Special Topics In Gameology

The Pointless set

British Game Shows: Pointless

American game shows lost their way. It’s a different story across the pond.

By John Teti • May 7, 2012

Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For our first edition of the feature, John Teti reviews the current slate of British game shows, once a week for the next five weeks.

One of my elementary school teachers once wrote on a year-end evaluation, “John will have a bright future, once he gets over this inane desire to become a game show host.” Reading this at the age of seven, I didn’t know exactly what “inane” meant, but I could tell it was not good, and this prompted two shocking realizations.

Realization one: Elementary school teachers can be dicks.

Realization two: There exist people who do not want to become game show hosts.

My classmates had professed their aspirations to other, impossibly dull professions. Race-car driver, astronaut, policeman, the usual. But I figured they were just settling for more achievable goals.  After all, what right-minded person would want to waste their days fighting crime—instead of inviting contestants, with a ceremonious swoop of the hand, to take a look at the big board?

The 1980s were a swell time for a game-obsessed, TV-obsessed kid to grow up. Prolific producers like Mark Goodson and Bob Stewart used the daytime programming grid as their playground. Whenever a time slot opened up, some new game was there to fill the vacuum. The TV Guide listings for a typical weekday in fall 1985 had these shows on offer:

The $25,000 Pyramid
The $100,000 Pyramid
Break The Bank
Catch Phrase
Guess What?
Headline Chasers
The Joker’s Wild
Let’s Make A Deal
The New Newlywed Game
Press Your Luck
The Price Is Right
Sale Of The Century
Tic Tac Dough
Wheel Of Fortune

That doesn’t even include cable. But pity the American game show dorks of today, who have to make do with scraps. Sure, The Price Is Right is still around, and there are some syndicated options—like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Wheel Of Fortune, and a strange incarnation of Family Feud in which every question is somehow about penises. Once in a while, you get a treat like Million Dollar Mind Game. Yet the genre never recovered from the talk-show frenzy of the early 1990s.

There is hope, however: Hail Britannia. Thanks to the semi-underground groups that upload British game shows to the internet, the English-speaking world can get a proper game show fix. Our friends across the Atlantic never gave up on game shows like we did. That doesn’t mean that every British game is a gem. A few are pretty dire, in fact. As a whole, though, the U.K. game show industry possesses a vibrance and a sense of adventure that ours has lacked for quite a while.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing some of the most notable British games that are currently on the air. If you’d like to watch the shows yourself, it’s not that hard. A YouTube search will often turn up clips and full episodes. For a somewhat more reliable and higher-quality viewing experience, it’s said that some people try using BitTorrent to download shows. Because of that whole “legal gray area” deal, I won’t get into detail here, but if your web browser is equipped with Google, I bet you can figure it out.

Before we get to today’s featured programme, let’s look at a few themes that you’ll see through the U.K. game show universe.

Recurring Themes

The everyman. British producers are willing to put a pretty broad swath of humanity on their shows. Some of the contestants are poised and attractive, but on many shows, you’re also likely to find a shy accounts-payable type in the spotlight. The presence of a few awkward people in the mix is more appealing than the usual American approach, which is to parade an army of ultra-telegenic, sunny, sassy, “quirky” Stepford Contestants before the cameras. (Jeopardy! is a notable exception; it still takes pride in its egalitarianism.) When the player pool isn’t so overproduced, the games’ spontaneous moments come off as spontaneous, rather than made-for-YouTube bullshit that was pre-engineered by some contestant coordinator.

Look how smart! Though there are exceptions, British shows are generally smarter than ours, insofar as contestants are expected to be intelligent rather than forgiven for being dumb. The British version of Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? would be called Of Course You Are. (Edit: Turns out there IS a British version of the show, and it’s called Are You Smarter Than A Ten-Year-Old? So, yes, there are exceptions.) Hosts praise any flash of scholarliness that they might glimpse in a player, and the viewers are likewise complimented—“Well done if you got that one at home!”—for playing along. 

Teams. Just as comedy duos are more common in the U.K. than in the U.S., game shows played by teams are more prevalent, too. There’s even a sub-theme here: teams of strangers. A few games force contestants to ally with people they’ve never met before. While this device can be used to sow conflict, the emphasis is more on cooperation. There’s a vague, amusing undercurrent of patriotism here, as if a random sampling of people can soldier through any challenge by virtue of their shared Britishness.

The systematic, premeditated murder of time. Okay, it’s not all roses and crumpets and Welsh corgis dancing down Penny Lane. There are some less delightful qualities to U.K. game shows, like a penchant for killing time. Hosts … slow … down … their … sentences, contestant interviews prattle on far too long, and you get a lot of “We’ll show you the answer—after this break!” business. (BBC programs don’t have breaks, but they find other ways to piss away the minutes.)

There’s a lot of British stuff. Now that I’ve written that, it looks kind of silly. It’s true, though. For whatever reason, those Brits like to talk about their own culture instead of talking about Americans all the time. Although to be fair, they do talk about us more than you’d think. The average contestant can name which U.S. state is The Golden State; would you be able to identify an English county by nickname? Hell, can you name the Golden State? (Trick question: It’s Mexico.) Anyway, a lot of the trivia is U.K.-centric, which can diminish the play-along value—that is, unless you’re well-schooled in the history of cricket championships, Hanoverian monarchs, and the shockingly complex comings and goings of British pop-music girl groups.

