Nov 1, 2011

Quite... Something.

I saw the QI Live stage show on Monday 31 October.

I left partly delighted, but mostly really cranky.

Here I will try to explain why.

I am a trivia buff, and QI is one of my favourite television programs precisely because it seeks to correct and improve the world's collective trivia knowledge.

Its host, Stephen Fry, is one of my great literary/acting/comedy heroes. I would go as far to pay him the compliment that his existence on Planet Earth makes me glad to be here.

And yet, I had not jumped on the opportunity to buy tickets for QI Live, the first live stage version of the show, touring Australia at the moment.

Why? The $150 price tag had something to do with it. I also wouldn't know who the local panellists would be - all the blurb had promised was "some of Australia's favourite comedians". Most of all, because I have been rather busy of late, I just plum forgot about it.

But when my good buddy Disco Stu had a friend drop out, and I realised I wasn't pre-booked for rehearsals of some form, I told him I'd get the funds to him in the usual manner ($150 worth of one-dollar scratchies in a brown paper bag left in in the playground of the Milton Macca's), and take up his spare seat for the Halloween-themed first Brisbane show.

The evening began cheerfully enough, with Mr Fry enthusiastically greeting the crowd, and dishing out around 50 minutes of personal anecdotes about his first visit to Australia in 1981. He also told a few proper old "jokes", with punchlines and all. It was a pleasure to watch him simply orate. He indulged in some gentle antipodean ribbing (about the cricket and our funny accents, mostly), as well as Queensland-specific jibes (apparently those Melbournites are still telling people we can't read and drag our knuckles on the ground up here, orrright, yeah mate, yeah).

Most interesting - Quite Interesting, in fact - was his reflections on the show itself, its dynamo producer John Lloyd, its philosophy, and some of the charmingly absurd facts it's turned up over the years.

That was nice.

Then he brought the panellists out.

Now, I had been hoping - but not expecting - at least one Brisbane "celebrity". A local radio host or TV newsreader. But let's face it, in this age of networking, we don't really have local celebrities anymore.

So we got Jono Coleman, one half of the nationally syndicated "Jono and Dano" radio show; and Akmal Saleh, the comedian.

My heart kinda sank when Jono came out, and my bowel kinda squeezed when Akmal followed. 

I reminded myself that just because neither comedian was my style, that didn't make them "bad". It's a panel show, variety is good. The addition of Kitty Flanagan as the third Australian guest perked me up a little; then finally, the arrival of regular off-sider Alan Davies was a welcome audience mood-booster.

Sadly, I believe the panel show itself was a comedy misfire.

There were a few reasons.

For $150 a ticket, I would've thought they could scrounge up a few fresh facts and questions. Much was recycled from TV, which I can understand, but it meant the audience wound up being able to answer a fair few questions correctly. By the end, Coleman and Saleh were joking that they weren't needed and should just go home.

YES, YOU SHOULD, I thought. Well, at least I thought I thought it. Stu's mate Doyle, who was sitting next to me, later informed me that I had muttered it quite audibly.

There was no "General Ignorance" round at the end. This is one of the hallmarks of the TV show. Reviews of the Melbourne shows indicate they didn't have it either, and it may have been scrapped after the first few shows in Perth ran late. Again, it's understandable, and a panel show with a free-form style is always going to be hard to keep to time. But it's a good way to lead into the (admittedly meaningless) scores at the end, which instead felt a bit hasty, like Fry was winding it up early.

Davies didn't really contribute. Again, reviews indicate that he's been unwell during this tour, so perhaps illness and medication might explain it. His manic energy was quite fun, but it was mostly restricted to stealing Halloween chocolates from Fry and taking the mickey out of audience members.

