If you live in the United States, television is almost always one of two things: it could be an actual TV show with characters, plot, drama, laughs, stuff like that, or, it could be a personality-based talk show, where celebrity guests sit down and talk about things with hosts. Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, and others run late-night, with Steve Harvey and Ellen DeGeneres on the daytime block.
There’s a particular type of show that isn’t common in America anymore, though. It’s a type of game show, I suppose, but that’s the closest comparison I can make because there is nothing else quite like it. These shows have something that game shows often lack—effective humor. Welcome to the world of the British Panel Show, the best genre of television you’ve probably never seen.
We actually do have two British-style comedy panel shows in the United States that are still broadcasting. WBEZ, Chicago Public Media’s radio station, co-produces the iconic radio panel show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me with NPR. The other is one is the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter, Whose Line is it Anyway? The US used to have many more—think Pyramid or Hollywood Squares—but they peaked in the ‘70s or ‘80s and never really came back into style. In Britain, they stuck around. Whose Line?, for instance, is an American remake of the British show of the same name. Whose Line? co-stars Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie got big on the British version before coming to the United States. And it’s Drew Carey’s iconic introduction for the show that best exemplifies what these shows are all about. The British Panel Show is simply an excuse to be funny.
British Panel Shows come in many forms, but almost all follow a common model, in which four to six comedian panelists compete in some sort of task, presented by a comedian host. In Mock the Week, for instance, it’s jokes based around news and current events. Would I Lie to You? has the comedians guessing whether each other’s insane stories actually happened. QI is about obscure trivia and correcting misconceptions. Never Mind the Buzzcocks is about music, The Big Fat Quiz of the Year runs in late December and recaps the year. The list goes on and on and on. No, seriously. The Wikipedia list of British game shows has a section dedicated to panel shows that is 101 programs long.
Why are there so many? Inherently, they’re cheap and super easy to produce. After figuring out a concept, you simply give your panelists a seat behind some sort of a podium, get a live studio audience, and you’re off and running. Whether the show will be successful mostly depends on the concept. A lot of panel shows tend to die out because their concepts are too similar to more popular shows, aren’t interesting enough, or perhaps because the shows are so easy to produce that the market has been saturated. The concept is what really matters though—if your concept doesn’t prompt the proper interactions between the panelists, you’re screwed.
You might assume that getting funny contestants is also super important, and it is, but generally, that’s a second priority. British Panel Shows act as their own kind of comedy circuit—comedians will never just appear on one show, they’ll bounce as guests from program to program. This makes them easy to get into as well because you can start just watching one show and then follow your favorite comedians over to others.
If your guests are funny and your format works, you’re golden. Panel shows like QI, The Big Fat Quiz, and Would I Lie To You? have been running since the mid-2000s, and haven’t gotten any less funny in the decade and a half in between. The format of the show doesn’t grow stale, and the wisecracks can approach legendary status. See Richard Ayoade lambasting Rob Beckett for being similar to his childhood bullies in the middle of The Big Fat Quiz, or Bob Mortimer’s “theft and shrubbery” story from Would I Lie to You? as examples. But there’s an important distinction that you might notice from these goofs, and that’s the difference between British and American humor.
Take Michelle Wolf. She’s the comedian who did the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner, where she roasted then-president of the United States Donald Trump and his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders so badly even Maggie Haberman of the New York Times complained that Wolf was too mean and that Sanders should have walked out. Wolf has also appeared on a few British Panel Shows, one of the only—if not only—American comedians to make that jump. And her episode of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown from 2017 is telling.
Right out of the gate, you’ll notice a difference. Jimmy Carr’s second joke features the phrase “dickpickery”, a word that you could say on American TV, but probably not without some amount of controversy or backlash. But while you might expect some of this profanity on late-night TV in America, Cats Does Countdown airs at 9 PM, the middle of prime time. For a more clear example, Jon Richardson says both “asshole” and “shit” about 13 minutes into the episode, words that I personally wouldn’t be saying on a live broadcast for fear of the FCC coming to get me. But what I really want to highlight is the comedic filter, or rather, lack thereof. It doesn’t take Wolf long, but she quickly realizes that in Britain, you can easily get away with innuendo-filled language or call someone “school-shootery” without facing the same amount of backlash that you would in America.
