The team of researchers behind long-running BBC panel-show QI are nicknamed 'Elves' because they work tirelessly in the QI 'workshop', unearthing numerous facts for the programme. However, finding that only about 5% of their material made it in to the finished cut, in 2014 four of them - Anna Ptaszynski, James Harkin, Andrew Hunter Murray, and Dan Schreiber - decided to record a podcast of their own, sharing their favourite facts from the last seven days.
Beginnings were humble: Dan uploaded the first episode, entitled 'No Such Thing As A Dangalangalang', under his mother's account and credentials. Eventually, they settled on No Such Thing As A Fish, in tribute to a QI fact that, biologically speaking, a salmon is more related to a camel than a hagfish. (Just as not all animals that fly are deemed birds, there is, in truth, no such thing as a fish.) Fast forward just 5 years, and they've sold out the O2, the Hammersmith Apollo, and the Sydney Opera House, with 1.5 million dedicated listeners each week.
For the third year running, the Fish have written a brand-new book. The Book Of The Year 2019 is a treat for all the ages. It's stuffed with fascinating facts from the past twelve months, including:
- 5 guys were arrested at a branch of Five Guys
- The US town of Hell froze over
- The owners of the world's largest replica of Noah's Ark sued for rain damage
As one Amazon reviewer put it, 'All true facts. All funny facts. No Brexit.' And, my word, we could all do with a bit of that.
It takes genuine talent and bucketloads of personality to make the premise "four people talk facts for an hour" viable, profitable, and - perhaps most surprising of all - scaleable. But NSTAAF feels that rarest of combinations: both natural and polished, laissez-faire yet structurally sound, cultured yet relatable, bawdy but harmless.
In fact, the moment in 2014 that started it all, according to Andrew, was when Dan and James mentioned that there were 600 men in the world with two penises. It was there and then that they decided that they simply had to make a podcast, just to get this information out.
It's intellectual but always warm-hearted: a tea-party with your best and closest friends. And above all, the four collaborators possess in spades that elusive, slippery quality found in the greatest ensemble comedy: charm.
The Fishes' chemistry is authentic because they do not reveal their favourite facts to one another before they sit down to record. Both interesting and interested, their omnivorous hunger for new, exciting information means that they learn in tandem with the audience, exhibiting identical amusement and surprise. Our television and radio schedules are replete with comedy programmes poking fun at the news, but Fish succeeds because it finds the whimsy, warmth, and human interest that so often coexist right alongside the weightier, more serious side of current affairs. The thirst for academic rigour never sacrifices an awareness of play.
No Such Thing As A Fish reminds us that facts needn't be boring. Sometimes experts are so engrossed in their own material that they overlook its comic potential, failing to appreciate the purest, most exquisite kernel of humour within. For instance, as Anna told Richard Herring on our podcast, RHLSTP With Richard Herring, if someone finds a meteorite and it's not a meteorite, it's apparently called a 'meteorong'. That's just the word all scientists use to describe the phenomenon, and no-one bats an eyelid. It takes someone like a QI elf to pick up that nugget of wisdom, however arcane, and say, "That's cool! A meteorong!?"
Likewise, as Andrew Hunter Murray once pointed out, Charles Dickens' sister was called Fanny and was taught by a man called Dr Crotch, who taught her the organ. Sometimes the jokes write themselves...!
There's a perfect symmetry and an indescribable pleasure in a hearty factoid, activating contagious joy among assembled listeners. Its lasting, repeated value can be served up again in different, varied company. We've lost count of the number of times friends and family have corrected old wives' tales or false facts with "It was on QI!", or regaled guests at a dinner party with a brilliant fact, heard on NSTAAF.
It's been quite some journey for the Fish, so we caught up with James Harkin and Anna Ptasyznski to find out more. They had just returned from a tour of the US, where during one live show they shared a fact about an annual wife carrying event in Maine each year only to discover that this year's winners were in the audience. It is this kind of real-world serendipity that makes NSTAAF such a treasured delight to many.
Anna was unhappy that the BBC had bumped an episode of QI, joking "Bloody Prince Andrew...! He's done a lot of bad things ['allegedly', adds James!], but I'm saying that's the worst! ha ha".
It seems like a very organic process for the Elves: you met researching material for QI, then added strings to your bow with the podcast, Book Of The Year... Is there a good rapport?
