Nov 1, 2011
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....