On to today’s show.


Pointless title card

The elevator pitch: Bizarro Family Feud.
Channel: BBC One
Running time: 45 minutes
Host: Alexander Armstrong, with assistance from his “Pointless friend” Richard Osman, who provides background info and banter.

The Brits have their own Family Feud. They call it Family Fortunes because heavens, a “feud,” there’s no need for all that. The rules of Family Fortunes are the same as Feud, though: You win by thinking like the masses. Pointless is the opposite. This show rewards snooty obscurity.

Host Alexander Armstrong reads a question that has been polled beforehand—like “We gave 100 people 100 seconds to name words in the English language that end in D-G-E”—and then players try to come up with the least popular correct answer. Lower scores are better, and the pinnacle of achievement is to come up with a correct answer that wasn’t given by anyone in the survey, which scores zero points and is thus deemed a “pointless” answer. (Get it? Hope you like that little turn of phrase, because they work the “pointless” pun pretty hard on this show.) But if the contestants give a wrong answer (“sponge!”), they score the maximum 100 points.

This premise takes on a few different permutations over the course of an episode, but the calculus remains the same: Do you give an answer from the uncertain outer reaches of your knowledge and risk getting it wrong, or do you play it safe with a more obvious, potentially more popular response?

The game is played with four teams of two players each (usually friends or couples), with the highest-scoring team eliminated at the end of each round. In the early rounds, players can’t confer with each other. This allows us the pleasure of watching one teammate stew whenever the other one offers a particularly terrible guess. Watch contestant Eric’s sullen stare into the distance here as his girlfriend Margie, answering the aforementioned “words ending in D-G-E” question, decides that “windowledge” is definitely a word. (Bonus awkwardness: Co-host Richard Osman finds the most diplomatic way to tell Margie how very wrong she was.)

Family Feud and Pointless aren’t exactly opposites. Both shows rely on the backdrop of Joe and Jane Average, as represented by the vaunted poll of 100. The distinction is that Feud’s questions are open-ended, like “Name an occupation that wears a uniform.” Whatever the 100 people say, that’s the answer. (The crowd can even turn wrong answers into right ones, like the time “Name a president who appears on money” was a question and Benjamin Franklin made the list. Three people had said it, so it went up on the board.)

But Pointless’ questions have correct answers, so each question serves as something of a referendum on the nation’s intelligence. It’s like those surveys that pop up on cable news from time to time and proclaim, for instance, “only 10 percent of Americans could name at least one Supreme Court justice.” And of course there’s often the shame-on-you-America kicker: “…but 87 percent of Americans are able to name at least one variety of Chicken McNugget sauce.”

Pointless is more high-minded than those headline-grabbers, but there’s a similar undercurrent at work. This is a show of exceptionalism contrasted against populism. It’s a game in which players and viewers alike desire to be above average. More to the point, it’s a game that invites everyone to believe they are indeed above average.

This conflation of trivia and social status is interesting to watch, because American shows don’t typically commingle those things. We have a popular quiz show with an aspirational spirit, Jeopardy!, but while Merv Griffin’s brainchild celebrates excellence, it doesn’t do so in explicit contrast to the unwashed. Pointless does.

You can see that dynamic play out during the final elimination round of Pointless’ recent season premiere, in which Armstrong asks the contestants to name one of five facts about Nelson Mandela. The facts in question range from obvious (Mandela’s country of birth) to obscure (the name of the person with which Mandela founded a law firm in 1952). One team correctly names the prison where Mandela was held for two decades, while the other tries and fails to name the person that shared his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

As the scores are revealed, we see where everyone stands. The first team earns 19 points for naming Robben Island Prison, implicitly placing them in the 80th percentile of British genius. The second team is shamed with the ceremonial 100 points—it’s better to be correct and banal than wrong and foolish.

Then assistant host Osman reveals the rest of the scores. The Nobel recipient is a four-point answer. “Well done if you said that at home,” Osman remarks. The number for Mandela’s birthplace is surprisingly low: Only 58 out of 100 people said South Africa. Osman scolds, “I don’t know where people think Mandela was born.” It’s telling that he directs his disapproval at those faceless dullards, the “people”—not the viewers he was praising a few seconds ago.

My favorite part of this sequence comes when the final answer, Mandela’s law partner, is revealed. It’s a one-point answer, and Osman asks Armstrong, “Do you know who it is?” Armstrong immediately replies, “Oliver Tambo.” Yet Osman doesn’t bother to commend Armstrong for this impressive display of knowledge. Instead, he turns to the camera and says, “Very, very well done if you got that at home.” With the quick-witted Armstrong acting as their proxy, every viewer is a vicarious genius.

The clip of the Mandela bit also gives you some idea of the often-frustrating pace of Pointless. Much of Armstrong’s energies are spent slowing the lazy trot of the game to a funereal walk, mostly by way of verbal casseroles like, “Let’s see if that’s correct, and if it is, let’s see how many of our 100 people said it.” Armstrong says this a couple dozen times per episode. There’s a reason Richard Dawson settled on, “Survey says!”

Aside from this, though, Armstrong is an excellent emcee. His smirking good humor and casually formidable intelligence make him a good foil for Osman, the clay-faced Encyclopedia Brown whose laptop has all the answers. With Ben Miller, Armstrong is one half of the comedy duo Armstrong And Miller, so he’s used to working with a partner. Osman, though, worked primarily as a producer prior to going in front of the camera on Pointless, which makes his natural patter all the more impressive. (In fact, Osman was the one who pitched the show to the Beeb in the first place.)

