By Mike O’Brien | ★★★★★
In case you’re somehow unfamiliar, QI is a comedy panel game show wherein Stephen Fry poses a series of absurd trivia questions to Alan Davies and guests. It’s great fun – but not even Fry, a national treasure famed for his genius, could possess this magnitude of nonsensical knowledge by himself. QI is, in fact, a well-oiled machine in an office at Covent Garden, where the show’s researchers – or ‘QI elves’ as they are affectionately known – trawl through millennia of miscellany to find charmingly bizarre facts. Not all of them make it into the show though – so what happens when the elves fashion these abandoned nuggets into a podcast, and then take that podcast on the road? The product is No Such Thing as a Fish, and it’s bloody excellent.
A two-hour show, the first half is a stand-up assortment of brief sketches, which are a welcome deviation from the Fish formula and perfectly introduce each elf’s comedic identity for the show to come. The main meat however is the second half, during which a live episode of the podcast is recorded on-stage. Here’s the format: James Harkin, Andrew Hunter Murray, Anna Ptaszynski, and Dan Schreiber each bring their favourite fact of the week to discuss. There’s really no telling what these facts will entail; from the revolting to the unbelievable to the bewildering, you’ll hear everything from intrigued murmurs to hysterical laughter in the crowd. No Such Thing as a Fish seems completely uncensored, exploring the crude annals of history with sophistication but without taking themselves too seriously.
The simplicity of the model is a testament to the elves’ superhuman fusion of charm and knowledge – it takes a stellar cast to make the premise of ‘conversation between four nerds’ commercially tenable – but so much of what No Such Thing as a Fish achieves is owed to fantastic structure. The elves don’t disclose their facts to one another beforehand, but they are aware of the ‘themes’ so to speak. It works wonders for the show’s chemistry since the elves are learning in tandem with the audience, exhibiting the same amusement and surprise. Meanwhile, an awareness of the themes means the elves come loaded with relevant facts, providing a surplus of knowledge to keep it flowing. It’s one of the best-prepared examples of its kind, but it somehow never feels structured or prepared in a formal sense. It’s fluid, funny, natural, and it takes serious skill to structure something so superficially off-the-cuff.
No Such Thing as a Fish is a communal experience in the best way. During the show’s intervals, the audience is able to send in facts to the elves who choose a handful of favourites to read at the end. Even the mid-show advertisement a promo from a local event musician who hilariously corrected their pronunciation of his name from the crowd. There’s constant interaction, acknowledgement, and discourse without distracting from the show itself, and most importantly, without forcing audience participation at all.
No Such Thing as a Fish is a harmony of many fine balances. Laissez-faire yet brilliantly structured, intellectual yet accessible, occasionally crude but always classy. Even when some facts are eventually discovered to be falsehoods – such as Schreiber’s claim that badgers, when cornered in a car park, will burrow into concrete – they are lambasted and made into jokes. I could go on and on about all the things it does well, but at the end of the day, this is what happens when you get four hilarious geniuses in a room. You learn, you laugh, and in that time, you really do feel a part of this dorky delight. The live show was fantastic, the podcast is amongst the best out there, and it is my civic duty to recommend them both to anyone capable of experiencing fun. With good enough retention, listening to No Such Thing as a Fish will make you the most mental yet oddly hypnotic dinner party guest around.