Some people hang the holly, others decorate the tree, and a few even terrorize the neighborhood with off-key caroling.
Here at Quick Stop Entertainment, we’re celebrating the holiday season by giving a little something back to you, our readers (you know who you are).
Every weekday leading up to the holiday break, we’ve got uber-exclusive gifts provided by a whole range of artists, actors, comedians, and studios. One a day, straight from them to you (and you can check out last year’s fun here).
Ain’t that cool?
Today, not only do we have an extra special holiday sampler of the brilliantly funny UK quiz show QI, but we also chat with host Stephen Fry.
If you’ve never heard of the UK quiz program QI, you’re missing out on one of the funniest “educational” shows ever devised (the devisee being creator/producer John Lloyd, formerly of Blackadder, Not The Nine O’Clock News, and Spitting Image). The key to QI (which stands for “Quite Interesting”) is the central tenet of its philosophy - it’s not always being correct that counts, but interesting (and funny). The interesting nature of a given piece of information spurs conversation and debate, eventually leading round to the learning said informational nugget. Did you know that the Earth has more than one moon, for example? Or that otters kill crocodiles? Hosted by Stephen Fry, it features a rotating panel of four comedians (one of which is mainstay Alan Davies) - and it’s one of the most hilarious shows I’ve ever seen… Honestly, you’ll laugh as much as you learn. Be sure to visit QI on the web at www.QI.com.
Far from being a stuffy intellectual, a loathsome toff, or a smug git, Stephen Fry has managed to walk the fine line of being not only a wonderfully intelligent man who unashamedly exhibits said intelligence, but also a very funny performer and an all-around humble and likeable guy.
From out of the fertile ground of the Cambridge Footlights - alongside fellow ‘lighters Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery, and Emma Thompson - Fry soon planted himself in the burgeoning comedy scene of the 1980’s alongside comedy partner Laurie, a teaming known by the rather straightforward sobriquet “Fry & Laurie”. By the end of the 1980’s, with Fry & Laurie fast becoming beloved members of the funny firmament, Stephen branched out into playwriting before moving into screenwriting, directing, acting, hosting, just plain bookwriting… Really, there’s not much he hasn’t done.
Since 2003 - and over the course of 5 series and counting - he’s served as host/schoolmaster of the panel show QI.
In the not-to-distant past, I had a chance to chat with Stephen about QI - and as a holiday treat, we finally present that interview to you, the merry masses…
KP: So, I suppose we should start at the beginning - how did QI enter the picture?
FRY: Well, through John (Lloyd). Through his remarkable persuasive powers. I’ve known him for years and years. Really, he was a great hero. When I was at university - he had been, like me, at Cambridge in the Footlights club, which is a famous club at Cambridge. It produces comedians, and has done so for over 100 years. John Cleese and Peter Cook and Ali G - and myself, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Laurie were all in the same year at Cambridge, and we were all in the Footlights as well. And as I say, it’s that sort of Python tradition. And John Lloyd had been in about five years before me. Same time as Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide. They were very good friends. John had become well known to those of us aspiring toward the comedic world because of a TV series called Not The Nine O’Clock News, that he produced. When we left university, I sort of got to know him a bit.
KP: There’s somewhat of a history with Footlights of the alumni sort of lifting up and providing opportunities for those that come afterward, isn’t there?
FRY: Yes indeed. It causes extreme annoyance to those who were not at Cambridge. It’s often regarded as a kind of closed shop, a kind of Mafia, but it’s really just because we’re all very insecure and like working with people we know and trust, I suppose. But he did this series Not, as I say, and then Blackadder started and he asked me to be in the second series, where I played a character called Melchett, and then in the third series in one episode, and then did all the fourth series, as well. We just became friends, really. We’d go on skiing holidays together and that sort of thing. And then a few years ago he started to talk about this idea he had about this whole quite interesting thing, and at first I just thought, “Well, that sounds interesting. It’s a bit sort of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” But knowing his track record as the best comedy producer of his generation, I kind of thought he must have some television ideas - because for him it’s a whole empire. It’s not just television - it’s books, it’s probably films, and god knows what else.