There’s also more targeting to the jokes. The contestant introductions, which take about a third of the show (just more time dedicated to being funny), are more biting. Carr pokes at Johnny Vegas’s weight and alcoholism, Jonathan Ross’s looks, Jon Richardson’s voice, and Wolf’s American upbringing.
After doing the 2018 Correspondents Dinner, Wolf came back to Britain for the 2018 episode of The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. The differences are clear here too—Wolf seems hesitant about dropping an F-bomb on television (11:55), but her partner David Mitchell quickly helps her out by repeating it. And twat, a word included in George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words routine, is perfectly fine, even on British daytime TV. To be fair, I think you could get away with saying twat in America too, but nobody in America says twat to begin with.
Anyways, now I’m getting into analyzing curse words and not why British Panel Shows are funny, so let me get to the point. The looser restrictions on profanity and content in Britain simply allows comedians to have more fun, without having to think as hard about what they’re going to say. The British Panel Show embraces the casual, sometimes slightly dirty tone someone might adopt if they were talking with their friends.
Taskmaster is probably my favorite British Panel Show, and the funny moments come from the conversations (although the concept deserves a lot of credit). The show takes five comedians and has Alex Horne instruct them to perform various funny and absurd tasks. These tasks are then shown to a live studio audience, with “taskmaster” Greg Davies assigning points to each comedian depending on how well they completed the task. Past tasks have included painting a picture of a horse while riding a horse, judged by whatever Greg Davies felt was the best painting, and eating the most watermelon within one minute, judged by actually measuring the amount of watermelon eaten. There are countless laugh-out-loud moments in the tasks themselves, but the show is so good because the contestants are present while the tasks are shown. Therefore, Davies can directly ask the comedians how they were feeling about completing a certain task, or, more commonly, ask them what-in-the-actual-hell they thought they were doing.
There was an American Taskmaster. It ran for one season on Comedy Central. Reggie Watts fills Greg Davies’s role as taskmaster, but he isn’t great, because while Davies will dig into the footage, roasting people at his whim but also giggling like an idiot at other points, Watts provides significantly less commentary, only taking some of Davies’s sarcastic wit with him. Whereas the UK version of Taskmaster has run for 10 seasons and still hasn’t run out of comedians, the American version could only find three to put on the panel.
DJ Dillon Francis and actor Freddie Highmore joined comedians Kate Berlant, Lisa Lampanelli, and Ron Funches as panelists. Kate Berlant feels a little too into pandering to the crowd, and Lisa Lampanelli just likes to call everything her bitch and tell Alex Horne to suck her dick. Ron Funches is fun, and Dillon Francis is okay, I guess. Freddie Highmore, perhaps because he’s British, seemed to understand the lighthearted nature of the show well, but the competitive American spirit of everyone else overpowered him. There’s almost too much emphasis placed on completing the task. That sounds counterintuitive, I know, but watch the American clips from Comedy Central and then watch the full episodes of the UK version from the Taskmaster YouTube channel. You’ll quickly be able to spot the difference.
Comedy Central is actually one of the few networks in America willing to try these things, though, and they should get credit for that. @midnight with Chris Hardwick aired for five seasons in the mid-2010s before eventually being canceled, but it definitely fits the format of a British Panel Show. For what it’s worth, I think making the taskmaster someone more willing to make those snide comments, (Conan O’Brien, for instance) the US adaptation could have worked. But it was not to be, and frankly, I’m okay with that. The British panel shows are sufficiently funny and provide a ton of laughs. I don’t know why they don’t work in America, but if the panel show doesn’t work here, don’t force it where it doesn’t belong.
*Featured Image: BBC’s Channel Four
Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me is available on most podcasting platforms and is probably broadcasted on your local NPR affiliate.
Whose Line is it Anyway? can be watched on the CW.
Taskmaster (UK) can be watched for free on YouTube.
@midnight with Chris Hardwick and Taskmaster (US) can be watched on Comedy Central’s website.
And of course, everything can be found via YouTube or by using a VPN in the right place.