Sure, there were good bits and pieces, and all the guests managed a few funny lines. But more often than not, they just bombed. Saleh and Coleman were the main offenders. Both seemed to be pitching their comedy at an audience that was not there. The QI audience is bound to be a rather intelligent, possibly nerdy one anywhere you might turn up, including the redneck wonderland that is Queensland. And yet there was Coleman throwing out some radio-friendly gags for Mummsy and Daddsy listeners, while Saleh seemed to be looking for any excuse to throw in lines from his act. Hey, the pyramids were built by Lebanese developers! Geddit?

The second half of the panel show - particularly as the audience interaction stepped up - saw more jibes at various Australian accents. Now I know they're funny, and I try not to get too full of myself, but it would have been nice to hear more banter about the topics Fry raised, or at least follow some of the absurd whimsical thought trails that so often occur in the TV show, rather than ten minutes about how f***ed up Rockhampton is. Flanagan was the best at this; at least doing a bit of silly deducing on the topic of kamikaze animals.

The local comedians - particularly Saleh and Coleman - also needed to shut up more. They talked OVER Fry on numerous occasions, which was just frustrating to watch and a tad cringe-inducing.

The show did give me a personal moment of joy when Fry asked if anyone knew the name of the actress who played the "woman painted gold in Goldfinger". There was a beautiful silence, which allowed me to cry out "Shirley Eaton!".

Fry heard and gestured that a chocolate be thrown in my general direction. Of course, he couldn't see me, and being near the back meant I never got my Halloween treat. And the tingle of geeky delight was soon scratched away by another round of panel braying about accents and what not.

So perhaps all this is bitterness. Bitter that comedians I do not find funny get amazing gigs like this. Bitter that anything where Brits interact with Aussies has to include a measured dose of cultural cringe. Bitter that I can't take a joke. Bitter that I didn't get a chocolate, despite devoting a section of my brain to remembering James Bond trivia instead of something important like learning a language or how to open a savings account.

I must reiterate - Mr Fry himself was an absolute delight. I would heartily lay down good money to hear him on one of his solo speaking tours. He and Davies, when on top banter form, were a great double act.

And I understand that other shows have been much more fun - Andrew Denton and Shaun Micallef were among those who fronted the stage in Melbourne.

But I do feel like the first Brisbane QI Live panel event was a cut-rate version, a C-grade version, a test version.

I'm glad I had the experience. But I would not go again at that price unless I knew in advance who the panellists were going to be.

Australia may not have as many brilliant comedians/thinkers as the UK. But we certainly have some, and if not, we need to work on that. But that's a story for a whole other post....


  1. That's a shame. I do love my QI and Stephen Fry and Alan Davies too. I would have dearly loved to see the show in Melbourne. Unfortunately the bank account said hell no, so I have to let the TV shows suffice.

    I agree with you that the obligatory cultural cringe is annoying. I'm not even vaguely interested in Australian accents or in overseas comics discussing what's happening in Australia, because I already generally know about that, I want to hear about things I can't just walk out my door and look at. I think we have some great comedians in Australia but it doesn't sound like you got anything remotely close to great with the 'local' talent.

  2. I was there last night and as much as it pains me to say it... your review is much more generous than mine would be.

    I think I could have looked past the 100% recycled content if the panelists had been witty or had something interesting to contribute.

  3. "Andrew Denton and Shaun Micallef"Sounds like Melbourne got the better deal, again.

  4. I personally quite enjoy international people discussing Australia. I always find it interesting to see Australia through their eyes. What we think is normal is sometimes wonderful, strange or funny to them. The same applies when we head overseas.

    It's great how in today's inter connected world mankind still finds ways to surprise each other like that. Small or large, I find cultural differences fascinating and I feel they should be celebrated more.

    All the variations, the differences, the similarities, the permutations... It's all so interesting. It's quite interesting.

    Wow, I'm off track before I've even started.

    Anyway, the show. Davies was definitely sick. That cough of his sounded horrible. I'd almost expect him to announce he has lung cancer.

    Flanagan was fine.

