The World’s Favourite Parlour Game: The Quite Interesting Brilliance of ‘QI’

Like a good teacher, QI shows us that everything is interesting if looked at in the right way.

For example, prudery and child labour are often the first things that come to mind when we think of the Victorian era, but it wasn’t all bad. Health standards improved, that’s a plus; technology, photography, buildings and books were popping up all over the place. Parlour games were also big, people amusing themselves indoors by competing with friends and family in games where the prize was simply the satisfaction of being the winner.

These games still exist in parlours today, but instead of playing them ourselves, we watch others doing so in the popular UK TV format of the panel game. The premise is simple: a host presents challenges to famous panelists who compete for points. Whether being tested on their knowledge of sports trivia, their ability to tell the most convincing lie or their memory of song lyrics, guests strive for victory — not for the cash, not for a car, not even for a donation to their favourite charity — but purely for the admiration of their peers (and the viewing audience).

This autumn marked the tenth series of the most unusual of television panel games, QI. Host Stephen Fry poses questions on a wide range of topics — history, geography, language, literature, art, pretty much anything and everything – -to permanent panelist Alan Davies and three guests. But in this game, the winner isn’t necessarily the one who gets the most answers right. QI stands for Quite Interesting, and the winner of each QI episode is the panelist who is the most interesting.

As Fry explained in the first episode, “the questions are completely impossible and as I don’t really expect anyone to get them right,” points are awarded for being interesting, “regardless of whether or not the panel’s answers are correct or even relevant.” Each series’ questions are loosely related to a letter of the alphabet (Series A saw topics such as astronomy and antidotes; the current I Series has episodes on indecision and invertebrates), and all shows end with the General Ignorance round.

Correct answers are sometimes given (and rewarded), but the goal of being interesting is truly the focus — in fact, panel members can lose points for being uninteresting. These forfeits (which are signaled by a siren, flashing lights and the incorrect answer appearing on the screen) punish those who rely on obvious or unthoughtful answers (a quick example: how many states are in the USA? If you said 50, you’d get the forfeit; there are 46 states, the other four you were thinking of are commonwealths).

The show reminds us that just because something is a commonly held belief doesn’t mean it’s true. Therefore, it’s not just knowledge that is admired, but thinking. QI makes panelists consider their answers — sometimes to the extreme. In the “Genius” episode, a question was “How old are you?” and initially no guest would answer. David Mitchell said, “The effect of this game–that is something I definitely know the answer to, but I’ve been made so uncertain that I’m not even willing to give my own name, age or address.” While, of course, he wasn’t technically wrong when he eventually answered with the number of candles on his last birthday cake, he still earned a forfeit because the question was actually referring to how old his body was (the entire human skeleton is replaced every ten years or so and an adult’s body averages out to about seven-eight years old in terms of its cells).

The forfeit is also fun because it not only critiques guests’ answers but sometimes their humour. Most guests are comedians and many are smartasses, and if one makes a too obvious joke, the siren is heard. On the show “Greats”, in response to “What was the Great Disappointment?” Jo Brand replied, “Have you been talking to my husband?” and her answer appeared word-for-word on the screen behind her, losing her ten points.

Not only does QI make its guests stay at the top of their game, it asks us to do the same. The assembled audience often offers answers (on a few occasions, the audience has actually earned more points than the guests). But viewers at home also get involved: we can’t wait to spout our newly gained knowledge to others (I’m pretty sure it’s not just me who does that) and we’re occasionally as outraged as the panelists when we’re told that something we’re sure of is incorrect. In fact, on the QI webpage there’s a section called Qibbles, where one can challenge information presented on the show. The QI Elves (the researchers) respond to the Qibbles and include links to credible sources to back up their claims.

QI Elves (and Stephen Fry, lest we forget) are only human; they do occasionally make mistakes and are not ashamed to admit when they do so. When a Qibble challenge is right, it is acknowledged; a bonus feature on the DVDs is commentary from the show’s creator John Lloyd and Senior Elves John Mitchinson and Piers Fletcher, who correct errors and clear up confusion.

