A Guide to the Hilarious World of British Panel Shows

For American comedy fans, British comedy calls to mind Monty Python and The Office. But in the UK right now, stand-up is front and center (centre, actually). The hugely popular observational comic Michael McIntyre is expected to pull in £20 million ($32.5 million) next year when he tours arenas around the UK and Ireland. While stand-up can increasingly be seen on British TV, it’s on comedy panel shows that many comedians make their names.

The format of the panel show is nothing new, nor particularly British. A group of comedians and celebrities are brought together to crack wise about a topic or theme, and then points are handed out occasionally to fashion the enterprise into a game. Anyone who watched the Game Show Network in the late 1990s (just me?) will have seen endless repeats of 1970s panel shows like The Match Game and Password, where the likes of McLean Stevenson and Charles Nelson Reilly made suggestive jokes while members of the public attempted to win prizes.

The modern day British versions of these games have mostly gotten rid of the regular people and prizes. In his history of British entertainment, Turned Out Nice Again, author Louis Barfe describes panel shows as “the televisual equivalent of the Victorian parlour game, in which the only reward was the approval of the host and the audience, not to mention the sense of a job well and wittily done.”

Panel shows don’t dominate the primetime TV schedules in the US, but they can be found. NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me is a classic panel show. Whose Line Is It Anyway? was a form of panel show, with regular rounds and useless points that kept the action moving. When The Marriage Ref was remade in the UK, it was advertised as a panel show (it wasn’t any more popular there — The Guardian’s TV critic called it “perplexingly bad”). Even a show like ESPN’s Around the Horn has elements of a panel show, with journalists discussing current sporting news and being awarded points for good answers.

Part of the reason that panel shows have become so popular in Britain is that the topical panel shows are the primary source of satire. Late night talk shows don’t exist in Britain (their chat shows are weekly, instead of daily), and as such, panel shows are the place where Brits turn for a funny look at current events. One such example is BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, which airs at 6:30 on Friday evening, and offers a somewhat genial comedic look at the week’s news. The even more popular TV version, Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY), has become the beloved elder of the television panel shows. Other topical shows have popped up in it’s shadow, including it’s younger, swearier BBC Two cousin Mock the Week, and the survey based 8 Out of 10 Cats on competitor Channel 4.

But part of the appeal of the panel show to TV and radio executives is that almost anything can be made into a quiz. There are games about sports (BBC One’s Question of Sport), literature (Radio 4’s Quote…Unquote), even television itself (Channel 4’s You Have Been Watching).  A quick look through the British Comedy Guide’s Panel Shows page shows the quantity and variety of the shows on offer. There was even talk about a panel show based on Sudoku, although it doesn’t appear to have materialized.

Panel shows are both a cause and effect of the current comedy boom in Britain. Most shows feature a regular host and team captains, who are established comedy personas that draw in audiences week after week. But the shows are then filled in with other comedians, often allowing younger comics their first TV and radio appearances. Many of the biggest comics in the UK at the moment made their names on panel shows, and have gone on to sell out major theatres and arenas. This increased appetite for comedy has lead to even more shows being commissioned, and more openings for rising comics to find spots on TV or radio.

Another reason for the success of panel shows is that they are particularly suited to the British broadcasting schedule. In the UK, it’s common for one season of a TV and radio show to only last six episodes, and a season of more than 13 episodes is almost unheard of. This means that big names in British comedy, like Jimmy Carr and Peep Show’s David Mitchell, can participate in panel shows for part of the year, while continuing to work on other things. This is particularly true of non-topical shows, which can be recorded in blocks in just a few weeks, and aired over several months.

From an American perspective, one of the most amazing things about British panel shows is just how mainstream they are. HIGNFY regularly pulls in five million viewers, an impressive number in a country of 60 million. Despite, or perhaps because of their popularity, panel shows do have critics, many who charge them with being too mainstream and safe. Others accuse them of being too male-dominated, and of featuring the same comedians over and over again.

There are have been attempts at making panel shows for American audiences, with little success. An American version of the music quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks ran for five episodes in 2002 on VH1, hosted by Marc Maron, and a US pilot of Have I Got News For You? was made in 2009. It might be that there simply isn’t the need for panel shows in the US. After all, anyone wanting topical comedy in the US has a plethora of late-night options to choose from every night.

But the recent boom in comedy podcasts suggests that there may be an appetite for comedy in different formats. The games featured on podcasts like Doug Loves Movies and Comedy Bang Bang are like panel shows — accessible, silly, and always open to funny diversions and digressions. In the US, a panel show might work well as a summer replacement, given that the shows are inexpensive, light-hearted, and endlessly repeatable. Until that time, here’s a quick primer to British panel shows:

Have I Got News For You — After 21 years, Have I Got News For You has become a part of British culture.  One of the most notorious moments in the show’s history came in 2002, after the show’s host, Angus Deayton, was caught in a sex and drugs scandal that ultimately forced him out. The episode following those revelations is still one of the show’s funniest, if meanest, episodes.

Mock The Week — Unlike HIGNFY, which regularly features politicians and various celebrities, Mock the Week is a comedian’s den, with six comics vying every week to get in as many jokes as possible. It’s also been known to court controversy, especially after 2008 joke about the Queen by Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle caused a media furor. Here, they discuss funeral arrangements for former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

8 Out Of 10 Cats — Channel 4 has its own topical panel show, 8 Out of 10 Cats, a show ostensibly about “opinion polls, surveys, and statistics”. That format allows the panelists to discuss pretty much anything that happens in the news and the world. Here’s a clip from last year after the Papal visit to Britain.

QI — Premiering in 2003 and hosted by uber-genius and national treasure Stephen Fry, QI has become the smart, grown-up panel show that is universally loved. Instead of focusing on news and pop culture, topics on QI, which stands for Quite Interesting, read more like a liberal arts curriculum: science, art, literature, law, maths (math), and anything else that the production team finds curious.

Never Mind The Buzzcocks — One of the most enduring panel shows is pop music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Alongside the comedians, it features current and past pop stars, who appear knowing they will be mercilessly mocked. Following the departure of snarky host Simon Amstell in 2009, the show has been hosted by a series of guest presenters, and British comedy fans will recognize The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding as one of the team captains. Regular rounds include the often cruel Identity Parade and Intros, where panelists sing the beginning of a song and another team member must identify the tune.

Would I Lie To You? — The relatively young BBC One show Would I Lie To You? is a classic parlor game, wherein celebrities and comedians tell stories about themselves, and the other team questions them to determine if they’re telling the truth. It’s not a complicated or edgy idea, but it’s become an increasingly popular show, winning the British Comedy Award for Best Comedy Panel Show in 2010.

Just a Minute — One of the classics of the format, Just a Minute premiered on BBC Radio 4 in 1967 with its current host, Nicholas Parsons. The premise is basic: speak for one minute on a certain topic without repeating any words, hesitating, or deviating from the subject. If another panelist notices any repetition, hesitation, or deviation, he or she buzzes in for a point, then takes over the subject. It sounds simple, but it’s much harder than it seems. Here, Paul Merton and Ross Noble debate a deviation.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue — Another reliable panel show on Radio 4 is I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, which started in 1972 as “the antidote to panel games”. Rounds are silly, such the nonsensical tube-based game Mornington Crescent and the self-explanatory One Song to the Tune of Another. Here’s a collection of the latter by Rob Brydon, star of The Trip and Gavin and Stacey, and one of the rare panelists who can actually sing.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist and comedy nerd. She gets unreasonably excited when she gets a mention on Twitter.

A Guide to the Hilarious World of British Panel Shows