    Coleman wasn't good and I came out unable to remember anything funny he said. I don't remember anything that annoyed me either.

    Akmal... Akmal sort've works on a comedy panel show like Good News Week. It's only one episode, it's not too serious, and you can kind of laugh as he gets off track some how. He's not entirely my thing, but he has his moments.

    But he is NOT QI. The show tends to be a little more laid back. You make a few witty observations, share a few laughs then Stephen Fry educates you on an interesting fact. You DO NOT keep labouring your shitty joke that didn't work over Fry. At one point he spoke over him, Stephen Fry kept going, Akmal tried going over him again before Fry obviously a little pissed spoked louder till Akmal shut up. That's where I got the cringe.

    That's not how the show works. Fry speaks you shut up. I'm not saying Fry is better or precious, but the thing that ties the while show together is the facts. They're not only interesting but also they're also a clever device to move the conversation onto the next topic.

    I also found the Rocky jokes frustrating. A throw away comment, fine. A few sentences, okay. A rambling story about cows on roofs, generic 'country people are stupid' jokes, and other gear I'm sure I've heard him tell before which he kept revisiting, shut up.

    Overall I liked it. I'd give it a 7/10, but it could've used a lot less Akmal 'dickhead' Saleh.

    No wait, it could've used NO Akmal Saleh.

  5. Woops wrote more than I thought, sorry Nat.

  6. I reckon they should have got one of those clever chaps from that local science podcast...

  7. Hey guys - thanks for your comments (you can write as much as you like Doyle!).

    I realise that my view was particularly angry, and I do worry I somewhat spoiled the evening for Stu, Doyle and Bruce because I was so heated up about it. :)

    Bunnitos - while I don't regret spending the money, I don't think you should regret not spending it, if that makes sense.

    Anonymous - would love to hear more of your thoughts!

    Barnesm - I'm really surprised they couldn't have flown some of those type of people up to Brisbane for a day or so. It's not that far. OK, could've been tricky with Qantas but they all got there in the end.

    Dan - the thing is, I didn't want to put this in the review because I probably already come out sounding up myself, but any number of Brisbane improvisers could have done a great job. I've sat at parties having wittier conversations at 2am than some of Coleman and Saleh's gear.

    Someone like Spencer Howson would have also been fantastic. Someone who gets the humour, is a confident but not aggressive speaker, and would add a local touch.

  8. I'm surprised, but the talk on twitter last night was mostly quite positive.

    I agree they needed someone local. They tried to play Akmal as 'local'... a Sydneysider living on the Gold Coast. Not quite the same.

  9. I was at that show too, and agree. I personally found the radio guy a big letdown. He was the one person in the list of special guests I'd never heard of - his 'national' syndication apparently doesn't include anywhere I've lived in the last few years. He was loud and crude and brought the tone down.

    The lack of General Ignorance was a pity, and it did feel like we lurched rather abruptly from Whatzizface winning a squillion points to the end of the game.

    For complicated work reasons, last night was the only show I could possibly attend... if I find out that tonight has people I've actually heard of being funny rather than crude, I'll have a little sulk.

    And is now a good time to point out I'm from Rockhampton?

  10. We are spoilt by the tv show as they can edit out the 'Akmal' and leave in the good stuff.

  11. Natalie- Destroyer of Fun :)

    No, you didn't kill the show. I had exactly the same reaction, although perhaps not as forceful. My biggest complaint was Jono- he was like a square peg in a round hole, a really bad fit with the show. Akmal, for all his flubbing, has actually done panel shows before, so he seemed to know what was expected of him, but I agree with Doyle that he didn't seem to get that wehn Fry starts giving the actual facts, he needs to shut up for a bit. And I wouldn't shy away from criticising Kitty Flanagan, who came out with all her cock-joke-guns blazing for some reason. I think she only seemed good by comparison.

    And I can't imagine the reason for the weirdness is teething issues, it may have been the first show of the Brisbane run but they've been in Perth and Melbourne already.

