Honi Soit this week hunts down an Aussie expat that has worked with Jimmy Carr, on QI, has recorded with Paul McCartney and was once invited to meet the Queen. Reporter Cameron Smith took up the task of finding out just what the hell is in this man’s coffee.
If I asked you to describe a QI Elf, I’m guessing the words least likely to jump to mind are ‘young’ and ‘Australian’. Further still the words ‘sociable’, ‘at’ and ‘Newport Arms Hotel’ are probably pretty far off the radar as well. And so it was with great surprise that I found myself sitting at the Newport Arms Hotel over the break, beer in hand, chatting with the very young and very sociable QI Elf Dan Schrieber about his quite extraordinary life.
Despite being listed on Wikipedia as one of Australia’s most noteworthy expats, Dan is surprisingly unheard of in this country, most likely owing to his somewhat unusual upbringing. Born in Hong Kong to a British mother and an Australian father, Dan was just one of many who up and left the state on its handover to China. Finding a new home on Sydney’s North Shore, it was here that Dan began to develop a love of comedy, after accidentally stumbling on a collection of old comedy books in a local shop. Chasing this newfound passion, Dan decided to give the HSC a miss at 17, and instead developed a stand-up routine as his graduating project. “I knew I wanted to do comedy,” he says. “I wrote a one hour show. Having never seen a stand-up show, I figured that’s what you do! But it all went well enough.”
At 18, looking to the UK as a possible springboard into a comedy career, Dan lucked a flight to England when visiting his grandparents. But it was while staying with a relative outside Oxford that his stars truly aligned, as Dan crossed paths with one of the biggest names in British comedy. “It was the most amazing thing!” he recollects. “My Aunty came home from work one day and mentioned she’d met one of the producers of Blackadder, John Lloyd. She’d told him I wanted to get into comedy, and he gave her his number for me. Then she went white, and said ‘Oh no! It was on that piece of paper I threw in the bin!’”
“Fortunately,” Dan says, “the cleaners were incompetent”, and he was able to recover Lloyd’s number. The two met up for a drink, and quickly discovered they shared a lot in common. At just 19, Dan was offered a job by Lloyd as a book collector for his new TV project, QI.
It was a natural fit for Dan with his love of books, and his keen interest in the work soon landed him a research role on the show. “As a result of buying these books I’d get really interested and start reading them,” he says. “I was invited to one of the meetings and I just started spouting out some of the stuff I’d read. John just went, ‘Fine, be a researcher then’.”
Dan spent the next four years working for QI, watching the show transform into one of the most successful programs on British television. After the fifth season he decided to try something new. Bouncing around jobs, from working on a book with Jimmy Carr to developing show ideas for the BBC, Dan eventually found himself at Warner heading up an online start-up called ComedyBox. Describing the venture, Dan explains, “The whole idea of ComedyBox was to fund people who wouldn’t be given money by TV stations, to make comedy sketches.”
During his tenure, Dan produced a series of sketches with comedian Rhys Darby, better known as Murray from Flight of the Conchords. Dan recalls, “I’d heard the radio series of Conchords and I could just tell he’s the best comic. I got onto the phone to him, but he told me ‘Mate, I’ve got no time!’, he was flying out of Britain in two days to do Yes Man with Jim Carrey. I was desperate, so I said ‘Just give me a day, we’ll go to a house, bring some ideas. We’ll film some,’ and he agreed!”
While heading up ComedyBox, Dan also began devising a new radio program alongside John Lloyd and Richard Turner, called The Museum of Curiosity, a show themed around bringing to light everyday interesting people. Dan says the idea struck him as a result of his work on QI. “During the research I started going to a bunch of lectures, just to take notes. At one of the lectures, I saw Alastair Fothergill, the director of Planet Earth, and he was hilarious. I had the thought, maybe you could do a panel show where these academics are as funny as the comedians?”
The idea was put to the BBC, who accepted it with some trepidation. “It was such a weird format to pitch. Effectively it’s a comedy panel show, and they’d say ‘Great! What comedians have you got?’ We’d say, ‘Oh just interesting people.’ They’d say, ‘Okay, but you’ve got teams right?’ ‘No teams.’ ‘Points?’ ‘No points.’ Any kind of format they understood, we didn’t have it.”
Despite its unconventional format, the program has been widely successful. With hosts such as Bill Bailey and Sean Lock, and guests including Terry Pratchett and Buzz Aldrin, the most recent season has been drawing around two million listeners per episode. But despite its list of big name guests, it’s the small and unheard-of experts Dan believes are the real drawcard. “The consistent thing people say is they’re not interested in the celebrities, they’re interested in tuning in and going, ‘I’m about to be introduced to someone I’ve never heard of, but whose books I’m going to buy now,’ and that’s what I love about it.”
Coming full circle, Dan is now rediscovering his roots, hoping to return to Australia with a new standup act. Despite his success as a producer, he isn’t shying away from jumping back into the circuit. “Everything I’ve done has just been following my interests. I left QI because I was interested in doing something else. When an agent said, ‘I want you on TV’, I went ‘Sure! Why not?’ When he said ‘I want you to do standup’ I went, ‘You know what? I do want to do standup again!’ If I mess up my producing career, I’ll just move onto the next thing. I recon that’s the best thing to do.”
You can find Dan’s radio show The Museum of Curiosity on the iTunes store, and keep an eye out for his return to standup hitting stages around Australia in the not to distant future.