KP: I think it’s an action figure at this point…
FRY: Yeah. (laughing) So, he took me to lunch in a very fine restaurant of my choosing, and…
KP: So, you know how to play the game as well…
FRY: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And he asked if I would be in it. Either as a regular guest or as the host, and I said I’d rather be a regular guest than a host - not really knowing much about hosting and whether it was the kind of thing I wanted to do. And we did a pilot for the BBC, and he said, “Well look, for the pilot, can you be the host? Because we just can’t think of anyone else who could do it.”
KP: So he’s actually quite sly about the way he set this up…
FRY: Absolutely, yeah, indeed. So I did it for the pilot, and then it just seemed natural… everyone seemed to like it and said, “Well look, you must do the series. It goes through June.” So I said, “Well, okay then.” And I did it through the series. And, actually, I quite enjoy doing them, being the sort of beaming host of or, indeed, the vicious host, depending on how you look at it.
KP: Obviously, for years you’ve done panel shows. How would you describe the difference, from your perspective, to now be in the presenter’s seat?
FRY: Well, on the one hand there’s less onus on you to come up with witty remarks. On the other hand, there’s a strange onus on you to keep order. It’s bizarrely like being a schoolteacher, which I was very briefly before going to university. In what we call your gap year - which is the year between school and university where people like to go off usually and do the Inca trail in Peru or lounge around on Leonardo DiCaprio style beaches in Southeast Asia - but I instead taught at a prep school in England. And it’s like that. It’s like having a class of unruly people, and I feel it’s my duty to drag them back to the subject. But, on the other hand, of course, let them be amusing as well. So it’s a peculiar feeling. But it’s fun, and actually that sort of personality distinction between myself and Alan in particular is part of the fun of it, really, is that I treat him like a naughty puppy or a bad school boy.
KP: Who knew you would develop into an amazing comedy duo?
FRY: Yes, it does seem like that. It’s great fun. We record… I don’t know how long we record. John probably knows. It’s only about an hour, from which they have to get a half an hour, of course. And because we do 12 in one series - which is a lot for an English series, although it’s nothing for an American series - it gets into a nice rhythm.
KP: Did you know right off the bat that there was a rapport between you and Alan?
FRY: No, no, not at all. I’ve known him - met him at industry parties, award ceremonies and things - and he seemed a very nice chap and I liked him, but no, it just did seem to work. Of course, you know he plays a lot dumber than he really is, and I play a lot smarter than I really am! (laughing)
KP: With the benefit of the prompter, I’m sure.
FRY: Yes, absolutely. I’ve got all the answers, but usually, obviously, the point is not to… if everyone just knew the answer it would be a very dull game. The idea is to vamp and busk and generally, as it were, scatting on the subject. And the great thing is that now it’s well established, people who’ve not done it before will have seen it on television and be less scared of it. Because when it started, when we had a newcomer they were very nervous that they wouldn’t know enough, or that they had to be funny. I think what makes it fun for everyone to be on… well, there are a number of things. One is that it doesn’t address any of the boring issues that other television addresses, i.e. the celebrity culture and pop culture and contemporary politics and so on. It is genuinely… you have weird conversations about strange insects or about the nature of the universe or a chicken that lived five years without its head.
KP: Very much about the tangent…
FRY: Exactly, exactly. And that’s a relief, though. And people don’t have this enormous feeling that they have to come up with smart one-liners all the time. That it’s wonderful when people are funny, but it’s also wonderful if they genuinely know something interesting. You know, and sometimes the audience enjoys that more than anything else. Some odd fact may remind them of another odd fact, because everybody does know odd things. But off the top of their head they won’t know them. You need to be reminded. It’s like priming a pump.
KP: Alan mentioned that Hugh (Laurie) was quite nervous about doing the show…
FRY: Oh yes, indeed he was, yeah. He’s always nervous, Hugh, mind you.
KP: From what Alan related, he had a performance anxiety that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with you…
FRY: (Laughing) That’s nonsense! A, he can keep up with me, plus - I mean, he’s so brilliant, Hugh. And also, of course, he has so much charm that he’s always absolutely brilliant anyway.
KP: I think, now - by law - he belongs to us in America now.
FRY: Yeah, he certainly does, doesn’t he? Yeah. I’ve only seen four episodes, I think, but he’s terrific. Really wonderful.