    I think the whole thing highlights a trend that I've always disliked about Australian comedians, certainly the big, popular ones; they have a strong anti-intellectual bent. A lot of that ties into the anti-authority larrikin persona, but there's a thing in Australian comedy where if you know things about stuff, you're either up-yourself or a smart-arse. Witness last night, when the audience increasingly piped up with the actual answers, and were mocked by the panellists, who treated them like hecklers. I think the sad fact is there's very few Australian comedians at a levekl to actually appear on QI who are also a good fit for the program. I would have even taken Will Anderson over the two blokes we got, and Doyle will attest to my unending dislike of Will. At least he's not afraid to admit he knows things about stuff.

  12. Stu - I would've taken *gulp* Josh Thomas.

    Wow, now my mouth tastes like mercury after saying that.

  13. I would have been fine with Josh Thomas. I think he'd get the show in a way none of our panelists did.

  14. I was there last night as well, and thoroughly enjoyed Mr Fry by himself for the first section. 8/10.

    As soon as I saw Jono Coleman, my heart sank & I knew we were in for a panel of third raters.....
    Mr Fry held up his end of things, Alan was quite bored from the looks of things & Akmel..... Well Akmel did try.... But it was the wrong audience for his material. Kitty went for the cock jokes, but over did it.
    6/10 for the panel.

    At the end of the night, the concensus between Myself, Mrs Yuppy & the Tame Homosexuals, was that we would have been happy for Mr Fry to talk all night by himself with Alan brought in for comic interludes.

  15. I actually didn't go - refused point blank to go - because of the ticket price.

    (Clearly the production costs don't eclipse Wicked or Mary Poppins or a U2 show, so someone's making a packet out of this.)

    I would have been bilious at the thought of forking out that price and having Akmal walk on stage ...

    I understand 2nd night was a better result with Adam Spencer, Cal Wilson and Shane ("Kenny") Jacobson.

    QI as a TV show is one that the whole family can watch and enjoy.

    QI Live would have cost a week's wages to take the whole family. Unforgivable.

    But I have the family front row at Ross Noble next year, so I know we'll enjoy that.


  16. We had Wil Anderson, Colin Lane and Genevieve Morris last night. I only vaguely recognised Genevieve, and she tried to do the "what's your name again? Stephen?" joke on more than one occasion, which was somewhat embarrassing as it didn't work at all and just seemed rude... but I'll admit that she had her good moments too, which was definitely a relief after she came on stage and talked about herself for ages - trying to justify her presence on the show I guess? Understandable, but better just to say less and prove your worthiness by playing the game...

    Wil was pretty good, although clearly a bit awed/nervous at the start. Colin had something of a nice rapport going with Alan and Stephen, which was lovely to see. On TV the show really does work better when the panelists know each other, relax and joke around and have a bit of fun. When a comedian tries to throw in jokes and pretend they're spontaneous banter it works a lot better if the panelists are relaxed around each other. But yes, I basically agree with everyone else. Expensive tickets, random chance on the panelists and material we've seen before. But apparently they're coming back to do Sydney and Adelaide next year with new questions, and I bet they just have the good guests on too this time... lucky Sydney and Adelaide I say!

  17. Well, I'm glad I was there Tuesday night: Cal Wilson (quieter than usual - good), Shane Jacobson (oh, well, what did you expect - but tolerable), and Adam Spencer, who fitted in perfectly. It helped that Alan Davies was over whatever disease he had had, and even the silly bits were well done - Davies and Spencer re-enacting the last 100m of the Cup on their chairs, using loofahs for whips.

    Main problem was the inconsistent sound, especially the far too loud buzzers.

    And only one very fleeting reference to Rockhampton. Monday night must have been a practice-run.

  18. "Andrew Denton and Shaun Micallef"Sounds like Melbourne got the better deal, again.

    exactly ;))