From 2004 – 2009, The Einstein Factor was a Sunday night fixture on Australia’s ABC TV. Over 6 series – and 244 episodes – this weekly half hour quiz pitted specialist trivia buffs against each other, and a specially selected ‘Brains Trust’, comprising academics, writers, comedians and scientists. There were no big prizes; the contestants played for glory, and the chance to show off their astounding knowledge, in subjects that ranged from “The 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis” to “Bjork”. The show was hosted by one of Australia’s favourite comedians, Peter Berner, and I was delighted when he agreed to this interview with me.
SH: Of all the Special Subjects on the show over the years, which was your favourite?
PB: There were so many. So, so many. Who knew there were that many subjects out there to choose from? Did you know the King of Thailand’s name* is spelled NOTHING like it sounds? Try saying it over and over again in 90 seconds. But to answer your question… the bloke whose special subject was The Insane Clown Posse stands out. The question writers would have had to listen to their albums and read the fanzines to learn everything about ICP in order to be able to write the questions to begin with, and then watching Barry Jones** develop a profound interest in the Posse was wonderful.
SH: Were there any things that the winning contestants all tended to do?
PB: Get the answers right. They were not all – as I imagine people expected – nerds who very rarely left the house. They were, by and large, functioning humans. Many having better social skills than the host. After all, they were all passionate about a subject. I’m kind of jealous of that.
SH: And the losers; were there any traits or habits that they all had in common?
PB: Attacking the host with broken pieces of furniture didn’t endear them. Because EF was a show that was a combination of ‘special subject ‘ and ‘general knowledge’, it was more often that lack of broader knowledge that let them down. But chances are, if your special subject is ‘Molluscs’, then there isn’t going to be a lot you don’t know.
SH: Was there one contestant in particular who sticks in your mind? If so, what did they do that made them so memorable?
PB: The winner of the third series – Virginia Noel – was a doctor in the prison system who, after winning, got a tattoo of the EF light globe logo on the back of her neck. Which I thought was weird, cool, unsettling. Not sure if she got it done at work, by “Knuckles” in Cell Block 4…
SH: As a quiz show host, what tips would you give to aspiring quiz show contestants?
PB: Know stuff. I cannot stress that enough. There is no point going on a quiz show if you are, as we say in the biz… thick.
Relax on set. I know that’s easier said than done and the camera and lights and stress can sometimes result in everything you have ever learned just f***ing off. Practice at home. With someone holding a knife to your throat. That’ll help you handle the stress later on.
SH: What was your favourite part of the show?
PB: Free suits.
SH: What did the show’s fans particularly like about it?
PB: It had a sense of joy about it. The show was launched at a time when there was a vein of meanness running through quiz shows, and we deliberately set out to create an environment which celebrated the odd and the obscure. It helped that we had no life-changing amounts of money as a prize. In fact, we had nothing on offer except a Perspex award and the thrill of winning.
SH: Why are there no shows like this on air now?
PB: Good question. I suspect it’s not grand enough. Not shiny. It was a gentle show with a warm good humour which – as someone once said to me – was a lovely way to end the week after watching forensic crime shows and the news.
SH: Barry Jones is Australian quiz show royalty; what’s your impression of him?
PB: When Barry dies, God forbid, Australia’s IQ will drop into double digits. What struck me about Barry was that while we all are in awe of him, he’s not in awe of himself. He loves knowledge but not just as a party trick… but because of what it teaches. I was really privileged to meet him and get to know him.
SH: What game shows do you like?
PB: I used to love Catchphrase. But I’m a big fan of Baby John***; the Robert Goulet of TV game shows.
SH: Do you have any ideas for game show formats?
PB: Yes. In fact I am pitching one around town at the moment. So…wanna buy a quiz show?
SH: Intriguing, let’s talk later…
I’d like to thank Peter Berner very much for his time, and providing his unique perspective on this great show, which is sadly no longer with us. Thanks again Pete, and remember what Pete says, folks; if you’re considering going on a quiz show….. Know stuff!
* Bhumibol Adulyadej
**For those outside Australia, Barry Jones is one of Australia’s greatest intellectuals, authors and politicians. He first came to the public eye as a quiz show champion, repeatedly winning ‘Bob Dyer’s Pick A Box‘ in the 1960s. He was a regular guest on ‘The Einstein Factor’, as a member of the show’s ‘Brain Trust’.
*** John Burgess, the host of ‘Catchphrase’.