KP: I’m surprised they haven’t scheduled your stunt casting as the hospital administrator, or something…
FRY: Well, funnily enough, when I talked to him he said, “You’ve got to come and do an episode.” I said, “I’d like to be the visiting doctor from London who’s even nastier than you are. Who makes you look like a pussycat.”
KP: I can’t even imagine that… unless you went around performing unnecessary amputations or something, I can’t imagine a more unpleasant sort than what they’ve made his character out to be. But in a loveable way.
FRY: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
KP: When you look at something like that, as far as a career trajectory, did you ever have a plan for where your career would go, or where you thought it would go?
FRY: Never. I’ve never had a career plan or trajectory in my life. I rather enjoy the fact that I have no idea what’s going to happen next in the world, and everything’s a constant surprise. I’ve never planned more than a few months ahead. I just do or don’t do things according to mood, really. I sometimes think, “Well, if I concentrated on one thing, if I decided to be just a writer, or decided to be just a comedian, or just an actor,” I might have had more conspicuous kind of success, but I don’t regard success as meaning anything… Happiness is the only success I’m interested in, really. Rather than the kind of reputation type of success. And QI’s just something that is fun, and it’s nice… it gives pleasure to people in a very particular sort of way. I like the fact that taxi drivers talk about it. And they say, “Oh, I thought it was going to be too poncy for me…” This very English word - too kind of “artsy-fartsy”, as you would say, I think. But they enjoy it. Because, as I say, everyone does know things that they don’t know they know, and it’s a good program, and so it gets a huge mailbag, of course, because people would say, “Oh, this reminds me of something I was told…” And, of course, people love telling me that I’m wrong.
KP: Yeah, including Alan.
FRY: Indeed, absolutely! Absolutely.
KP: He mentioned that you were generally uncomfortable with the Boxing Day episode at the end of Series 2, with the tables being turned and you being placed in the hot seat under his questioning…
FRY: Well, I just thought it was a bit… well, not exactly self-indulgent, but I was just worried that it was a bit… yeah, I mean, it looks as if we were too pleased with ourselves in a strange sort of way, as if we were making an assumption in taking for granted that people would so buy into our characters that they would be amused by something that might amuse us. So it was probably oversensitivity on my part.
KP: See, Alan’s take on it was you just desperately didn’t like being put in that position.
FRY: (laughing) Maybe that’s true! Maybe that’s probably the horrible truth of it, is that I don’t like not being boss.
KP: And the problem that Alan had was that you happened to get the first couple of responses correct…
FRY: Yes, quite. He wanted to humiliate me! (laughing) The tradition in grand English country houses is that the Duke and Duchess serve the staff, the servants, their Christmas lunch. That’s a very English tradition, that. So it’s that sort of equivalent. I become the school boy for one episode.
KP: Does it feel different to you? For years you’ve done panel shows, but being the host, was it a completely different feeling to then be put on the panel?
FRY: Yes it was, actually. I mean, very strange, because you suddenly feel a whole different part of your comic mind is being asked questions, as it were, that you know you have to come at from a different place. Because you think, “Well now, do I interrupt here? Am I silent? If I’m silent too much people think I’m sulking. If I talk too much, they think I’m trying to take over everything.” So a rather bad bout of self-consciousness comes over one. (laughing)
KP: Do you find that you became slightly more frustrated with the panelists at times during the first series? I remember in particular the “how many moons” episode…
FRY: Oh, (laughing) absolutely! Yes, I see it as partly in a comic sense, but also partly in a quite serious sense to be my function, is to stop this kind of anti-science nonsense that is so prevalent amongst some, and try and sort of bang the drum for rational thought. Which is a bit like Hugh in House, actually. Try and be rational and basically push the palm of your hand hard into the face of those who doubt the value of logical thought.
KP: I think, to some extent, Rich Hall saw a bit of an opening and a way to needle you on that.
FRY: He did indeed. He’s brilliant at that. He’s an extraordinary figure, Rich, isn’t he? I mean, talk about dry. I don’t know anybody who’s dryer than Rich Hall.
KP: Someone I’m glad who has found a life outside of the US.
FRY: Yes, absolutely. Is he well known in America? I’ve never been quite sure.
