Blightyvision: “QI”

Written and created by John Lloyd
Directed by Ian Lorimer
Hosted by Stephen Fry

I have, in fact, taken my sweet time in getting around to discussion of “QI” because it’s not a terribly easy show to review.  It’s one you either like or you don’t based almost entirely upon who’s present from week to week.  And it’s been running for eight years without a format change.  And everyone sits down the whole time and talks clever things.  But it’s become such a staple of modern Anglophilia that you can’t not talk about it at some point.  It helps that it’s actually good and warrants talking about, though.

Starting in 2003, “QI” was commissioned for 26 seasons.  Much like other “witcoms,” such as “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue” or “Just a Minute,” “QI” is made up of four well-known panelists and a quizmaster, with something of a set format and its own quirky rules.  The quizmaster of QI is national treasure and Renaissance dude Stephen Fry, with an ever-changing set of panelists (though stand-up comic and “Jonathan Creek” star Alan Davies sits at Fry’s right hand every week).

The rules?  Questions are asked.  The panelists — equipped with mushroomoid buzzers that make humorous noises relevant to the theme of the week — answer them and are given or relieved of points based on their answers.  However, interesting answers get more points than correct ones, and predictable answers lose more than incorrect ones.  Don’t know an answer?  Bust out a clever fact that’s at least tenuously related and you’re likely to get points.  Give a predictably inaccurate answer or tell a joke the writers saw coming a mile away, and klaxons sound, your answer flashes on the big screens behind the panel, and you lose points.  The final round, General Ignorance, is made up almost entirely of trick questions meant to lure the panelists into giving just those sorts of answers.

The panelists tend to consist of a lot of modern British entertainment’s “usual suspects” — Bill Bailey, Phill Jupitus, Jo Brand, Rich Hall (the one semi-regular token American), and Sean Lock have each appeared in more than 20 of the (currently) 107 aired episodes.  You’re also likely to get duck-ins from the likes of Jimmy Carr and Jeremy Clarkson, and sometimes … usually at Christmas … you’ll get one of their killer big guests.  Examples?  David Tennant sat on the panel two years ago in the midst of his big “Doctor Who” exit, and last year saw Daniel Radcliffe — one hell of a genius — “playing to win” and doing just that.

Overall, the show has a very lighthearted mood, though the discussions that arise from questions can turn into hilarious intellectual dick-swinging competitions when one of the panelists gets on a roll.  Though that is a major part of the fun; in addition to learning odd (and, in my personal experience, often useless) facts and trivia, you often get to see familiar faces being devastatingly clever.  Fry gets to do this pretty much every five minutes or so, but that’s pretty well expected.

“But 26 seasons?” you’re saying to yourself.  Indeed: one for each letter of the alphabet.  Rather than numbering the seasons, you’ll see them referred to as “A Series,” “B Series,” and so on.  Fall 2011 will see the start of “I Series,” in which the weekly topic will always start with the letter I.  Yeah, they bend the rules a bit on those, but always elegantly.  And by way of length, that’s not uncommon for a show of this type — Nicholas Parsons has hosted “Just a Minute” since 1967, and “My Word” ran consistently from 1956-1990.

I do know a handful of people who genuinely don’t like “QI,” but those are people who aren’t keen on witcoms or quiz shows to begin with.  If you see a name in the line-up you recognize, there’s lots of fun to be had seeing them in the environment of the show.  However, you’ll be hard pressed to get your hands on it legally.  Despite legendary producer/creator John Lloyd’s best efforts, there has yet to be any move toward American distribution.

“QI” isn’t available in the States, but you probably know someone who can find some episodes for you.  For fun, go to YouTube and search for “QI Acropolis.”  You’ll thank me.