In a hurry to increase your Britophile IQ? Obviously, you can go the traditional route and seek out the many excellent books available on the subject. As a reference librarian*, it’s against the rules for me to suggest otherwise. However, short of a being dropped off in the UK and left to make your own way through the cultural landscape, it’s my opinion that the quickest way to get acclimated is to watch comedy panel shows.
The structure of panel shows, less a gentle sprinkle, is more akin to a full baptismal dunk of names and products and places. The jokes come fast and furious and when I first discovered this telly genre I found myself laughing and completely clueless at the same time. With some practice and the internet, you’ll find yourself understanding UK pop culture like a native. Who’s Sarah Millican? I know and if you watch the programs I’m about to suggest, you will too.
If you’re new to the concept of the comedy panel series, you’re in luck because they are plentiful and oft-uploaded to YouTube. In fact, many of these popular shows will be broadcasting Christmas episodes soon so it’s a great time to check them out. Let’s look at a few to determine what they can do to raise your British pop culture awareness.
1. QI (Quite Interesting)
QI is hosted by the quite intellectual Stephen Fry. His job is to pose obscure questions covering a multitude of subjects to the assembled celebrity panelists. He then awards points based on occasional correctness or, more often, on the interesting-ness of their responses.
Just as curiosity and creativity are rewarded, points are deducted for unoriginal incorrect answers, more specifically those which are generally considered to be fact. (For example that haggis was invented by the Scots.) This rule is particularly noteworthy because it highlights that national trait of questioning the accepted wisdom. So if you’re looking for cleverness mixed with healthy dose of British skepticism, QI is the program for you.
This year’s Christmas episode, “Jingle Bells”, will be broadcast December 21 at 10 pm on BBC Two. Here’s a clip from a previous Christmas episode to give you a feel for this quite interesting panel show.
2. 8 Out of 10 Cats
Coined from the advertising slogan “8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas”, 8 Out of 10 Cats stars comedian Jimmy Carr. He questions celebrity teams on polling and survey results as well as other statistical data. While these queries serve, first and foremost, as the starting point for comic riffs, they also let the viewer in on the pulse of the British public – their preferences, opinions and what they’re talking about (probably on Twitter).
3. Mock the Week
Mock the Week is Whose Line Is It Anyway meets The Daily Show. Host Dara O’Briain administers a series of topically relevant questions and improv challenges for the team members to perform. As with the other panel shows, comedy is primary, so if you prefer your political commentary and world news be delivered with wit and well…mockery as the title suggests, MTW might be your cup of tea.
Look for a few holiday improv games during Mock the Week’s December 27 episode airing at 10pm on BBC Two. My guess is it will go something like this:
4. The Big Fat Quiz of the Year
An annual program hosted by Jimmy Carr, is a comprehensive rundown of the past twelve months as lived by the British people. Three celebrity teams answer news, entertainment and human interest questions covering each month. From what I’ve gathered, one of the teams is designated to provide only surreal or dim answers, in the interest of entertainment value, of course. The only down side is having to endure Jimmy Carr’s annoying laugh for close to two hours.
The 2012 quiz airs December 30th at 9 pm on Channel 4. Here’s one of those surreal team moments I mentioned. No surprise considering Noel Fielding is involved.
5.) Never Mind the Buzzcocks
Although it appears that my favorite panel show, the pop music quiz-fest Never Mind the Buzzcocks, will not be producing a Christmas show this year, I want to share 2010’s Doctor Who-themed episode guest hosted by David Tennant. It’s my all-time favorite and marks my introduction to the Time Lord and his world. True story!
I hope you’ll discover something just as wonderful when you delve into this delightful genre of British telly. Enlightenment, insights and laughs await you.
*In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t have a Masters of Library Science degree. Therefore, I am not a librarian, but it’s easier to explain than “Adult Reference Library Associate”.
Carmen is an American wife and mother of two college students who live away from home. With her yellow lab Malcolm by her side, she watches and writes about British television for her own blog Everything I Know about the UK I Learned from the BBC. Read more of Carmen’s posts here.