James: Definitely. Our default situation is going into the office or sitting at home and just reading/finding facts. So if we can find places to put those facts - QI, a podcast, a book - well, we just want a way to get them out there. Without those outlets, we'd probably still just sit in the office finding facts until the money ran out!
Anna: There's a great rapport in the office. We're getting bigger and bigger - we've got about 10 people now. On Fish we're four quite distinct and different characters, but obviously everyone's a bit of a misfit generally in real life. We're all basically nerds, we all have this connecting thread, but then we bounce off each other very easily. We're very lucky.
James: If you came to a QI meeting, you'd see it's great fun. It's just people saying, "Here's a fact! What about this? What about that?", and someone brings in a script they've written or curated. Obviously it's unscripted, but we write the questions about... let's say, the next series is 'R', so it might be about animals.
James: Raccoons, yeah! So someone might go, "Here's what I know about raccoons". And the podcast is kind of a squished-down version of that, with just four people.
So tell us about The Book Of The Year 2019. You have your own sections this time on bugbears, with James complaining about fungi...
James: Mushrooms - I hate them so much. Also about gambling, and how to make the most money in the world, if only you had a time machine...
Anna: I wrote some really exciting stuff about the Mueller Report, and British political party The Independent Group. (It changed its name so many times that it's had more names than MPs.) You can see our different interests... We all have various character traits that we had to get out of our system. Andy, for instance, is obsessed with sausages, so we said, "You have a double page spread, and all sausage-related news is going in there this year". We had such a good time, and honestly it's everything from the big stories - comedian Zelensky becoming President of Ukraine, Trump and his golf course - to the tiny stupid stuff.
James: We had a load of fun, even more than the other two. We just let loose. Silly jokes, facts in Latin... all sorts of weird stuff. There's the fact that the British government issued a death sentence to a single bee this year.
And no Brexit! You deliberately blocked it out.
James: Except for the occasional redaction. Although we had a bit of a problem with the audiobook. When I edited it, I beeped whenever Brexit was mentioned, but I missed one. I think of it as an Easter egg!
People might buy the book for Christmas, so any interesting festive facts?
James: There's a fact about the polar vortex in America, where people's microwaves were freezing, and there was a fire, and the fire department came to put it out but the water would freeze before it even got to the fire.
Anna: Also, the Festival of Snow was cancelled because there was too much snow.
James: The US town of Hell froze over.
We also loved the bit in QI where you sang Twelve Days of Christmas.
James: Yes! It's all out of copyright apart from the phrase "Five Gold Rings"! But QI is actually difficult for festive facts, because we've been doing it now for 15, 16 years and we do a Christmas special every single year, so it's really difficult to find new things about Christmas!
Returning to Fish, who would be your absolute dream guest - dead or alive?
James: We need someone with a good sense of humour who knows lots of facts, but isn't going to take over too much.
Anna: Ben Franklin. He was so interested in everything, he wanted to set up a swimming school on the River Thames. He invented a contraption where you'd be lying in bed and you could open the door from your bed. And he helped found America. He'd be fun.
James: William Hazlitt basically had way too much stuff to read, and so would read it at double-fast speed to get through it as quickly as possible. And a lot of people listen to podcasts on double speed. So if we had William Hazlitt on the podcast reading twice as fast, it would really screw over all those people!
You should deliberately release a super rapid episode.
James: We've never told anyone this before, but we actually slowed down one of the podcast episodes by about 0.03%. It's because we had a fact that the most anyone's spent underwater was 23 minutes or something, and we wanted to make the show exactly that amount. If you listen to it carefully, we sound very slightly drunk!
This might seem quite a deep and meaningful question, but we live in an age of post-truth politics, alternative facts, fake news... So do you think that there is almost a politics of the fact? Or at least of telling the truth in an interesting, engaging way?
James: I think it's always been the case. John Quincy Adams' election was full of people basically just making stuff up about each other. But these days it is different, definitely, because we're all taking in so much information. Telling what's right and what's wrong is almost impossible.
Anna: The New York Times has more information in one edition than the average person in 1900 would absorb in a lifetime. Someone sent me something today, that I don't think can be true (we have such brilliant fans, who all love interesting facts, and often send them in), but apparently if you have one chilli Dorito crisp, you're experiencing more taste sensation than the average medieval person experienced during the course of their life.
That might be our favourite fact ever.
Anna: I hope it's true. I'll let you know.
