QI (the letters stand for quite interesting) is a wildly successful TV game show that has been running in the UK for 12 years. It reaches an extraordinarily broad demographic, not just in Britain but also in Australia -- where it is one of the country's most successful imports, and repeated so often that there have been complaints in Parliament.
The idea behind the program is that audiences are much smarter than they are generally given credit for, but not necessarily better-informed. We also think people deserve friendly, cheerful television.
QI debuts tonight at 8pm on BBC America and runs every Thursday, three shows a night for five weeks. If you think you're smart (or even if you think other people are smarter than you) you need to be there.
Because, as we say, "Everything you know is wrong."
The show, hosted by British polymath Stephen Fry, asks a panel of four comedians two different types of questions. The first kind are so obscure and so difficult that they barely make sense, such as "What is 15 miles away and smells of geraniums?" or "Why don't pigeons like going to the movies?" And the second kind are so pathetically obvious that even a five-year-old child could answer them: "How many moons does the world have?" "How many wives did Henry VIII have?" and "What's the tallest mountain in the world?"
The answer to the first kind of question delivers information that will astonish you and enlarge your perspective of the universe. The thing that is 15 miles away and smells (so scientists say) of geraniums is the Ozone Layer. Pigeons don't like going to the movies because they see in slow motion, to enable them to navigate through trees at dusk and avoid being run over by cars. A pigeon at a movie would have a really tedious experience -- a single still frame of, say, Brad Pitt, a slab of black, then another, ever-so-slightly-different frame of Brad Pitt, and so on ad infinitum (from a pigeon POV) for hours and hours.
The second kind of question delivers a knockout punch. Get one wrong and you risk a 10-point forfeit. The Earth does not have one moon, it may have as many as 80,000. Henry VIII had either two or three wives (depending on whether you believe his testimony or that of the Pope). And the "tallest" mountain in the world is not Everest, but Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which is massively taller than Everest from base to summit, because most of its bulk is under the sea.
Orologists, who study mountains, measure the "height" of a mountain from sea-level to peak -- but its "tallness" from base to peak. So Mauna Kea is "taller," but not "higher" than Everest.
You may find this pedantic, but children love this stuff. On the show, we call it "General Ignorance."
I met a 24-year-old teacher recently (who was 12 years old when QI began in the UK) and he estimated half his general knowledge came directly from the show.
QI was the first in popular culture to reveal that human beings have four nostrils not two, that Pluto is not really a planet and that coffee is not made from beans.
Tasked with coming up with the questions are a small team of researchers, dubbed by Fry "the QI Elves," because, with their tiny spades, they chip away assiduously at the Mountain of Knowledge.
What, for example, was Mozart's middle name? You'll be amazed to hear it wasn't Amadeus. The true answer is 'Wolfgangus'. Two years before we asked, even Wikipedia didn't know. Mozart was christened Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. (Amadeus is Latin for Greek Theophilus, "loved by God.") The first article about Mozart on Wikipedia in 2001 fitted comfortably onto a single page. Today, it's 18 times as long: Even the references take up more room.
The amount of available knowledge increases exponentially each day. One edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person in the 17th century would have come across in a lifetime. You'd think, by now, everyone would know everything. But they don't. In fact, my guess is we know less than we did 20 years ago.
Because we don't need to remember anything any more: Whatever you need to know is there at the click of a mouse. Did you know, incidentally that mice prefer peanut butter to cheese? That's something I didn't know until recently, when the QI Elves delivered the MS for our latest book, 1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways, to be published by WW Norton later this year.
Our QI books, incidentally, have been published 'round the world, in 29 different languages -- the first one, a New York Times bestseller, sold over a million copies.
Each series of QI deals with a different letter of the alphabet. The one about to start on BBC America is the "J" series. So we're asking about jam, jargon, journalism, jungles, jobs, journeys, jingle bells and places beginning with "J."
And we always have more stuff than we can fit in. It's impossible to whistle in a spacesuit. The average US shareholding lasts 22 seconds. Nobody knows who invented the fire hydrant: the patent records were destroyed in a fire.
Adult fans of QI, older than the broadcasting Holy Grail of 16-30, find this kind of thing Quite Entertaining. Young people, however, have a very different take on the show. I've met 13-year olds who know whole episodes off by heart and can recite our books verbatim. Saudi Arabia imports sand. Sandcastles kill more people than sharks. Your brain uses less power than the light in your fridge. The Statue of Liberty wears size 879 shoes. Only 5% of the world's population has ever been on a plane. A raw carrot is still alive when you eat it.
Only this week, we discovered three new Quite Interesting things. In 2010, the US military built a supercomputer out of 1,760 Playstation 3s, penguins can't taste fish, and the strongest material in the world is snail's teeth.
Join us tonight on a mad meander round the universe.