In spite of its pace, Pointless can be plenty exciting. Its bonus round—known as “the final” in Brit parlance—is no less dawdling than the rest of the show. A typically deliberate final is excerpted in the clip above, where the team’s jackpot challenge is to name words that begin and end with the letter “K.” You can practically see the stage director giving the “STRETCH!” signal as Armstrong asks, “What would you do with £11,750?” Has any viewer in the history of television game shows ever cared about the answer to this question?

The saving grace of the final is the show’s gorgeous production design, which centers around the tall game board near the center of the set. This display counts down from 100 as the value of each answer is revealed, sending points flying off the screen with a pizzicato sound effect. And when the score dips low enough, a swell of vocal anticipation comes into the soundtrack, as if all those anonymous hundreds of people are spontaneously rallying in awe of their new hero—the one who, should that big board count down to zero, will become the champion of naming words with the letter “K” in them. It is, by definition, a peerless achievement. Also a pointless one.

In future installments of Special Topics In Gameology: British Game Shows—The Chase, Mastermind, Countdown, The Bank Job, The Exit List, Cleverdicks, and more.

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1,726 Responses to “British Game Shows: Pointless

  1. O Superman says:

    Oh man, I’m so excited about this feature. As a fellow game show junkie, I will be avidly checking out each of the shows you highlight. This one looks like good fun, although yes, the pace seems a bit slow. 

  2. Captain_Internet says:

    The British version of “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” is actually called “Are You Smarter Than a Ten Year Old?”

    I don’t know anything about American grades, so I’m not sure if we come out of that favourably or not.

    • Chip Dipson says:

      Do the British have a Jeff Foxworthy? And if they do, is his name Jeffery Foxwourthey?

    • John Teti says:

      Ha, I had no idea that existed. And fifth graders tend to be about 10 years old, so it’s a wash.

      • Captain_Internet says:

        It’s on one of Murdoch’s evil satellite channels, so I’ve not seen it either. 

        By way of contrast, you may also be interested in a column that runs in Private Eye magazine over here. It’s called ‘Dumb Britain’, and it’s a collection of stupid answers that have been given on game shows. I have a copy to hand, so here’s a scan: http://img526.imageshack.us/img526/451/dumbbritain.jpg 

        • LimeadeYouth says:

          Now all I can think about is Star Trek with the cast of Are You Being Served and vice versa.

        • Man, I want an American version of that column, stat!

        • EvilPhilanthropist says:

           The best Pointless answer I’ve seen was “Name a Shakepeare play with a town or place in the title”. One team went for Two Gentlemen of Verona, the other went for Hamlet!

        • LimeadeYouth says:

          Living in a hamlet in west Texas, I wouldn’t consider that a particularly egregiously wrong answer.

    • JAS84 says:

      Well, 10 year old Bart Simpson is a 4th grader, so, it really should’ve been called Are You Smarter Than An Eleven Year Old. Sky goofed.

  3. Merve says:

    I love the idea of this game: mixing trivia with pop psychology. I’d wager that often, the contestants can’t come up with a really obscure answer. Then, the game becomes a matter of trying to guess which obvious answer others are least likely to choose. I can imagine someone who didn’t come up an answer as obscure as “kopeck” for the “k———-k” question debating between going with “kick,” “knock,” or “knack.”

    • Chip Dipson says:

       I almost wonder is words like “kick” would be relatively low-scorers, as I bet when people are polled about such things, would would want to appear smarter than they are, and avoid the first word that pops in their mind. Or am I once again giving humanity too much credit?

      • ToddG says:

        I imagine that’s why they limit the responses to 100 seconds.  Not saying that would eliminate the phenomenon you describe, but it would certainly mitigate it.

        •  Avid pointless viewer here – they quite often have “Name a country that…..” and I’ve often asked what if they got the guy who does the animaniacs “Country of the world song” in the 100.  There would bne no pointless answers.

        • ToddG says:

          @mikebirty:disqus  Oh, so the people polled are allowed to give more than one answer?

        • I assume so – there’s never been an explanation of the 100 people bit before but I’ve always imagined that they can give as many answers as possible.  Which makes sense because the majority of times you’ll get three or four answers with 60+

          One was “we asked 100 people to name as many sections of the orchestra as they could” – there’s only 5 and they all scored in the high 70s and 80s.

        • Simon Gamble says:

          I suspect they may not accept any answers after the first wrong one.  For example, one question was on monarchs who reigned for at least 20 years.  If I was one of the 100 people I would have said Edward I, Edward II up to Edward VII (as I know Edward VIII didn’t last very long).  Then I would have moved on the the Henrys.  However, if a lot of people did that then there would have been loads of high scores.  That didn’t happen.

      • Merve says:

        Honestly, I’d feel better about humanity if people just picked the first answer that popped into their heads. If someone wants to appear smarter than he or she actually is for a random dude who’s asking survey questions for a game show, then I’d question that person’s priorities.

      • Girard says:

        As I understand it (I think), the polled people name as many words as they can in 100 seconds (which is why out of 100 people, you can have an 80-scoring word and a 50-scoring word). So they’d probably rattle off all the common words first and continue to on more obscure stuff.

    • LimeadeYouth says:


      • Merve says:

        This is why I’m not a game show contestant.

