It was a rare moment of showbiz serendipity in early 2012 when somebody suggested giving the usual schedule on Britain’s Channel 4 a shake to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
The idea was to mash up the stars and formats of popular programs, resulting among other things in a hybrid of Countdown, a quiz that had long been a staple of the weekday afternoon schedule, with 8 Out of 10 Cats, a prime-time panel show hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr.
It worked so well that the spin-off took on a life of its own, first with some additional special episodes and then as a regular series that continues to screen in the UK and internationally.
In the original Cats, Carr, one of the hottest comics on the British stand-up circuit, found the perfect vehicle for his acerbic wit and risqué one-liners, asking questions and spinning jokes about the findings of surveys and statistics. The new format allowed him to double down on the putdowns, and to expand his comedic repertoire into physical humour.
It also allowed regular 8 Out of 10 Cats panellist Jon Richardson, whose original stand-up act focused on the funny side of having OCD, to shine as something of a maths prodigy, and his regular rival Sean Lock to take his likeable loser persona in a new direction.
What gives the format broad appeal and a long shelf-life is that, unlike other celebrity panel shows such as Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week and Australia’s Have You Been Paying Attention, Cats Does Countdown is not tied to current events. The humour is both over the top and timeless, making it ideal for repeat and marathon viewing.
At its heart is the challenge of the game of Countdown, which puts the celebs out of their comfort zone and allows viewers to play along, potentially giving us the satisfaction of being cleverer than the personalities on the panel.
The show is structured though to ensure it never gets too serious. While there are scripted jokes and schtick, there’s plenty of room for improvisation to allow the idiosyncrasies of the regular cast members and guest stars to shine through.
Here, Katherine Ryan talks about an encounter with an “inflatophiliac” and Joe Wilkinson tries his hand at poetry:
It can take up to 15 minutes before the game – which involves finding words within random series of letters, and combining numbers chosen by chance to reach a computer-generated total – is even played.
After a scripted monologue, Carr introduces Richardson and Lock (or substitutes when they are unavailable) and their teammates, who are selected from a roster of established and up-and-coming talent. Guests have included Lee Mack, Katherine Ryan, Rhod Gilbert, Joe Lycett, Victoria Coren Mitchell, Romesh Ranganathan, Alan Carr, Miles Jupp, Roisin Conaty, Holly Walsh, Catherine Tate, Kathy Burke and Richard Osman.
The celebrity contestants then trade barbs with the razor-sharp host and present their mascots, which can range from the mundane (a trinket from childhood) to the bizarre (a sex doll), allowing for further laughs before the introduction of Susie Dent and Rachel Riley.
Dent and Riley, who feature in the regular Countdown, not only provide some balance to the often testosterone-dominated first act, they also supply the expertise, in words and numbers respectively, that make the format work. With licence to play fast and loose with the rules they know so well, they are at the heart of the game.
A lot is thrown into the mix to keep the show moving at a cracking pace. To this end, the 30 seconds of thinking time provided for the puzzles to be solved will often see Carr (with the help of a body double and clever camera angles) perform some unlikely physical or creative feat, such as doing double-rolls on a trampoline or painting a half-minute masterpiece.
Each episode, Dent is assigned an assistant who performs one or two “bits” they’ve prepared earlier. The guests have ranged from seminal punk poet John Cooper Clarke to hairy comic genius Bill Bailey, but in earlier episodes it was often Joe Wilkinson, a man for whom the phrase “dancing to the beat of a different drum” might have been invented. He has since popped up in various roles across the show, sometimes purely for the purpose of hilarious disruption.
Cats Does Countdown is a masterclass in panel-show production and audience engagement. Like QI, the show is populated with clever, funny people, there’s a sense of being informed as well as being entertained and the format is broad enough to have something for everyone.
The producers’ mantra seems to be that, if you didn’t like that train of thought, another one will be along very soon, or the whole thing may simply go off the rails altogether.
When the show finally reaches its conclusion, it hardly matters who wins. Unless, of course, it’s you at home.
Watch the 4-episode 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown marathon from 7:35pm on 25 December on SBS VICELAND.
Season 5 is streaming at SBS On Demand: