As QI reaches season 10, we explain its success

Art & Lit Screen

The comedy educational panel show QI has entered its tenth year with the J series of episodes currently airing, having slowly but steadily become a mainstay of BBC 2’s yearly lineup. There are extended editions, Christmas specials, even that holiest of panel show holies – a ‘Highlights Special’ episode primed to fill any schedule gap when the channel has run out of episodes of Miranda.

Originally airing on a vague promise to share interesting facts, quickly becoming more popular than one might have expected as people succumbed to feeling superior to Alan Davies, it is still a surprise that such a contradictory animal of a show has thrived over the last decade. It wants to engage the viewing public’s brain without alienating us, and so it adopts an odd mixture of camaraderie and condescension, destroying the cosy urban myths we’re all so fond of believing only to replace them with equally simplified versions of the truth so that we all have something to be an expert on at parties in years to come.

One secret of its success, perhaps, is that for that mixture they chose the perfect host in Stephen Fry. He can, at times, be the Marmite of comedians – his brilliance is indubitable, but in the same way that your cleverest tutor or lecturer is clearly a genius and yet also impossible to hold a normal conversation with. Fry can definitely do that, at least, and his easy back and forth with the panellists is one of the show’s highlights, but when he steps back into the slightly lecturing position of chairman his manner can be more than slightly grating. Then again, it’s hard to imagine any comedy panel show getting away with educational lectures any more successfully – we’re unlikely to ever see Jeremy Paxman doubled over with laughter as he fails to get through a sentence and a panel mock him mercilessly.

The real draw of the show, however, is the panellists. Alan Davies obviously fulfils the long-term role of whipping boy well, but is still more than smart enough to pull out a surprise piece of knowledge every now and then, and to be better than most at recognising trick questions when they’re staring him in the face. The others, though – the rotating cast of British and foreign comedians, chosen as much for their brains as for their humour – add an unpredictable passion to the show, as niche areas of expertise are uncovered and competitive natures come out to play. This is obviously echoed in the back-room writing and researching staff, who unearth strange pieces of knowledge daily and are a clear presence in the show, often contributing something during an episode after a question has been raised. (Unsurprisingly, their twitter account is also often a delight.)

The real question, then, becomes not how it has survived so long, but how much longer can it continue? Back when it first became obvious that the series were themed by letters of the alphabet, the eventual implicit target of a Z series seemed close to impossible. By the time this term’s Freshers take Finals in their third year, however, the show should be approaching the halfway point, and who wouldn’t appreciate the day in 2028 that a 70-year-old Stephen Fry finally ventured the questions of Zebras, Zeppelins and Zyzzyvas?