        • LimeadeYouth says:

          Compound words and/or prefixs/suffixes are your friend in these sorts of word based puzzles. Also, There’s also certain languages which use the K spelling of the K sound more – german, russian, some indian languages.

          A real genius would have said Kinnikinnick. (I looked it up on a scrabble site – it’s a type of tobacco.)

      • HilariousNPC says:


        5 1/2 tons of money. Boom.

    • Afghamistam says:

      No-one here yet has said “kayak”, so that would seem like a good shout.

      Wonder if Kulak and Klondike would count…

  4. Chip Dipson says:

    That was a lot of fun to read/watch. I can’t imagine a show like this taking off in America, where picking random numbered suitcases is considered high strategy.

    I’m really looking forward to the Countdown article, as it always seems to pop up in British movies and shows as the go-to game show reference, but I have no idea how the game is played.

    • ToddG says:

      Yeah, that’s what always boggles my mind about that show.  The offer you get from “the banker” is always precisely calculated using (I assume) the same formula.  You’re not matching wits with someone else at guessing probabilities like you are in, say, poker.  One of you has a calculator and an algorithm.

      • arcxjo says:

        There was one episode where they lowballed the offer but threw in a pony, which he’d earlier said he wanted to win the jackpot to buy his daughter. Trotted out on stage even, there was no way he could turn it down. I don’t know how often they pulled stunts like that, but producers could easily add a dimension of emotion to the formula that way.

    • Merve says:

      Deal or No Deal can use “high strategy” if you’re picking suitcases based off a combination of Bayes’ rule and arithmetic. But I doubt most contestants play the game that way.

      • HobbesMkii says:


        Nick Swardson on Game Shows.

    • Xtracurlyfries says:

      Of course, the bigger question, once you know the rules, will be: “Why do they have an analog clock if they only ever time up to 30 seconds?”

    • Captain_Internet says:

      ‘Countdown’ is probably the most wonderful and most British quiz show possible- just wait until you hear what the prize you get for winning is.

      It’s on every weekday at 3.15pm. Deal Or No Deal follows on the same channel at 4pm.

    • apathymonger says:

      Countdown is great, but it’s not the same since Richard Whiteley died and Carol Vorderman left.

      I’ve heard good things about the current guy though, who I only know from the UK Apprentice.

    • Afghamistam says:

      Countdown? Piece of piss, mate!

      There are two basic rounds: 

      1) Nine letters are selected randomly, contestants get 30 seconds to make a word. Person who gets the longest word gets the points.

      2) Six integers are selected randomly. Then another bigger number is selected. Contestants get 30 seconds to make the first six numbers add up to the big number.

      At the end, the contestant with the most points gets a teapot or some shit.

      • jellybeanpill says:

        They’re not random. I don’t know how it works, but they instruct the blonde woman on which cards to pick. So sometimes it’s one multiple of 25 and five which are under 10, and sometimes there are three multiples of 25 and three under 10.

        Also, the ‘bigger number’ is computer-generated and there’s always a way to get to that number exactly (even if no-one can work out how). You can add, multiply, subtract or divide the numbers, but you can only use each number once.

        There’s also the final round, the ‘conundrum’, which is a nine-letter anagram (with the 30-second limit). When you figure it out, you buzz in, so you have to get it before the other person.

        • Afghamistam says:

          The contestants have a choice of ‘big’ or ‘little’ numbers – so they can request for instance, two big and four small numbers. But the numbers that are actually picked from the ‘big’ and ‘small’ decks are random – or as random as a shuffled deck of cards can be. As for the computer-generated number – I’m guessing this too is as random as a computer can be. Whether the number picked is literally any three digit number or any three digit number that happens to be a possible answer, I don’t know.

        • jellybeanpill says:

          @Afghamistam:disqus I presumed that having a random 3 digit number would make it a lot more unlikely for the contestants to get it, but either they or the girl get it 95% of the time. I’m no mathematician, so maybe the chance of six random numbers being able to make up a 3 digit number is higher than I think.

          And it’s usually closer to 1000 than 100.

  5. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I’m going to assume that The Weakest Link will be covered at some point.  I still like the Doctor Who version of it, with the Ann-Droid disintegrating people when they lost.

    • Merve says:

      If the American adaptation had aired about six or seven years later than it did, instead of just after the height of the turn-of-the-millennium American game show craze, then “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” would be one of the most popular Internet memes. Anne Robinson was awesome.

  6. caspiancomic says:

    Please God let QI qualify as a game show.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      I can’t find it specifically, but that was one of my first questions when Teti wrote he was doing this in the comments of an earlier article. Apparently not.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      It’s too bad, because the interplay between panel and game shows there is pretty high.  This isn’t about telling a story, though, just how great game shows are.

      • SimonWhoIsFromSpace says:

        Epic Win wasn’t bad, members of the public and a panel of comedians.

    • Andrew says:

       Then you open up to all the pseudo game shows such as Have I Got News For You, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Never Mind The Buzzcocks.

  7. Brig Bother says:

    Ooh, exciting John.

    Fun fact: Richard’s computer has never been turned on.

  8. Cleverdicks? Oh god, please forgive us. Please don’t shame us in front of the world.

  9. Interesting (?) fact: Richard Osman is the brother of Matt Osman, bassist from the band Suede.

  10. Emma Smith says:

    Having been a contestant on Pointless I can tell you the “swell of vocal anticipation comes into the soundtrack” is actually live and the warm-up guy runs the audience through it to practice a couple of times before they start recording the show! 