James: They are good crisps. Very flavourful.
An assault on the senses, though. No pun intended...
Anna: I enjoyed it. Sure, no Ready Salted.
James: Can you imagine giving a medieval person some tabasco? They'd just die. They couldn't take it.
What's the weirdest listener comment or complaint that you've ever received?
Anna: We did an episode in Devon and we talked about cattle insemination. It was so fascinating. Because to inseminate it you have to put the semen in through the sex tubes, in order to massage them down into the uterus. You need to put your arm into the defecation tube next to it... Anyway, at this point we were in some detail, and straight after the show someone came up to us and said, "Hey, I do this as a job, and I actually teach it, and you guys are welcome to come and practice."
James: We still haven't taken him up on that offer...
Anna: And we got this amazing selfie from this guy in America wearing headphones and with his hand inside a creature. He said, "I was listening to that episode of your podcast, and I was doing my job, which is artificially inseminating cows." So that was quite weird.
Many of your facts like that just beggar belief. We also remember you, Anna, telling one about the oldest cat ever, whose owner also had the second oldest cat. 35!?
Anna: I can't believe that's the fact that most astonished you: the cat age!
James: The fact that she had the two oldest does suggest that she's doctoring the records a little bit...
Anna: It certainly does. She was also editor of Guinness that year... ha ha [she jests].
Talking of which, didn't the editor of Guinness World Records go to one of your shows?
James: Yes - recently, in the UK! In our shows we ask audiences to bring in their best facts, which they send in by text or by tweet, and his was one of the two best. So he came on stage and we played a little game with him! I'm sure he would be a great person to have on some time.
Anna: Yeah, James loves all that Guinness record stuff - most kicks to the head in one minute: 112.
James: 127, yeah. That's the world record!
Several scientists and academics are avid listeners to No Such Thing As A Fish, and often say that 'experts' could learn a great deal from the way that you communicate knowledge to a broad audience. Is that something you set out to achieve? You just won an award...
James: Yeah, we're going to Vienna on Friday. [On November 23rd 2019 the Fish were presented with the Heinz Oberhummer Award for science communication - with a trophy, as Schreiber wrote on Twitter, constructed out of alpaca faeces.]
Anna: That's definitely what we hope people think. We get teachers writing in, and John [Lloyd] and I often talk about doing a QI school, QI lessons... because teachers write in all the time saying, "I use your podcast to teach my kids!"
We've always wanted to a do a Fact Walk, an animation where you'd start with one fact and it would connect with another - 'Interest Strings'. It's a bit like what our fact-books do - each fact links to the next. Another thing I'd love to do is a guide to London, with one door leading to another one... Our offices are actually opposite a theatre where someone was very famously murdered, an actor at the end of the 19th century. And I'd always wanted to get an app where all the interesting facts about a place would pop up.
Alongside QI and Fish, Dan Schreiber co-created The Museum Of Curiosity on BBC Radio 4, which you, James, also wrote on and produced. So there's clearly an intellectual, erudite strain to what you do... [As though to illustrate the point, James was excited for his Russian lesson later that day.] In this era people like Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton are in vogue for popularising academia - is that also an aim of yours?
Anna: I think of us as the next level. We've always had academia, and the way that's translated to normal people is often through science writers, whose work is in turn translated by journalists, who might get on telly... So I think we're the one next to Gladwell and de Botton: we probably read a Gladwell, who has in turn read a million academic journals, we'll then tell people about it. I think we're definitely part of that chain.
James: And there are people all around the world doing similar things to us. Often they'd be more just science or just history, whereas we're more general. People just like to learn things! And it's difficult to read scientific journals all the time - even the good, well-written ones are hard-going. Much easier if you have someone who can tell you basically what it means, with a joke at the end of it!
Do you have specific subject areas for study? We know Dan's into Bigfoot, and Brian Blessed...
Anna: And space!
James: Ha ha yeah, but we do try to go into fields that we're not used to. It's more interesting for me to read about literature than about maths. What I think's interesting in maths is probably a bit too esoteric for the podcast, whereas what I think is interesting in literature, although it might make these guys go "Oh, that's the most boring, obvious thing ever", there's still a big chance our listeners would respond to that.
It sometimes feels that comedians have so many jokes, puns, and quips stored up in their minds that as they walk through life, every word they read/encounter sets off a train of endless one-liners... So do you find a similar thing with facts, where everything you engage with triggers a fact - or seven!?
