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.”