Take a world-record-holding quiz show, throw in Britain’s funniest folks, and watch the words, numbers and hilarity follow: that’s 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown.
A mash-up of game show Countdown and comedy panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, it pits two pairs of comedians against each other as they work their way through a series of word and number puzzles. And if it sounds familiar, that’s not only because Countdown has been running since 1982, but because an Australian version — aka Letters and Numbers — airs on SBS every weekday.
The ultimate British TV mash-up
While Countdown has currently reached its 79th season in the UK, and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running television programme of its kind as a result, it wasn’t until 2012 that 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown first aired on British TV screens. It actually started as a joke, as part of a network-wide mash-up night that saw the stars of popular series switch shows. In this case, the regulars from comedy panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats took the reins of Countdown, with the former’s Jimmy Carr hosting, alongside Jon Richardson and Sean Lock as contestants. From the latter, resident maths whiz Rachel Riley continued her role as Countdown co-presenter, while lexicographer Susie Dent kept her spot in Dictionary Corner.
What was designed as a one-night gag subsequently earned a second episode later that year, and then two more specials early in 2013. Because watching comedians grapple with anagrams, sums and jokes proved a winning formula, a full season of the show was commissioned in mid-2013 — with 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown now reaching its 16th season in the UK.
In fact, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown’s longevity saw Jon Richardson and Sean Lock relinquished their roles as team captains on 8 Out of 10 Cats — which Lock had starred on since 2005, and Richardson since 2011 — in 2015.
Playing with letters and numbers
While it shares the host, captains and many of the comedian guests from 8 Out of 10 Cats, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown retains Countdown’s format. It’s not without a number of comedic touches from 8 Out of 10 Cats, however, starting with Jimmy Carr’s word pun-heavy opening. From there, meet-and-greet introductions run through the episode’s players, give Jimmy a chance to roast them, explore their preparations for the episode, and show the mascots they think will bring them luck. 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown also pairs Jon Richardson and Sean Lock with a fellow comedian, with teams of two competing against each other — unlike in Countdown, where contestants compete solo.
For the bulk of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Countdown still reigns supreme — just with comedians rather than super-smart contestants, although sometimes one of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown’s players fits both categories. The show starts with a letters round, where teams try to make the longest word from nine letters picked at random. Next comes a numbers round, where they endeavour to reach a nominated figure by adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing six random numbers. After alternating between the two games — and earning points for forming the largest word, or coming closest to the target number — the teams face off in the conundrum round, attempting to unscramble nine letters to find a specific word.
Adjudicating the responses are Susie Dent, who decrees whether a word is really a word, and Rachel Riley, who works through the contestants’ equations. Riley also demonstrates how to reach the target if no one has achieved the feat, and if it can be done.
As well as the comedians themselves turning the proceedings into a laugh-filled affair, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown ramps up the comedy in various ways: through amusing distractions that occur as the show’s 30-second countdowns take place, skits between rounds and occasional bonus rounds, and whatever Susie’s comedian companion for the week in Dictionary Corner has to offer.
The moments to look out for
In short, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown serves up more than just comedians showing off their word and number skills (or lack thereof). There are puzzles, more puzzles, jokes by and about Jimmy Carr, and two incredibly smart ladies overseeing the answers. There are also team captains that range from the enthusiastically determined (such as Jon Richardson) to the amusingly apathetic (Sean Lock), comedian Joe Wilkinson often arriving to help Rachel and just to generally interrupt, and — for some reason — men in underwear presenting the episode’s chosen 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown prize.
With guests changing every week, no two episodes of the series the same, although the same words do sometimes come up. Often they’re words no respectable Countdown or Letters and Numbers contestant would dare submit, and they’re always hilarious.
Across the show’s 100 episodes to-date in the UK — with the milestone show airing on August 3 in Britain — there has been a plethora of highlights. Here are five to look out for.
Danny Dyer does 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown
Placing Danny Dyer in Dictionary Corner is a stroke of comedic genius, with sparks flying as thick and fast as the Human Traffic star’s Cockney rhyming slang.
Sam Simmons leaves everyone speechless
A Dictionary Corner guest on multiple occasions, Sam Simmons’ distinctive humour always leaves everyone completely uncertain about what they’ve just seen.
Holly Walsh’s Venn diagrams
In the spirit of overlapping concepts, frequent guest Holly Walsh breaks out the Venn diagrams to explain comedic clashes beyond 8 Out of 10 Cats meeting Countdown.
Sean Lock’s A-to-Z casserole
Instead of bringing a mascot for one episode, Sean Lock makes a stew from ingredients corresponding to every letter of the alphabet — then tries to eat it.
Every time Joe Wilkinson tries to help Rachel Riley with the letters and numbers
Joe Wilkinson calls himself Rachel Riley’s assistant, but he’s assisting with jokes more than with the actual job at hand.
8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown screens on SBS from 10.10pm Fridays, with episodes available afterwards at SBS On Demand.