 100% intentional. My suspicion is that it's something he developed to get the other kids to leave him the hell alone, but that's just a guess. I've never seen anyone ask, nor has he volunteered.) He answers people who accept a general lack of eye contact paradoxically by giving them more. Ben Stiller just lets him go waffling on, staring off into the corner of the room, on the assumption that of course he's paying attention, and Ayoade is perfectly comfortable with this and gets quite chatty. He's aided and abetted by David Mitchell on his first BFQ, and the two of them get along in a companionably nerdy fashion, as can be seen behind the credits roll, once Ayoade is relieved of the immediate pressure of having to actually say funny things in front of an audience.

Noel Fielding has got under his skin mostly by being Noel Fielding; he's one of the few people I've seen consistently break the deadpan, and get instant off-the-cuff responses, which Ayoade delivers looking dead-on at him without hesitation. Fielding's also got a few extra airspace privileges, as he does with many people -- it comes through on occasion when he's on The IT Crowd. Typical is this, from an episode which is otherwise unutterably stereotyped and generally angry-making. Chris O'Dowd has his hand on the back of Ayoade's chair; Fielding is leaning on Ayoade's shoulder.


  1. I'm getting a lot out of your commentaries, and I wanted to thank you for them. Also the pointers to various BBC productions that I would never (in a half million years) have found on my own. I was watching BFQ2012 this morning, and I found myself very amused by the ongoing interaction between Ayoade and Gabby, as they dealt with the pen, and then divided the answers (and were always credited with a correct answer regardless of author) and finally cooperated again.

    I see such an odd dynamic between the people who seems obviously chosen to be funny, and people who might actually know the answers. It reads as though the answer people are slightly embarrassed about knowing things and being inadequately funny, while the funny people keep pushing for more and more outre, and even ugly jokes to cement their having been chosen for humor rather than knowledge. I noticed it on QI as well, although the Buzzcocks seems more about people knowing things. I see (or hear rather, as all my American quiz shows come to me via NPR) less of this with Wait, Wait or Says You. More of the panel seems to be present both because they can think quickly and the questions seem to encompass things more of them are likely to know.

    1. I don't think the division between the braniacs and the comedians is quite that sharp. Wossy for one probably does know most of the answers -- it's rather unfair when half of the people they talk about have been on his show for exactly the thing they're answering questions about. They do generally try to make sure at least one person on every team has a shot at knowing things about the outside world, even if it doesn't seem that way to the audience. They paired Fielding with Russell Brand a couple of years running; I don't know how much attention Fielding pays to the news, but Brand actually pays a hell of a lot, and has some very loud opinions about it to boot. He thought it was just ducky when Jimmy Carr cracked jokes along the general theme of "you're weird, you're pervy, and you dress yourself funny," but he did eventually start looking more and more annoyed at the comments that implied he was a complete cloud cuckoo-lander.

      I've never clapped eyes on the Gabby woman before and I gather she's a sportswriter; I don't know why she was booked specifically, but she was probably paired with Ayoade because if you'll notice, the only things he stood any chance of knowing were geeky sci/tech news items. Most of the other people on are known for being both very smart and very funny, and which one predominates depends mostly on whether they feel like taking anything seriously that day. Amusingly, when two super-smart kids get chucked together on a team, they usually wind up playing it for laughs, à la Rob Brydon and David Mitchell's "Shadow Council" a few years back. Idiots in general don't fare well against Wossy, who is not-very-secretly a seventeen-year-old nerd boy at heart, and who has been on the BFQ every year except the one where he managed to get himself into hot water doing a radio show with Brand.

      With QI, a lot of the dynamic has to do with whose personal specialties match up well with the show they end up on. The combination of music and Phil Jupitus is almost always hilarious, but inviting Brian Cox in for a day that's not predominantly hard-science based is less so. And Alan Davies, who is permanently cast as the court jester, is actually phenomenally bright and is deliberately there to answer "blue whale" or "Dave" to any question that has the entire panel sitting in tense silence, afraid to buzz in with anything that might cost them points, in order to get the show moving again.

  2. I am illuminated! Thank you. I'm delighted to hear some of my favorites (Noel Fielding and Alan Davies esp) are brilliant, and are leaning into the foolishness.

    1. I have a knack for spotting the smart kids about five miles out, probably because I was hucked in with them shortly before I was even enrolled in school.

      Fielding actually has a handful of A-levels and a BA or a BFA or something like that, and now an honorary MA from his alma mater, plus there is a lot of the Boosh stuff that depends on a sort of two-degrees-away ricochet reference to be funny -- mentioning that a cage full of mutants has gone "a bit Joseph Merrick" doesn't make any sense unless you already know that was the real name of the Elephant Man. If your brain sloshes along too slowly to connect up all the dots there, they're already on to something else and you've missed the joke. Fielding's generally quite lovely in interviews, but the few times I have seen him get rather pointy on his own behalf is when he's up against someone who for some reason assesses him as stupid, ignorant, or uneducated, and tries to relate to him as if this is a point they have in common -- I'm almost surprised he and Julian Barratt didn't just walk out on Chelsea Lately.

      As for Alan Davies, Stephen Fry has gone on record as saying Davies is actually one of the more intelligent people he knows. Which is quite something, coming from Stephen Fry. Davies has begun sort of verbally patting him on the head whenever he manages to stop sounding like a dotty old Cambridge don long enough to recognize a pop culture reference, which they both find terribly amusing.


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