    • John Teti says:

      I had no idea. That’s an inspired production touch. It must be pretty exciting in the studio!

    •  Wow – excellent to have a real live contestant from Pointless on.  So is the production as slick as it seems?  I always have these visions of the question being asked and then there being a five minute pause while someone looks up the answer.

      • Emma Smith says:

        It’s pretty much as it seems. Most of it is filmed almost as-live, the only thing that really gets the edit room touch is the intros at the start. There is no re-answering from contestants and you don’t get much more time to think that you see on the final show edit, they will cut you a bit if you ramble too much or are a bit indecisive about what to go for, but as far as my experience goes most of it was pretty much exactly as live. 

        The presenters get the odd pickup of fluffed/tongue-tired answers and questions (I think between both of recordings they had one or two pickups and one of them was technical because the countdown board did something weird), but the banter is pretty off the cuff, both between Richard and Xander and the contestants which makes it very enjoyable to be. 

        They record three shows a day, each one takes about two hours to record, then only thing that really takes time is moving the podiums about for the different rounds (which is actually fairly welcome as you get to have a bit of a sit down and get some water). It is extremely professional and smoothly run – we were on series 4, so by that point they would have filmed somewhere between 150 and 200 or so episodes. 

        The only thing that isn’t quiet as it seems on TV is the set, which close-up looks like it is made of MDF and sprayed with silver spray paint, and you are told not to touch it, as I think it it a bit wobbly if you do. But I guess that is how TV really works everywhere!

  11. apathymonger says:

    My favourite British quiz show is definitely Only Connect, even if the later episodes in each series get ridiculously difficult (it’s done as a knock-out competition, with 16 episodes per series). 

    I love how wonderfully pretentious it is: after viewers complained that the Roman numerals they used to select options were too pretentious, they got rid of them… and used Egyptian hieroglyphs instead.

    Victoria Coren (fiancee of comedian David Mitchell) is a great host too. 

    There’s a few full episodes on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03MmFigGVTM

    •  Yes – any review of British game shows has to include Only Connect.  Get rid of Cleverdicks and do Only Connect instead.

    • Simon Gamble says:

       Only Connect is the best quiz show on television.  It’s elitist and proud of it.  The fact that the later episodes are fiendishly difficult just adds to the sense of satisfaction when you get something right!

      That said, Pointless is also a great quiz show.  The mix of high-brow and low-brow questions just adds to the fun.  What other quiz show has had a round on types of lettuce?

    • At first I thought “SHE’s David Mitchell’s fiancee?” But after watching I though “OF COURSE she is.”

      • Anyone looking for some Coren/Mitchell chemistry should check out their series 2 episode of You Have Been Watching. 

        • apathymonger says:

          I’d forgotten that.

          It’s on Youtube; I’ll have to watch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Ua8OIlU2U

          I miss YHBW. Not as good as some other Brooker series, but still fun.

        • SimonWhoIsFromSpace says:

          Tons of fun, I hope Charlie brings it back.

      • shitegeist says:

        When I heard they were engaged my instant reaction was “what!?…wait….yeah…actually…that makes sense”

    • Of_49 says:

      Hadley Bijou Cuddy Jazz
      Emo Rock Stone Wilson
      Pop Hammer Skip Chase
      Foreman Disco House Kyra

    •  They were Greek letters, @apathymonger:disqus ; Roman ones would have been fairly straightforward. *Adopts Coren-family-style air of smugness*

  12. Aaron Riccio says:

    Count me among the many who are excited at a look at game shows — for nostalgia’s sake, I loved Scrabble, but also have weird flashes of watching Monopoly at like 12:30 a.m. in a hotel room, but remember nothing about how the game actually worked! — and even more so at the psychological look across the pond. Considering how many games and talent competitions we’ve imported from Europe (and how much excellent television we don’t, or are only starting to via Hulu and BBC America), it’s simultaneously thrilling and upsetting to learn about all the alternatives to “Deal or No Deal” that are out there. 

    (Brief disclaimer: Despite my seeming disdain for the current, popular US “game” shows, I was sad to see “Fear Factor” vanish from our lineups again, especially when “Wipeout” and other Japanese TV knock-offs remain. I eagerly await your special feature on “Silent Library.”)

  13. Astrid Newby says:

    We have this thing called iplayer…you can skip the inbetween bits and get right to the questions. Makes it brilliant

  14. Thank you for a very interesting article. As per Captain_Internet I keenly await the American perspective on Countdown, on which I had the pleasure of being a contestant during the brilliant Whiteley and Vorderman era.

    I find the commentary on—though I respect not criticism of—the ‘Britishness’ on Pointless especially noteworthy. As you say, I reckon a typical Brit is more likely to be able to name the last five US Presidents than an American would be to name the last five British Prime Ministers. (The intelligent readers of your website notwithstanding! ;-) )

    By way of comparison, do you reckon US game shows are very US-centric in their questions? Is there a variation between the astute world of Jeopardy! and the American version of Millionaire, say?

    Again, thanks for an insightful read.

  15. boardgameguy says:

    Just this past March I played this with a bunch of friends.  The game is called Zero and I’m guessing was ripped off from this show. http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/102792/zero

    It is as fun as it sounds, especially when you play teams.  I remember making that sullen stare more than once and having it be directed back at me.