Anna: On some radio interviews, the DJ will just throw words out, and we say a fact about it. That's great fun, because it's exactly how our minds work most of the time! You hear the word 'book', and you're trying to engage but in your mind you're going, "Books used to be stacked with the spines facing inwards", or "It's actually better to steal a page from a rare book than a full book", and all this stuff is flooding into your mind... It's very annoying! Well, it's great, but annoying.
Can it be hard to come up with facts on demand? Do you need a route in, or a particular field of understanding? Otherwise it could be universal, too wide in scope...
James: Just looking at a book you'll have 5 or 6 different facts, and so often in interviews we get asked, "What's your favourite fact?"
Anna: That's the worst.
James: Walking here I was thinking, "If that gets asked, what am I gonna say?"
Anna: Every time. As soon as they direct it, like "What's a good fact about this? Or what did you learn today?", then we know. But one favourite fact? There's just too much. It's like asking what's your favourite child.
James: If you have like 10 million children... It'd be really hard to tell!
That's a very deep connection, comparing facts to children!
Anna: Well I don't have any children, so I need something to fill that gaping void in my soul... facts...
In a sense it's a strange present-day phenomenon that, in an age of 4K - even 8K - televisions and superbly lifelike videogames with unbelievable graphics, people are spending hours upon hours listening to mp3 files. So what interests you about the podcast as an artform?
James: Easier to listen on your commute, doing the dishes... People say we're part of their routine. "I always listen to you on a Friday when I have a bath, on a Sunday when I walk the dog." It's on-the-go.
Anna: People always want to be productive nowadays, doing three things at once, never wasting a minute. People listen in the car. And also, you curate your own stuff now, don't you? I love being able to choose exactly what to listen to, rather than flicking on the radio. Although I envy my mum, who will still be like, "Oh, you must watch so-and-so!! Now, let me tell you when it's on. I've got the culture section here somewhere..."
I'm like, "Mum, it's on iPlayer."
"It's at 7.30pm on Sunday!"
James: With a podcast you have to download it, get your phone, put the headphones in, press play. It's active. It's not like having the TV on and Coronation Street is on because Emmerdale finished and the next show started. Everyone who listens is really engaged, and advertisers start to notice that as well. Most people who are listening are doing so because they want to, not just because it's on in the corner.
Malcolm Gladwell once said that he loves podcasts because they're relatively new, so there are very few rulebooks saying what you must and must not do.
James: Right. If you write a BBC Two panel show, you have to fit it into their rules. 27 minutes, a certain look... It has to pass all these tests so that people won't get epilepsy. But we can do what we want!
Anna: We can give people epilepsy left right and centre, and no-one can tell us not to!
We remember you saying, Anna, that you loved the Harry & Paul panel-show parody, and what that sketch pinpoints so effectively is the danger of a certain in-joke chumminess that one does sometimes see in panel-shows. But No Such Thing As A Fish feels fresh. Obviously, the news changes week on week, but you blend the cutting-edge with the traditional, the historical...
James: From the start we made a conscious effort not to make too much of ourselves. Anna and I both love Chris Moyles, one of the reasons you love his show is that you'd know who all of the team was. If Dom goes and does this, I know why he's done it, because I know his character, and they talk about their lives. Our purpose was always the facts, and we're secondary to that.
Anna: Yeah, we really wanted to escape the cliquiness at first, didn't we? We wanted people to come in at any time and still be interested!
Do you think you can almost know too much about a subject?
Anna: You can go in too deep, and you've slightly lost people along the way. That's why it's so important to have someone like Steven Hawking: probably one of the very few people operating in a very extreme level of scientific knowledge who is able to communicate that to a wide range of people. Personally I love reading about every single subject, whereas I guess if I didn't do this job, I would only read about history and literature and politics. But it's an incredible gift to know that you know lots about everything, and it gives you a weird understanding about the world. I recommend everyone do it!
Lastly, we asked James about his appearance alongside Andrew Hunter Murray on comedy gameshow Only Connect, where they reached the semi-finals. He claimed they were 'lucky because we're not the greatest quizzers in the world', but that Only Connect was a good programme to be on, because it's "more weird-fact-y and more about connections, and that's what QI prides itself on: connections". That right there is the key to Fish, both in book and podcast form. Week on week, with playful intellect, they forge links from fact to stat, value to detail - and, above all, person to person.