KP: Well, I remember watching Rich on Not Necessarily the News in the 80s. Which is where he really made his mark. And then, much like the US does with other things, we kind of cast him off unceremoniously.
FRY: Right. And he has his Otis Crenshaw character as well, doesn’t he?
FRY: Have you seen that? Yeah, he’s kind of a trailer park character…
KP: I’m quite glad that he has an aftermarket in the UK, and you respect him as much as we foolishly did not.
KP: We tend to be quite disposable, and you guys actually tend to respect intelligence and talent.
FRY: Oh indeed. Yeah, we do.
KP: Which I’m sure you’ll see, because at some point we’ll even be foolish enough stop liking Hugh, as well.
FRY: Oh ho ho, please. He’s so sweet.
KP: It wouldn’t be my choice.
FRY: No, I hope not. Well he’s got to do another 22 in a few months, so he’s going to be there for a long time.
KP: Can you envision a season lasting that long?
FRY: No. And they work so hard on it. I’m doing this movie at the moment here in Berlin. It’s a studio picture. It’s Warner Brothers and it’s got a big budget and everything. So everything’s nice and slow. Here I am in my dressing room chatting to you. I get a nice Mercedes driving me in every morning and get nicely looked after and my own personal assistant who cleans my ashtray and brings me coffee whenever I want it and books me theater tickets if I’ve got a free evening and so on. Hugh, who is the star - and I’m only just a supporting actor - Hugh, who is the star of his own TV series, he has to drive into work, which all people do in TV. He shares a two-way trailer. I mean, he has his own section of it. And he gets almost no time in his dressing room in his trailer because people between shots are running, the whole crew is running around to do the reverse shot and they’re running to do the next shot. And they’re firing people who are a bit slow because they have so much to do. Eight, nine, ten pages a day. You know, we’re doing half a page today, and this is quite a lot of special… not special effects, but stunt work in the one I’m doing today. But give me films any day. They’re so much more relaxing! (laughing)
KP: Plus he gets to juggle the American accent…
FRY: Yes, which he does a very good job with - at least to my ears he does, and I think to a lot of Americans he really does do a good job.
KP: I think it’s always a nicely disconcerting moment when interviewers actually hear his natural accent in interviews…
FRY: Yes, indeed.
KP: As someone who’s observing it and has occasionally dipped his toe into it, do you see a reticence for the US audience to accept British actors on their own terms?
FRY: I think the fact that Hugh was probably best known to American audiences for Stuart Little, in which he also played an American, has made it quite easier for him, because I think with the exception of the Masteripece Theater-type audience who would have seen him as Bertie Wooster in Jeeves & Wooster, most of them will say, “Oh, that’s the guy who was with Geena Davis in Stuart Little,” and they’ll feel quite sort of… maybe feel he almost is American or, if he is English, then he probably grew up in America. Whereas if it was an obvious English actor like Hugh Grant doing it, I think they would find it rather hard to accept. It’s a tricky one. We love… we don’t mind Renee Zellweger doing an English woman, or Gwyneth Paltrow…
KP: But you did mind Dick Van Dyke.
FRY: That was terrible, because it was just so… Just so bad. An unspeakably bad accent. I mean, he can’t have had a dialogue coach. It was just shocking.
KP: (laughing) But he tried…
FRY: He tried, bless him… yeah, and, you know, he certainly was a good hoofer and he could move around and so on and, you know, I’m a big fan of his and all the rest of it, but dear me. (doing bad accent) “‘Ello Mary Poppins!”
KP: Well, that shows you the full range of what we have to offer.
FRY: (laughing) Yeah. But, you know, don’t… I sometimes get quite cross with Americans for selling themselves short. You’re the country that gives us The Simpsons and West Wing and things like that. There’s some really intelligent writing and performing and brilliant TV going on as well as the dregs. There’s some fantastically smart people working in television. Aaron Sorkin and people like that, David Kelly, and many of the others are really - they’re just incredible, what they put together under the pressure they do. Even things like CSI are so much better than they need to be, if you know what I mean. Obviously, after that fourth and fifth series, they tend to get more sentimental and formulaic and so on, but they’re very well constructed and very impressive pieces of craftsmanship. And at their best, like West Wing and The Simpsons, quite brilliantly written.