The QI Elves are also active during the recording of the shows. On the “Albania” episode, Sean Lock claimed that banana plants walk and before the end of the show, the researchers determined that they can walk (up to 40cm in a lifetime) and Lock earned points. Unfortunately, in Series C when Alan Davies tried to impress Fry with an explanation of the symbolic meaning of raised hooves on equestrian statues, the QI Elves burst his bubble by announcing that it was an urban myth and untrue. In 2004, poor Dara O Briain said 0°C is the triple point of water and got points, which were taken away in the following series after viewers pointed out that the answer was 0.01°C. After feigning outrage, O Briain wanted to know how many viewers had thought, “It’s just comedy show, but I’m not letting the fecker get away with it — he got points for that!”

In QI Genesis, a BBC 2 special about the making of the programme, Lloyd calls the show “a mission and philosophy — a way of looking at the world which is different.” And while this is a rather lofty sentiment, it works with this show because QI actually makes knowledge and learning interesting. The QI website claims:

Everything is interesting if looked at in the right way… At one extreme, QI is serious, intensely scientific, deeply mystical; at the other it is hilarious, silly and frothy enough to please the most indolent couch-potato.

And this is the point of QI: it is worthwhile. It is ‘autotelic’ — worth doing for its own sake. And it echoes the venerable mission statement of Lord Reith’s BBC: to educate, inform and entertain.

The show appeals to a wide range of viewers. Some are fans of the guests, the host, or simply the humour, but regardless of the reasons they come to it, everyone leaves having learned something. The show is surprisingly popular with children and teenagers, because, according to Alan Davies, it’s “a badly behaved classroom.” Fry’s well-known status as the cleverest man in the world makes him ideal for the teacher role, and the panel members are a lot like school kids: sometimes cheeky, occasionally a little naughty (which can get a rise out of Fry, with hilarious results) and often genuinely excited when their answers please.

If QI is the best television programme ever made (a claim I’m sometimes tempted to make), why doesn’t the whole world watch it? Why hasn’t every country at least adapted it — as the world has done with so many less interesting shows (does the planet really need any more versions of X Factor?)? There’s a bit of debate on this topic. The show has been sold to channels in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Africa, and a Dutch version was made in 2009. However, it’s still not been seen on American television, not even on BBC America.

On 9 August 2009, TV Squad reported that John Hodgman, who appeared as a bonus guest in Series G, was furious with BBC America’s choice not to broadcast the show, implying that the channel thinks the show is too intelligent for an American audience. Two days later John Lloyd explained to TV Squad that part of the issue was cost, as the pictures used on the show are only cleared for use in the UK; although he admitted that then-president of BBC America, Garth Ancier, “is convinced that Americans ‘won’t get it.’ We disagree (of course!).”

Recently, John Mitchinson, head of QI research, said the fact that QI is “genre-busting” is the problem: “It’s much more to do with the difference between US and UK panel shows. QI doesn’t fit into any US channel’s remit.” This is a shame for American television and viewers. If smart, funny entertainment doesn’t meet a channel’s needs, what does that say about the execs’ opinions of the American viewing public?

Luckily, the American viewing public isn’t taking that insult lying down. Facebook groups and Internet petitions continue to circulate — for both the broadcast of the show as well as the sale of Region 1 DVD formats of the three available series. QI has expanded its media output so international fans can purchase books and games, listen to an audiobook and John Lloyd’s similar but not-technically-a-spinoff radio show called The Museum of Curiosity, follow the Elves at @qikipedia on Twitter, get an QI iPhone app and read the QI column in The Telegraph.

Comments under YouTube clips of the show illustrate the range of fans the show has QI. “Thanks for posting” comments from around the globe appear alongside discussions and debates on the show’s questions and answers. The guests and some of their references may not be immediately recognisable to everyone, but clearly the essence of the show — the spirit of curiosity and the thirst for learning — is desired and needed everywhere.