In the past year or so, thanks to Youtube and Hulu, I have become aware that the UK has an entire genre of program that we seem not to have, at least not that I have noticed. The best known example of it is probably QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, but there are a number of them. They are comedy panel shows, ostensibly game shows, but there are no actual prizes and no one is trying to win anything except a laugh.
A show like Real Time with Bill Maher brings a panel of smart, funny people together each week, but there the similarity ends. Real Time is a comedy version of Meet the Press. Maher’s guests are a combination of comedians and real political representatives and the banter is intended to be political satire and commentary. The guests are trying to make real points.
QI and its sisters (Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week are examples) are a bit like a Friday game night where your pals come over and you bring out the board games and get to talking and forget whose turn it is next and don’t much care. Except the panelists are cleverer– or at least better edited– than your friends.
We do have Hollywood Game Night but the competition in that show is real and the non-celebrity contestants can take home $25,000. In this it has more in common with old game shows like Hollywood Squares, Liar’s Club or Match Game.
The panel shows are hit or miss affairs. They lack the comfortable guarantee of the set-up, punch-line pacing of a sit-com or the inherent drama of a real competition. Some groups of guests click better than others. But there is a kind of adventure in not quite knowing how it is all going to turn out or, indeed, sometimes if they are ever going to get to the point, any point, at all. (“I don’t think there’s a punchline scheduled, is there?“- Monty Python) This, I think, is what makes these kind of shows somewhat incomprehensible to U.S. audiences. We’re far too goal oriented for them.
QI has run for 12 seasons for the BBC, and surely a TV executive here has market tested the idea to American audiences. It has to be cheap to produce compared to standard Hollywood fare, and potentially profitable. Americans, in spite of our competitive DNA, embraced Whose Line is it Anyway, a British import that is set up as a competition but with no prizes and points given out at the random whim of the host.
It is hard to put my finger on what exactly is the difference between Whose Line and QI. I think it is the aspect of having a quiz and knowledge questions and not actually rewarding anyone for knowing stuff. The QI questions are designed to be almost impossibly hard and yet there is no Jeopardy champion.
The American narrative is, at its heart, a story about competition. We may not have QI, but we have Top Chef where people talk about making a winning soufle as if their lives depended on it. We have endless unscripted television dramas (reality series) which mimic scripted series. They have winners and losers, people pitted against one another. They don’t just need to survive together on a desert island– someone needs to be the last one standing. That is what a story is. It is how we understand the world. It is how our nightly news likes to frame stories. If our news consumption patters are anything to go on, we want to know which political party will be the winner in the battle over Obamacare much more than we want to have anyone to explain to us what Obamacare actually consists of. Competition is the essence of American entertainment. The idea that it can be fun watching a bunch of people not competing? That is downright un-American.