KP: Another thing I regret, and QI is an antidote to that, is that we tend to be so intensely disposable because of the glut of information that we have delivered to us…
KP: Just a all of this mass media coming at us.
KP: Whereas, especially with performers - and QI being an example of that - there really is an appreciation for solid, intelligent performers in the UK that I just don’t think we have over here.
FRY: Yes, absolutely. That is an advantage we have, no question. Yeah. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the Americans took the format, to see what you would do with it. Whether it would become more a series of one liners, whether there would be script editors. We don’t have that. I get the questions and that’s all I do, and I just say “Hi” and ask them. And the contestants… “Contestant” is not the word… The performers come along and respond to them. Some of them would like to know roughly what subject might come up beforehand, but nobody writes gags for them. Nobody tells them what to say. That’s the fun of it. I think the audiences know that somehow. They know whether something is prepared or not. And I’d be interested to see if American performers would allow that.
KP: It seems - particularly your role within it - a very British thing compared to the US, since we really don’t have the same kind of headmaster-type role in our upbringing.
FRY: No. You have issues with authority.
KP: As you’ve seen with Rich.
FRY: (laughing) Right! Exactly! (laughing)
KP: Can you imagine hosting an American version of the show?
FRY: It would be interesting. I would be treated, probably, like King George the Third, as someone who had to be… you know, have my tea poured over the side of the ship! (laughing) (doing American accent) “We fought a goddamn war to get rid of your kind!”
KP: Yes… The final segment every week would be them switching places with you.
FRY: Yeah, I mean, look at Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link. I mean, it lasted about a series or two, didn’t it, before people got fed up with this bitch from England…
KP: I think it was just the intensity with which it was sold.
FRY: Yeah, I think it was overdone, wasn’t it? It was ridiculously overdone.
KP: To the point where, I think at one point they were airing it three or four times a week.
FRY: Oh, dear god.
KP: Eventually we had The Weakest Link: County Commissioners special.
FRY: (laughing) Yeah, enough already!
KP: You can only have so many variations of a game show.
FRY: Yeah, quite.
KP: But there’s also just the concept of the entertainer-based panel show, which really doesn’t exist here in the US. Bill Maher tried to do it with Politically Incorrect, but we really don’t have… I mean, in the UK there is that deep history of the panel show and game shows.
FRY: Yes, there is. That’s right, absolutely. Lots and lots and lots. And I don’t know what it is. I don’t understand what psychological national characteristic is called in that gives it this kind of obsession, or at least history of it. Who knows what it says about you?
KP: You’re someone who’s endlessly interested in being on these shows… What is the appeal, to you, of the panel show?
FRY: Well, the fact that it’s simple and easy. I turn a lot more down than I do, but I do the odd episode of Have I Got News For You, which is a topical one, and I’ve done it about four times and it’s been going for 12 years. I’ve done a few others. And I love doing them on radio. They are enormously enjoyable.
KP: Like Just A Minute…
FRY: Just A Minute, exactly, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which is a wonderfully silly one but very enjoyable. But yeah, I mean, it’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in a studio with… you know, (laughing) I don’t know what the answer is, I suppose. It used to be, before television took over the world, that’s how British people would disport themselves after dinner. They would play games. What’s called house party games. Games like Just A Minute all come from that. They were “parlor games” is the phrase, isn’t it? And a lot of the best games on television come from parlor games like that. There’s that play by Noel Coward, Hay Fever, which has got that classic scene in the middle where they all play this game called in the manner of the word where someone goes out of the room and everyone in the room has to think of an adverb - like “slyly”, or “astonishedly”, or whatever it might be. And then the person comes in and they ask questions, and they all have to reply in the manner of that word. And then he has to guess what the word is. And there’s this fantastic scene of violence and emotional sort of thunderstorm in Hay Fever because one of them feels humiliated because he doesn’t know the word “archly” or something, and they get in this terrible fight about it.
KP: So this is what a repressed populace plays during a blackout…
FRY: It would seem exactly that - rather than actually just getting straight down to it, as I’m sure you Americans would.
KP: As opposed to expressing emotions through parlor games…
FRY: Yeah, (laughing) that seems to be it.
Check out the rest of this year’s “Holiday Havoc” HERE
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