Why You Should Be Watching BBC's 'QI'

When was the last time you watched a half hour of TV and felt like you really learned something? Sure, the History Channel and Discovery Channel are geared around “education”, but a significant amount of their programming is more entertainment than information. Recently, I’ve become addicted to a British quiz show that makes me feel like a true scholar after every episode – all while being uproariously funny at the same time!

I’m talking about BBC’s QI (for Quite Interesting), a panel-style comedy quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry and featuring some of the funniest personalities of stage and screen. The show is going to be the topic of today’s edition of Professionally Incoherent Recommends, so read on to find out why it’s so awesome!

QI first aired on BBC Four back in 2003, and has been hosted continuously by Fry since then. The show consists of a panel of four contestants, who are asked questions by Fry, the “QI Master”. The questions are usually devilishly difficult and are often structured around urban myths and commonly-held assumptions about history, science, literature, art, society – pretty much any conceivable topic. Episodes are arranged around themes, and the series have all been coded by letter: in Series H, for example, all the episodes have themes that start with the letter “H”.

Points are awarded by Fry not so much for correct answers but for interesting answers (hence the name). Points can also be taken away for “obvious” or “all-out wrong” answers, and due to the difficult nature of the questions, this often results in a negative score for the panellists (players have been known to win with a negative score).

Since points are awarded for “interesting” answers, and the panellists are frequently some of the funniest people on Earth, the show often goes off on tangents, and more resembles a conversation at a local pub than a quiz show. The players don’t really get competitive over points, but instead have more fun arguing back and forth over tidbits of information or telling jokes and improvising.

Stephen Fry is excellent as the quiz master, showing off his wit and intelligence in every episode. I have a feeling that it would be hilarious to attend a live taping of this program, because you never know what will happen when you put five comedians in a TV set and get them to talk about trivia.

There are a number of recurring panellists on the program, too: Alan Davies is the perpetual panellist, always sitting to Fry’s right and generally trying to be a nuisance by ringing in with intentionally incorrect answers or playing pranks on Fry. Comedian/musician/poet Phill Jupitus (perhaps better known from music-oriented panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks) makes frequent appearances on the show, as do personalities like Jimmy Carr, Bill Bailey and Rob Brydon. The show is so informal, you almost feel like you’re sitting down with the contestants (getting back to that pub feel), and it approaches a level of audience immersion not seen in many shows.

Another fun part are the super-special guests, the people who only appear in one episode. They’re usually big-name actors like David Tennant, Hugh Laurie, Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Thompson. While they don’t have a person like this every time, they’re usually some of the most popular episodes, if only because you get to see your favourite actor joking around on camera. The episode that Tennant appeared in was actually a Christmas special, and featured the other panellists making fun of him for being Scottish and for playing the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who. Check out a clip from that episode below:


It’s also fun when you have an episode with a number of recurring guests, as they’re familiar with the show format and tend to open up more. Phill Jupitus, having appeared 24 times to date, has gotten into the habit of mimicking Stephen Fry when he’s annoyed about getting an answer wrong – his impression usually makes me die laughing. Alan Davies is useful as a perpetual panellist because he knows how to keep the show moving: he’ll sometimes buzz in incorrectly on purpose just to get the other panellists to stop guessing the answer and start a conversation on the topic.

QI is actually aired in two formats. There’s a “standard length” half-hour version and a forty-five minute “XL” version which includes more chatting about topics from the contestants or sometimes an extra question with a different format. While the show airs on BBC One and BBC HD, the XL episodes run on BBC Two. Since I can’t get any of these channels here in Canada, I watch QI entirely online (I won’t disclose which site for fear the videos might get taken down, but I’m sure you savvy Internet users can figure it out). Hint: “NickFromFulham” is a good place to start. I find that I never get tired of this show – I’m always saying, “Just one more! Just one more!” and before I know it, I’ve watched three or four episodes.

I mentioned off the top that the show actually feels educational – mostly because the questions are so wide-ranging and often debunk assumptions I previously thought were facts. I find myself citing the show to explain natural phenomena: “Did you know that the sunset is partially a mirage?” or to rethink spelling rules: “It’s not actually ‘i before e except after c’? Really?”

Are you a fan of QI? If not, will you check it out now that I’ve sung its praises? I’d especially like to hear from people in the U.K. on this one. Is the show highly regarded in your country, or am I weird for thinking it’s cool? Sound off in the comments below!

Check out my other editions of Professionally Incoherent Recommends:

The Bourne Series | BBC’s Sherlock | NBC’s Chuck