In the past few years, i have come to admit a new pleasure of mine – watching British panel shows.
It’s crazy how the simple, low-budget format of panel shows can work so very well. From the decades-spanning series Have I Got News For You, to the short-lived but brilliant You Have Been Watching, and my personal favourite Never Mind the Buzzcocks, I thoroughly enjoy them all. I’m pretty sure I’m only at the tip of the iceberg with this ever-expanding but reliable genre. Here is a brief personal history of my gradual but manically fantastic descent into ~the world of the British panel show~.
Apparently, panel shows are sometimes seen as a weaker, inferior form of the scripted sitcom. I think they’re two entirely different modes, and sometimes, in sitcoms, you get this unfiltered, daringly original moments from talented comedians which makes for great comedy. Sure, some parts in panel shows are scripted, but the improvisation can make for excellent television.
Never Mind the Buzzcocks
I initially started with Never Mind the Buzzcocks around 2006/7, when Simon Amstell first took over Mark Lamarr. Amstell’s now known for being a quasi-existential, self-deprecating “normal human being” (see: his latest stint on Letterman). I saw his standup last year and he has genuinely embraced, and also exposed, the insecurities and vulnerabilities that come with personal growth and artistic development. Amstell has also created the deadpan, semi-autobiographical series Grandma’s House, which is fairly enjoyable (the episode with Iwan Rheon, anyone?).
But, I believe even till now, Amstell is, best of all, known for his biting remarks that he initially started with Popworld, and finally refined with NMTB, a music-based quiz/panel show. He has produced such terribly funny and painfully memorable moments: Preston walking out, his interaction with Amy Winehouse, and of course, making fun of the “punk” Donny. I think what makes NMTB work is due to firstly, Amstell – he’s quick, witty, quite mean-spirited and sometimes evil but just plain funny. I still look for real-life social situations where I can use “Take that autocue back to Jimmy Carr!”
Secondly, the team captains are such an integral part of the show. Bill Bailey, of Black Books fame, has to be my favourite. He’s pretty bizarre but awfully likeable as well. Phil Jupitus provides some laughs too, but I think Bailey always triumphs. Bailey’s sucessor, Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh, is pretty great too and his fashion sense is magnificent. The format of the show – Intros Round and Identity Parade, especially – is fun and wacky too.
There has a bit lot of speculation over why Amstell left, and it is probably because the team captains weren’t happy with Amstell’s brutal attacks on guests. Amstell, too, is trying his best to disassociate himself with his NMTB persona (see: this intriguing interview). But, I’ve tried watching on without him, but it’s just not the same. The guest-hosting sequence now does not work as the quality of every episode fluctuates wildly. You get really awful hosts like Peter Andre and David Hasselhoff, mediocre ones like Mark Ronson or Martin Freeman, decent ones like Lee Mack or Josh Groban, and very rarely, amazing ones like Richard Ayoade and David Tennant. But the bad ultimately outweighs the good. Sometimes, the guests are pretty stale and the show has to heavily rely on the team captains. Even after two seasons with guests hosts, fans are still urging for a permanent, decent host, or asking for the return of Amstell or Lamarr. The future of NMTB honestly looks rather bleak, it has unfortunately become a shadow of its former self, but 10/10 I’m all up for re-watching Amstell episodes anytime.
Would I Lie To You?
After Amstell left NMTB, I honestly can’t remember how I stumbled upon Would I Lie To You?. Perhaps it was all over a few .gifs, but I’m pretty sure it was all mainly due to the terrific David Mitchell. I was very much aware of Mitchell in Peep Show and even his various Mitchell & Webb sketch series (their Neil Armstrong, singer sketch is one of the best). WILTY started off Angus Deayton as host, but replacement Rob Brydon is a much better fit (well for me, at least). WILTY involves a simple premise where a contestant reads out a card not knowing what’s on it, and the other team has to guess if it’s a truth or a lie. What makes WILTY so funny really boils down to Brydon, team captains Mitchell and Lee Mack. They’re all stellar comedians, but Mitchell is possibly the most endearingly weird and relatable. His so-called poshness, stoic earnestness, dry commentary and epic rants are enough to keep the show going. On the show, he has revealed his 3-point pen policy, never pressing a mysterious red switch in his flat, an amusing approach towards his “noteworthy” appearance, and had a childhood imaginary friend in the form of a bucket. Mitchell is also one of the strongest proponents for panel shows, and has appeared on possibly every other panel show except NTMB. He’s been heralded as the best comedy panel show guest (I totally agree!), and has hosted radio series The Unbelievable Truth for the past seven years. He’s got a new series too, but more on that later.
Lee Mack is also ace, (my brother’s always on Team Mack) and he’s gotten so, very good at this game that everything he says sounds like a lie – a neat tactic and also, makes for absolutely hysterical moments. I also really adore WILTY because it involves all guests (most of the time) to say some really absurd things:
Other favourite moments include when Kevin Bridges accidentally bought a horse, Greg Davies’ school game called “Snorkel Parka Music Room” and a cuddle jumper for two. You really can’t make this stuff up.
