Joke's over: how the TV panel show fell from grace

Its edgy back-and-forth once dominated our screens, but now the format is suffering a severe ratings dip. Why has this comedy staple lost its lustre?

The panel show’s death knell may well have been sounded by Harry Enfield. A man with an unwavering knack for zeroing in on the zeitgeist, in his and Paul Whitehouse’s 2014 tribute to BBC2, the Story Of The Twos, the pair mashed up every hackneyed panel show ingredient – from a gurning, pen-tapping Ian Hislop to the Buzzcocks item where abuse is hurled at a lineup of extras – into a Frankenstein’s monster of a programme that oscillated between soullessly automated performance and crowd-pleasing inanity. The echoing refrain was Paul Merton’s smug non sequitur of a punchline. “Is it a dolphin in a bathtub?” he mooted repeatedly, to deafening laughter.

When that sketch aired, it felt cathartic. At that point, the TV panel show – which had been ubiquitous, wildly popular and, frequently, a joy – was starting to seem stale. Fast forward two-and-a-half years, and the genre has truly fallen from grace: Never Mind The Buzzcocks has been axed, Stephen Fry has left QI, 8 Out Of 10 Cats has moved to More4 after its last Channel 4 series barely scraped a million viewers, while the past five years have seen Mock The Week’s ratings halve. Only the father of the trend, Have I Got News For You, continues to hold the fort, a sometimes relevant but hardly essential shadow of its former self.

So where did it all go wrong? Although the Harry and Paul skit was a scathingly accurate survey of the panel show scene, this was about more than individual programmes descending into smug parodies of themselves. Instead, the genre’s demise explains the way comedy itself has changed over the decade. First to desert the format was Buzzcocks host Simon Amstell, who quit the show in 2009 and used his subsequent sitcom Grandma’s House to denounce its meanness. But Amstell had not been alone in his cruelty. This panel show golden age was fuelled by a particularly furious form of banter, the kind encouraged by 8 Out Of 10 Cats’ caustic host Jimmy Carr, but probably best encapsulated by Frankie Boyle, whose Mock The Week residency made the show must-watch TV. Yet the way Boyle’s career has evolved is, like Amstell’s, indicative of how times have changed: in 2008, Boyle was making jokes on Mock The Week about the unattractiveness of young female Olympians; nowadays he’s writing op-eds for broadsheet newspapers about Conservative foreign policy.

This move within comedy towards nuance and insight and away from shouting down Hugh Dennis to deliver a gross gag about the Queen’s genitals has proved fatal to the panel show cause, and it stemmed partly from a rising consciousness about identity politics. At the turn of the decade, the combative and overwhelmingly male format began to attract accusations of misogyny from women including Victoria Wood, Mariella Frostrup (who called HIGNFY a “disgrace”) and Jo Brand (who observed that women were “perceived as window dressing” on Buzzcocks and “figures of ridicule” on They Think It’s All Over and HIGNFY). These voices of protest became so strong that in 2014 there was an edict from the BBC’s director of TV banning all-male panel shows.

Nevermind The Buzzcocks
All similes... Nevermind The Buzzcocks Photograph: Brian Ritchie/Talkback Thames

By that time, the panel show was already embracing niceness. An increased sensitivity about offence combined with panel show overkill – from Sky’s Duck Quacks Don’t Echo to Charlie Brooker’s You Have Been Watching, the cheap and easy-to-produce format was everywhere – led to the commodification of anodyne “witty banter”. Things were changing on the comedy scene at large, too. On the Comedian’s Comedian podcast last year, Mock The Week host Dara O Briain observed that the new generation of guests – Sara Pascoe, Romesh Ranganathan, Rob Beckett (also a team captain on 8 Out Of 10 Cats) – were more “conversational” than vicious. This cosy style doesn’t exactly lend itself to the rambunctiousness for which the panel show was loved. Instead it favours parlour game-based offshoots of the genre that don’t rely on nastiness for entertainment – 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Would I Lie To You?, Taskmaster – as well as podcasts, which offer a more intimate kind of humour and are becoming increasingly popular with comedy fans.

In their day, there was something intoxicating about the no-holds-barred panel show back-and-forth. But there seems to be little room for it in a society that has begun to appreciate empathy – and neither, conversely, in a more brutal political climate that is not particularly suitable for dissecting for cheap laughs. Perhaps, when the world lightens up again, they’ll be back.

Have I Got News For You airs Fridays, 9pm, BBC1; QI airs Fridays, 10pm, BBC2; 8 Out Of 10 Cats airs Tuesdays, 9pm, More4

• This article was amended on 2 December 2016 to correct the name of the panel show You Have Been Watching. An earlier version misnamed it as Have You Been Watching.


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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