Sandi Toksvig is having the time of her life. The 59-year-old Danish-British comedian is on her second year as the host of the popular late night British panel show Quite Interesting (or QI), new episodes of which are available near-instantaneously for the first time in the United States via the BritBox streaming service. “I was just a fan the show before, and I was a guest many times before I took over in 2016,” she says of succeeding her predecessor, Stephen Fry. “It’s a wonderful program for educating yourself through laughter. I’m not sure of another show quite like it.” When it comes to late night television in America, Toksvig is right.
That’s not to say American entertainment at large is without the panel show format. Every Saturday morning on National Public Radio (NPR), the popular news quiz Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! broadcasts. Along with its podcast edition, the program accrues six million weekly listeners with an enjoyable blend of current events trivia and comedy. Ask Me Another and similar radio shows have been doing much of the same since the late ’90s, but television? That’s another story entirely, especially since America’s latest attempt at a televised panel show — Comedy Central’s @midnight — is no more.
Whose Line Is It Anyway? with Aisha Tyler is still on The CW, where it went six years after the initial American run hosted by Drew Carey on ABC ended in 2007. Otherwise, the closest equivalent today is prime-time and daytime quiz show staples like Jeopardy! and Family Feud. Aside from occasional “celebrity editions” and impromptu bouts of humor, these are utterly unlike the panel format perfected by the United Kingdom in two distinct ways. First, they generally feature a rotation of non-celebrity contests who more often than not appear on only one episode. And second? Unless it’s a repeat, they usually don’t air during late night hours typically reserved for variety talk shows hosted by prominent comedians.
Yet when Toksvig says she is “not sure of another show quite like” QI, she isn’t just referring to its celebrity panel format. She’s also talking about its emphasis on information which, like Jeopardy! and unlike Whose Line Is It Anyway?, quite literally defines the program. “We spent an entire weekend trying to completely nail the idea of why we humans don’t send our nuclear waste into the sun with a rocket. Now, this sounds like quite a good idea — firing nuclear waste into the sun — but actually, the science was immensely complicated,” she jokes. All jokes notwithstanding, it’s distinctions like this that put QI closer to Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! than anything currently on American television.