A Quite Interesting Question. Why Don’t Americans Like Comedy Panel Shows?

1556d46c25e3ca64cd078151e136588a4d1c6aebIn 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.

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7 comments

  1. We do have the NPR program “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on Saturday. The British people are a more homogeneous population than is the United States. So wen a quip is made it’s usually understood by the audience. Here, it seems that everything has to brought down to the lowest common denominator because of the differences in the various ethnic peoples.

    1. I am giving you the benefit of the doubt in assuming you did not mean to say that people of some ethnicities are less intellectually sophisticated than others.

      Having lived in both places, I would say we have a slightly different cultural expectation of humor and the pace of an entertainment program. Not finding something funny or entertaining doesn’t necessarily mean you are unable to understand it.

      If you look at the music-themed show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, it is not particularly intellectual. It’s kind of goofy, it has people singing the intros to pop songs and trying to pick members of defunct rock bands out of line ups. So I don’t think the format’s lack of interest by U.S. programmers and presumably audiences can be chalked up to trying to dumb shows down for a mass audience.

      1. I didn’t mean to imply that some groups of people are less intellectually sophisticated, but what I meant is that certain words or phrases carry different meanings to people of different ethnic backgrounds. I wonder how many Americans would understand the humor in the British novel “Cold Comfort Farm.”

    2. Sorry for necro-ing this but came across this in research for a project. To say that a more homogeneous nation will get ‘a joke’ simply because of race is not true in any format. If you watch these panel shows you will see every ethnic background, every gender, every sexuality, every culture very much evenly distributed. It works in the UK because of self deprecation. It’s a defence mechanism that has held true for a great number of centuries.
      The audience understands the joke because it is the subject matter that is the theme and the people that are the targets. Sarcasm and satire come easily to a British mind and no minority of Britain finds this odd.

  2. Wait, Wait Don’t Tell me on NPR brings up an interesting point though. What it has in common with the BBC is that it is not advertiser supported. So maybe the problem isn’t persuading American audiences to watch, it is persuading Pepsi and Ford that this kind of program would be a good vehicle to sell its products.

  3. Something like QI would have to be done in an American version I would think for a U.S. audience just because a lot of the pop culture references wouldn’t make sense. But the fact that no one has done it even with its success over there suggests that the tv execs at least don’t think we’d tune in for it.

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