If you need a new binge watch after ripping through Bridgerton, Lupin, or whatever else everyone’s watching that I’ll get to in May, you need to get acquainted with The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. A British tradition, this annual program is not available on streaming or cable over here but can easily be found around the internet for a much-needed post-holiday spectacle. Since 2004, the UK ends the year with a wrap up review of the biggest stories in sports, UK and global events, politics, and pop culture hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr. It’s essentially a giant televised pub trivia game but with three teams of two comedians or television presenters instead of 20 annoying grad students.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, Carr is assisted in asking the contestants trivia questions with help from pre-recorded messages from celebrity guests (Bryan Cranston, Luke Evans, Simon Pegg), a dramatization of one of the year’s biggest news stories performed by young primary school kids, visual “write-what-you-see” riddles, photoshopped movie posters, a reading from an unnamed celebrity’s memoir by Charles Dance, and more. Games often feature team implosions, host mockery, picnics to survive the 2hr runtime, and at least one running gag that stays through multiple commercial breaks. Such iconic moments to seek out include Rob Brydon commandeering the show from Carr and Richard Ayoade schooling Spice Girl Mel B on the importance of staying hydrated while quizzing.
If you’re new to the series, internet-sleuth your way towards the 2015 and 2016 editions. Together they make up a good introduction to the orchestrated madness that is the show and features such Quiz stalwarts as Ayoade, Mel Giedroyc, David Mitchell, Sarah Millican, and Claudia Winkleman. While I partially want to knock the program for not mixing up its contestants enough, part of its appeal is seeing these familiar faces and how over time that’s led to a distinct camaraderie amongst the crew of regulars regardless of team alliances (although I will fully knock the lack of diversity of their combos).
While a small number of Americans have ventured onto the series, including Chelsea Peretti, Kristen Schaal, and Michelle Wolf, their appearances are a bit fish out of water on a show that feels uniquely British even to first time viewers. But it’s easy to see great potential in a version with an all-American cast. While some shows are ill suited for a US adaptation considering their appeal lies in the fact they are the polar opposite of standard American TV (we’re looking at you, The Great British Bake Off), the Big Fat Quiz is the kind of program primed for a successful American spinoff, one that could perhaps even spark an Office-style never-ending debate on which version is better.
A relic of the past in the US, the UK still has a bustling network of panel shows featuring teams of comedians, presenters (itself considered a uniquely sought after profession in entertainment), and other notable, but not uber-famous artists. It’s a unique venue to showcase the quick wit of the country’s funniest entertainers, and they are at their best when casting sticks to prioritising banter over star power. And that’s where the gap between the UK and US panel shows is stark.
Netflix tried a show like this in 2018, with the short-lived panel show The Fix, which was even hosted by Carr. It had some talented guests but Netflix’s support of it was tentative at best and you can feel that uncertainty emanating from the show. Other than that, the closest the US has come to this UK styled panel show in recent history is E!’S Chelsea Lately, @Midnight on Comedy Central, and IFC’s Bunk, with smaller shows relegated to the shadows of Facebook or Snapchat. Many of those were overly dependent on flash-in-the-pan trends. While I believe the US has more than comedic enough talent to pull off a perfect spinoff, I don’t trust anyone to cast it while keeping in the spirit of the original. Our more current game shows are full of award-toting celebrities and sitcom stars that may play funny characters on screen but aren’t known for joke slinging themselves. Instead of Big Fat Quiz, we have Hollywood Game Night and Match Game, which poses the question, who’s louder: the cast of Modern Family or the cast of Glee? Even Comedy Central has taken some wild left turns in casting their roast shows by inviting headscratchers like Anne Coulter, Jewel, and Peyton Manning to read jokes off a card written by the people who should actually be on stage.
As with our baking shows, American panel shows feel more akin to a photo-op than actual entertainment. Animated and frantic supersedes charm and gaiety. I want more showcases for comedians but it’s hard to start from scratch. With little prerequisite to help, you need to piggyback on something and an American Big Fat Quiz is a great start.
Big Fat Quiz is about fame in moderation. It’s not for A-listers, leaving the seltzer spokesmen and Funko Pop inspirations to ask the questions rather than answer them. It is not a paycheck opportunity for Debra Messing or Shaquille O’Neal but for funny folk existing within a visibility range that goes as high as John Mulaney and Amber Ruffin and down towards the latest Comedy Central Half Hour special up-and-comers. It’s a harmonious mix of dry cynics and silly oddballs ready to roll with whatever weirdness the night brings. It’s a show that runs on vibes, and chasing clout will doom any attempt to recreate it.
So here’s how you do it: you change almost nothing. Rather than rush to hire one of our already oversaturated talk show hosts, keep the beloved cyborg Jimmy Carr to serve as a bridge between the two and preserve the essence of the original. Keep the set design and format largely the same with similar booths with similar screens and all the same question categories and special presentations. All you’d have to do is change is the contestants and the questions to be US-centric. Concern yourself with matching the energy and camaraderie of the UK version at its best by creating teams of quick-witted comedians and presenters who thrive off-the-cuff and can gel together as a whole. Rather than combing the guest lists at the Golden Globes, go scan comedy stages and ever-growing digital platforms, such as podcasting, for choice candidates, such as culture connoisseurs like The Read’s’ Crissle West and Kid Fury and Las Culturistas’ Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang. Ensure more guaranteed chemistry from perfect pairings like Urgent Care’s Joel Kim Booster and Mitra Jouhari, Unofficial Expert’s Sydnee Washington and Marie Faustin, Newcomers’ Nicole Byer and Lauren Lapkus, and the people’s late night kings Desus Nice and Kid Mero. Mine the Drunk History MVP ranks for Georgia Hardstark, Jenny Slate, and Paget Brewster. And then there’s teams that just feel right like Josh Gondelman and Jo Firestone, Emily Heller and the aforementioned John Mulaney, Ayo Edeberi and Jaboukie Young-White, or Guy Branum and Mary Holland.
Hollywood loves reboots, and streaming services are hungry to out-bid each other for dominance. An American Big Fat Quiz is the type of project that’s able to be topical without trying too hard to capitalize on a moment. It’s an easy way to add a timeless yet fresh mainstay… but only if you do it right.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.