  16. Gaspar Lewis says:

    Definitely going to follow this feature… but here’s hoping Golden Balls gets an honorable mention for literally ending each show in a Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    And to this man for knowing exactly what to do!


    • Aaron Riccio says:

      I don’t know about Golden Balls, although that clip was certainly boss. I mean, it seems too much like the US game show Friend or Foe, which I’m sure in turn was a clone of some other game that also used the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But yes, as a fan of game theory, that’s a winning strategy, and I admire the guy’s ultimate honesty!

    • Afghamistam says:

      I want Golden Balls to be covered so I can finally understand it.

      • Greg Sheppard says:

        Whenever I happen to stumble upon it except in the last bit based on the prisoner’s dilemma I just dont get any of it. 

    • JAS84 says:

      Golden Balls has finished. But the Bank Job, which is due to be covered, ends with virtually the same thing. John Teti, please make sure you see the final of either of the two series of The Bank Job before reviewing it, as the prisoner’s dilemma only appears then.

  17. Aaron Riccio says:

    My favorite “game show” remains “Kenny v. Spenny.” I don’t care how much of it was scripted, but man, those challenges were bizarre and the forfeits were almost as fun as the cheating that generally let up to them.

    • caspiancomic says:

       Fuck. Yes. Some of the later seasons got pretty out of hand and scripted feeling, but there were a couple of seasons in there that were pure gold. It’s difficult to choose favourites, but I think Who Can Be Homeless Longest, Who Can Commit More Crimes, and Who Can Drink The Most Beer are like, top ten.

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        My personal favorite had to be “Who Can Make the Most Money,” in which Kenny’s mechanic for plugging local businesses on the show backfires when Spenny points out that he gets half of Kenny’s proceeds . . . and by dint of the fact that Spenny, after attempting to sell ROSES, gambles his remaining money on a 30:1 horse (or something like that) and wins. But yeah, I’m with you all the way — the beer one is *great*; doesn’t Kenny just decide to forfeit in secret, goading Spenny into drinking more and more? — and I’m really not sure why only Season 4 is available on Netflix. (That said, time to catch up on “Who Can Commit More Crimes.”)

        • caspiancomic says:

           I can’t remember if he forfeits, but Kenny was obviously cheating (non-alcoholic beer, although the sheer amount of it was still making the competition a pain for him). They got into a load of trouble for that episode apparently, since you’re not actually allowed to drink beer on TV. And yeah, the Money one was also seriously excellent. It made me actually want to bet on horses.

  18. James Searle says:

    This is a brilliant feature, as a Brit I’m very excited. I hope Eggheads is covered at some point; I don’t think my grandmother has missed an episode in the last couple of years thanks to her DVR. Also, do you guys have the Million Pound Drop? Its certainly the best gameshow format around at the moment (much better than The Bank Job).

    • apathymonger says:

      The Million Dollar Money Drop was on in the US in 2010: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Million_Dollar_Money_Drop

      Not broadcast live though.

    • Kip_Hackman says:

      Eggheads would be an interesting one as it takes it format straight from pub quizzing, which I’m not sure if there is much of a culture of in the US. I also hope they cover it for people’s opinions on Barry, perhaps the creepiest guy in all of quizdom.

  19. flowsthead says:

    All Hail Britannia!

    • Kip_Hackman says:

      Great article, very glad to see some of our best gameshows given a look over. However I’d like to counter your point about the time wasting in the show- whilst its definitely strung out a bit too long, it gives Xander and Richard further liscence to banter, which in my opinion is the shows main strength. Really looking forward to reading the countdown edition as its been an institution in Britain (and my family) for years.

      P.S. Another vote for covering university challenge. Jeremy Paxman is maybe the most cantankerous quiz host ever.

  20. Pointless is awesome, but it is certainly plodding. I have an excellent feature on my iPhone where I can skip forward in 10 second leaps. I start every episode from 6 minutes in to avoid the contestant introductions and skip through the recaps at the end of each round. That way I get through a 45 minute episode in around 24 minutes. Best way to watch the show.

  21. CNightwing says:

    I have to ask for a review of University Challenge. It’s a classic, and the perfect warmup to Only Connect. Plus I was on it and want to talk about it.

    • James Greenan says:

      University Challenge is essential, surely. I mean, if you think Richard Osmand is snobby because he scolds people for not knowing where Nelson Mandela was born, boy oh boy!

      • Electric Dragon says:

        If Paxman is contemptuous of contestants not knowing highbrow culture questions, he is just as often befuddled by questions involving maths or science.

    • Stuart says:

      University Challenge is an American format though 

  22. Penis Van Lesbian says:

    Not really a quiz show, but the cube is pretty good…

    • Bowen Kerins says:

      Oh but it is most definitely a “game show”!  The Price Is Right is a lot closer to The Cube than it is to Countdown or Pointless.

      I am with John all the way about the desire to become a game show host.  In the end I became a high school teacher — close enough!

  23. The_Misanthrope says:

    You praise the design of the set and it is a pretty snazzy looking set, but my question is this:  Where did the current trend of dark, sparsely-lit game-shows come from?   The first time I saw it was on ” Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and it seems to become the de rigeur design choice ever since.

  24. BaileyStephenL says:

    Wonderful article. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

  25. Andrew says:

    I’m guessing future articles will feature Eggheads, Million Pound Drop and The Vault.

