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.
Despite differences in media and timing, the two are quite similar. Both are spearheaded by a regular host who asks a semi-regular ensemble of celebrity panelists — many of them comedians — about the latest trivia, and both are designed to educate and entertain their audiences. So despite being “not your ordinary show,” as BritBox President Soumya Sriraman describes it, you’d think QI on late night would work. After all, there’s an audience for. “It is one of the most humorous and witty panel shows on TV which is why I really wanted it on our service,” Sriraman continues. “Imagine the caliber of answers on Jeopardy! but instead of giving the question, the panelists get to dive into the answer and have a discussion about it.”
Before BritBox decided to begin streaming new episodes of QI‘s latest season, however, previous episodes hosted by Fry were only available via the Hulu and Acorn TV streaming services. BBC America briefly aired delayed episodes years ago, but discontinued the practice when poor ratings led to its removal from the schedule. “People here like a quiz,” comedian and permanent panelist Alan Davies says of the show’s predominantly British following. “A panel show is a combination of game show and talk show, both popular formats, and the long-running ones have an element of sitcom in them too, as the regular people develop relationships.”
So why hasn’t the format, and QI in particular, worked in America? “There is a feeling that U.S. TV is risk-averse, that the networks like to know what’s going to be said on their shows,” Davies suggests. “They are afraid of offending so many different elements, from viewers to advertisers. A panel show, especially QI, is dependent on no-one knowing what might be said next.” Show creator John Lloyd finds the situation “utterly baffling,” noting he has “spoken to many American colleagues about it, and many can see the advantages in terms of trying out the vast wealth of U.S. stand-ups without risking everything on one or two comics at a time.” For reasons he can’t fathom, Lloyd thinks “the changed-format pilots of U.K. panel shows that have been made haven’t worked — apart from the runaway success of Whose Line Is It Anyway? of course,” and that “the first U.S. producer or channel to take a risk, buy a bunch of U.K. panel formats for peanuts, and keep piloting them until they get a couple to work, is going to make a very large amount of money.”
“They’re a British staple,” Lloyd concludes. In either case, perhaps both men are right. Most late night programs in the U.S. are “safe,” especially since they are are pre-taped, edited and formatted. (SNL and The Chris Gethard Show are the only late night comedy shows that are taped live and, therefore, dependent on the element of surprise.) Even daytime, prime-time and syndicated game shows like Jeopardy! and Family Feud are constructed in this manner.
So too is QI, but as Davies suggests, the series relies heavily on the comedic and improvisational abilities of its host and panelists to create something entertaining. It and other British panel shows are just as heavily vetted as anything that The Tonight Show or Whose Line Is It Anyway? might broadcast, to be sure, but Toksvig, the writers, and the showrunners tend to censor themselves and their guests far less. And while they’re busy riffing off of each other, seeing who can tell the best jokes or stories relating to whatever interesting factoids the researchers have dug up, the audience is learning something, too.
“I have to behave myself because I want people to understand the stuff that I’m talking about. I want them to know the wonders of the planet and the universe,” says Toksvig, who previously appeared regularly on QI and other panel shows before taking over as the new host. “When you’re a panelist, your job is just to be silly and — as we call it — keep mucking about. You’re supposed to never stop being a bit ridiculous, but now, it’s a little bit more of being like the grown up.” Davies acknowledges the distinction but despite his new partner’s insistence on the series’ education aspect, thinks somewhat differently. “She makes it look easy which is the best tribute you can pay to anyone in any walk of life. If anything the show is even more playful with her in the chair.”
Even so, whether it’s former host Stephen Fry struggling to eek out a historical bit about the Acropolis, everyone nearly dying while laughing about why it took so long to officially name the Giant Tortoise, or the panelists walking out on Toksvig during a segment on wind — QI somehow manages to combine encyclopedic trivia with genuinely random laughs. It recalls the banter frequently heard on NPR’s weekly news quiz program and Comedy Central’s now-defunct @midnight, but goes a few steps further by giving its audience visuals and actionable intelligence — whether for pub trivia or everyday conversation.
“It’s so wonderful to use humor in this way, to educate people. You know, education by stealth. It’s a sneaky way of educating people. The purpose of the program is to get people excited about knowledge again, and I think the best way to do that is to do it around the world, to be honest,” Toksvig explains. “What unites us is humor, and I don’t think there’s anything the British find funny that Americans aren’t going to appreciate as well. I think this form of entertainment can and will fit properly in the United States.”