Quite Interesting or QI is another one of my favourites. Stephen “I’m a national fucking treasure” Fry steps in as host, and Alan Davies is a permanent panelist, as the “bumbling fool” to Fry’s “certified genius”. QI‘s known as a “thinking man panel show” because it doesn’t revolve around pop culture but instead historical facts, mathematics complexities or the mysteries of science. QI also has this mysterious point system rewarded by unnamed QI elves. So at the end of the episode, contestants, usually Davies, could easily get a -20 score. I think why QI works so well is because they always get really, really good guests. There’s at least two guests contestants who make dry remarks or create exceptional moments (Jo Brand, Ross Noble), or their presence is simply good enough (David Tennant, Emma Thompson). Plus, you can never go wrong with Stephen Fry. It is woefully fun to see him cringe over bad answers and endlessly mock his “comedy wife” Alan Davies. This was the first clip that got me into QI:
Occasionally, or perhaps when I feel like going on some sort of binge, I enjoy watching Mock the Week, Have I Got News For You and Just A Minute too. These long-running panel shows are targeted at an older audience, so maybe that’s why I’m not entirely crazy about them. But, in all honesty, with my knowledge of British comedians from watching the past shows, I selectively watch episodes when the guests aren’t all too atrocious.
8 out of 10 Cats works for me only because of Jon Richardson and Sean Lock. Am I one of the few people who isn’t crazy over Jimmy Carr? As in he’s okay, tolerable at times, but he’s not all-out amazing as other comedians (his segment is easily the weakest in 10 O’ Clock Live). His signature laugh is fairly funny though? 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown has been decent too (maybe even better than the original format, at times), they also included cuddly kittens (with a show title like that, you need to have cats) at one point.
Big Fat Quiz of the Year is an annual panel show, that quizzes about the past year. Jimmy Carr’s hosting is a bit average at best, and again, it really rides on the contestants. There’s always a team that’s serious, a playful one and one stuck in between. Each episode lasts for more than an hour, and sometimes, it can get a bit tedious.
A moment of silence for the short-lived series too: for just one season, David Mitchell’s The Bubble was awfully entertaining. The show had three celebrities locked in a “bubble”, a secluded house with no internet or connection to the outside world for an entire week. They would then come on the panel show to figure out what made the news. It sounds rather insane, but I thought it was a pretty good series. The episode with Robert Webb was really endearing – Miranda Hart said that Webb always referred to Mitchell as “my David” when in “the bubble”.
You Have Been Watching had “TV potty-mouth” Charlie Brooker quizzing guests on TV shows for two series. It’s a bit like Screenwipe: the Game Show, if there ever was one. Brooker’s always had a thing for commenting on TV, while being on TV itself. He plays the satirical voice of reason in Screenwipe, Newswipe, Weekly Wipe and awesomely-titled How TV Ruined Your Life. YHBW combines my Angophilia-inclined taste for TV shows like Doctor Who and panel shows…I mean, what’s not to love? In one episode, Mitchell and Brooker also coined the phrase “fuck a Jesus” when closing a show – that’s pretty damn cool.
The brand new Was it Something I Said? only has a few episodes so far but it looks promising. With David Mitchell as host, and Richard Ayoade as one of the team captains, there has been some pretty exceptionally funny moments. It has less than favourable reviews so far, but maybe it takes a while for a show to gain its footing. The only gripe I have with WISIS is that they have the unnecessary role of a narrator for every episode. It’s a bit sad when he or she is not really part of the game and just sits there really awkwardly. Is Mitchell really unable to read out a few more quotes?
My fangirl is showing
I think from watching British panel shows I’ve been exposed to a lot about British popular culture too – more than I’ve thought I would ever know. Without referring to Google, I’ve learnt what these things/who these people are solely from panel shows – Blue Peter, Jimmy Saville, Peter Andre, Jordan, Jamelia, Mystique, Jimmy Carr’s tax evasion scandal. Plus, 90% of how I come to know (and maybe even slowly fall in love with) British comedians is primarily from panel shows – Jack Whitehall, Paul Foot (I saw his standup earlier this year – totally absurd, see my review!), Miranda Hart, Dara O’ Brien etc.
One last point, British comedy panel shows are still very much a male-dominated space, usually one female guest is considered sufficient (tending to go with safe favourites like Sarah Millican). Some might even annoyingly use a woman solely as eye candy (see: 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown – I hope they pay her well!). But the same thing could be said about comedy as whole (British, American etc). I think at least with British panel shows, the female contestants aren’t constantly berated to sexist remarks (unless Jimmy Carr’s in the room). Anyway, alas, I obviously have to pick a few of my favourite panelists of all time, and they are: David Mitchell, Sue Perkins, Bill Bailey, David O’ Doherty and Richard Ayoade.
This turned out a lot longer than I expected – sorry? But for a TL;DR version and also a fitting conclusion for this post: British comedy panel shows are great, and I’m nowhere near done with watching them all.