  26. MattKodner says:

    the Japanese All Star Athletic Games series stands as the pinnacle of game shows for me. 

    I do not understand any of what is happening, or why, and cannot find any full episodes of it. I’m not even sure it’s real, but I cannot stop watching triple spinning (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3OHJK1mfNM)

  27. The single best UK Gameshow clip ever. It’s basically a genius take on the prisoner’s dilemma, but played *brilliantly*.


  28. RepostedAvengedSevenfoldFan says:

    I live in the untied kingdom and havent got a fucking clue what is a hipster is could you please elaberate ?

    -ThePitofsarlacc in reply to kidzwithfunnynames44, 2 days ago

  29. NutsAndGum says:

    After reading the first few paragraphs of this essay, that jacket Teti wore on The Digest yesterday started to make sense.

    Snarkiness aside, as someone who watched entirely too much Game Show Network during college (Lingo is one of the most under-appreciated game shows of all time), I am pretty excited for this column.

  30. Afghamistam says:

    This is certainly a feature I never would have expected to see anywhere on the internet, let alone an American (what I thought was) video gaming site. But as someone who hasn’t watched any gameshows since the early/mid-90s (Catchphrase represent) and couldn’t name any British county nicknames despite being from Britain, I’ll take it anyway – just to see what people who should be doing something better than watching TV in the middle of the day are doing.

  31. Katherine Henderson says:

    Oh I love this article! I’m a Brit who has a huge love for Anglo-American differentiations; and seeing the opinions of the Americans on something I watch every day (a tradition from being a kid) is really exciting! 
    My family have this one niggle with Pointless which is the way Miller says “Oh Baaad Luck!” with just a little condescension. You hear it a lot and it’s become something of a catchphrase in the house.I’m also really excited for The Chase as it’s my favourite of our Quiz Shows and cant wait to see what you think. Looking forwards to it!

    • shitegeist says:

      I love to hear American takes on British things. It doesn’t really work the other way round because in Britain we’ve been so immersed in American culture for so long that none of it seems alien to us. But in the US so much of what we do and (specifically) say is strange to them, so it’s always fun to hear their opinions.

  32. Over the most recent holiday season, my game-loving family became obsessed with a board game called Zero, which has a similar premise: answer trivia questions, but come up with the least popular correct choice. The higher the score of your answer, the more spaces you move toward the finish, and the last person/team to finish wins. It’s a good mechanic, and it makes for lots of fun discussion. My wife and I rocked it; I remember naming Northanger Abbey for Jane Austen novels, which I think was a zero. 

    • Colliewest says:

      My father-in-law was one of the people they asked to come up with their answers. He said they were going to give him the game when it was done, have to see if they came through.

      • Is he Australian? It said somewhere on the box or in the rules that Australians were the ones polled, so the discussion among the players was always about what Australians would guess for the topics, and if that made a difference.

  33. Kip_Hackman says:

    Great article, very glad to see some of our best gameshows given a look over. However I’d like to counter your point about the time wasting in the show- whilst its definitely strung out a bit too long, it gives Xander and Richard further liscence to banter, which in my opinion is what sets it apart from the other shows. Really looking forward to reading the countdown edition as its been an institution in Britain (and my family) for years.

    P.S. Another vote for covering university challenge. Jeremy Paxman is perhaps the most cantankerous quiz host ever (this is a good thing!).

  34. Tarranon Sel says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4zANH21ck4 I don’t know where you get that gameshows can be too drawn out. . . 

  35. Colliewest says:

    What about The Best Game Shows of Times Paaast?

    I’m going to go with The Crystal Maze.

    Totally different style and vibe, but definitely still a game show. I think the cold rather than zany physical game show must have been pretty hard to pull off (especially on UK budgets), but Richard O’Brien really sells it.

  36. Josh Drimmer says:

    Love it. Already hooked to YouTube episodes.

  37. shitegeist says:

    Very interesting piece. I was unemployed for almost a year, and Pointless was one of the few bright spots of my tedious daily routine.

    If you haven’t already you should definitely check out Who Dares Wins. Undoubtedly my favourite gameshow on UK TV.

  38. theriantrophy says:

    i hope you discuss Numberwang….

  39. Olav Bjortomt says:


  40. nuisance11 says:

    University Challenge is adapted from the US show College Bowl isn’t it?

    • shitegeist says:

      Just did a bit of independent research (and by that I mean I put ‘College Bowl’ into Wikipedia) and it appears you’re right. I’ve been watching University Challenge for almost 20 years and had no idea it was an adaptation from a US format. It seems so quintessentially British.

  41. Nhex says:

    Nice piece! I look forward to reading more. 

  42. Sam Eacott says:

    My favourite game show ever is the one with the rabbit that’s on before Doctor Who. I don’t why, but there is something maddeningly entertaining about watching a mechanical rabbit trying to get carrots at 3am in the morning on a livestream with 100 other people while waiting for Doctor Who. It’s bonker but it’s brilliant.

  43. SimonWhoIsFromSpace says:

    Say what you see!


  44. Halonic says:

    I wish there was a good way of getting hold of Jeopardy! in the UK. 

    It’s by far my favourite gameshow format (well, after Only Connect) and it’s impossible to get hold of, whether through illicit or legitimate means.

  45. Ladyfingers says:

    Sort of off topic, but I have a story about game shows from my old country, South Africa, back in the early ’90s. This was just after Apartheid laws ended. Prior to this, SA TV had been effectively segregated by language practicalities into black and white channels.

    There were plenty of uncomfortably forced attempts to get all of our long-segregated races to interact on TV, with lots of bad shows about refined new black neighbours in white suburbs full of embarrassingly undignified white thickos and so on. I dismissed most of them fairly charitably as well-meaning and they were likely fairly popular with local audiences, who really weren’t terribly demanding.

    The one that DIDN’T work, however, was a kindly-intentioned multi-racial quiz show where the white contestants got asked things like the projected GDP of the USA and chemical equations, versus the black contestants being asked things like the colour of a strawberry or the number of sides on a triangle (complete with very slow hand gestures).

    I mean, we’re talking about a country where black people’s education generally stopped at approximately 12, specifically to keep them servile. Realistically, in a quiz show pitting mostly ex-rural Africans speaking third language English up against highly-educated middle class whites and Asians, the playing field had to be levelled somewhat, but it was so depressingly, brutally done that it became spectacularly uncomfortable. The hosts were struggling like crazy to keep the tone cheerful. I remember watching an episode or two with some friends and we all wanted to die of pathos.

    Man, to find a clip of that show…

  46. Greg Sheppard says:

    I rather liked this outside look at British gameshows.

    One thing worth looking at would be University Challenge, which is the pinnacle of quizing snobbery and just obscenely tough general questions and has absolutely no slowing down (just impatient hurry ups etc from Paxman and the occasional turning up of the nose when it comes to the rare pop culture questions), there are no gimmicks just lots of questions (which are the most thoroughly researched of any quiz show in the world). You have to be at university to compete (although there is a ‘professionals’ series as well). Also there is no prize except the title.

    Ditto Mastermind where each player faces a sepcialist subject of their choosing and a general knowledge round but that while tough isnt quite on the same level as University Challenge. Also worth pointing out the British penchant for quizzing as a hobby/past time (at least compared to most nations). Pub quizzes are common and there is a thriving competitive quizzing circuit (where all the people from the Chase and other ringers on game shows are usually hired from) and the UK is one of the leading quizzing nations along with India and Belgium.

  47. Tom Foxtrot says:

    A good write up. Some shows I like over here in the UK are Million Pound Drop Live, Countdown and Take Me Out, the latter not really being a game show but is amusing. 

  48. Andy Farren says:

    I rarely watch TV these days, because it’s full of US-style gameshows and copycats of US talent shows.

    Yet, recently, I have watched The Walking Dead, Archer, Game of Thrones (which is, admittedly, a grey area in terms of Atlantic ownership), Homeland, Twin Peaks (!) and various Comedy Central specials (including that Louis C.K purchase).

    When I asked in my tea & crumpets, bowler-hatted office what series I should try next, someone said “Oh, Boardwalk Empire is good. Plenty of tits in it as well”.

    Do people still watch gameshows, really?

  49. The celebrity quizzes and game shows are the best – Just a Minute was on the TV recently, though it’s normally a radio show, and Have I Got News for You and The News Quiz are both usually funnier than Wait Wait.

    And of course University Challenge and Mastermind are both great.

  50. Nicely written article about a great game show and one of my favourites (along with Only Connect and Uni Challenge).

    Favourite Pointless moment so far (from memory):

    Armstrong: “Name an author on the 100 top-selling author list”.
    Contestant: “I don’t know any authors” 
    (intake of breath from audience and Armstrong visibly rocks back in alarm)
    Armstrong: “Really?”
    Contestant: “I don’t read books.” (brief pause whilst cogs whirr) “I do know one author… J K Rowling.” 


    The other round that was memorable featured “Robert Redford films”. One contestant had never heard of him and another had heard the name but didn’t have a clue what he’d been in. Oh how fleeting is fame.

  51. antonspivack says:

    Good article. I wonder if you’ll do the UK game shows of the past, such as Knightmare, Crystal Maze, The Krypton Factor, Fifteen to One, and such. I agree that in the UK, quiz programmes demand that you can play the game, while in the US, it’s not that important and you can be forgiven if you don’t. However, what you said about padding out in the UK, US game shows are guilty of that as well, and they also cut to commercial just before a big reveal or during gameplay, as if they think it will boost suspense.

  52. Mr XBob says:

    UK reader here! I personally hate “Pointless”, but I hope you guys talk about “The Chase” soon! That’s a huge breath of fresh-air for daytime game shows in my opinion, everything about it is spot on.

  53. Ben says:

    Lovely article, @JohnTeti:disqus , very interesting to read as a Brit.

    Don’t know if my suggestion here http://www.avclub.com/articles/tell-us-about-your-popculture-weekend-feb-2526-201,69940/#comment-454908377 precipitated it (I hadn’t figured out tagging back then so perhaps you didn’t even catch my reply), but I’m glad you’re going to cover The Exit List either way!

  54. According to Richard on ‘Pointless Celebrities’, two out of 100 people polled thought that a ‘Beefalo’ was a bee crossed with a buffalo. Presumably the same two (along with one other) thought a ‘Dzo’ was a dodo crossed with a zebra.


  55. Natalie B. says:

    I wish your articles had tags…

  56. Stumbled across this piece by accident but so glad I did. As a previous contestant (just thought I’d slip that in there…) it’s really interesting to read an American perspective on things, particularly how the BBC “find other ways to piss away the minutes” – so true!