Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, the kind and non-judgmental hosts of Pointless. Photo: Getty Images
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At once fascinating, horrifying and mildly arousing, ignorance porn is everywhere (and I love it)

Shows like Pointless satisfy a new itch - to gawp at those who don't know obvious things, like what toast is. It's hardcore ignorance porn at its best.

“Stupidity is a talent for misconception,” said Edgar Allan Poe, ages ago.

While shaping the history of gothic literature, marrying his 13-year-old cousin, contracting various antiquated diseases and fixating, verbosely, on decomposing flesh, Edgar Allan “Fun Times” Poe took a moment to recognise stupidity as a talent.

Fast forward nearly 200 years, cross the Atlantic to the UK, and a couple of monumentally-talented quiz show contestants have never heard of the guy.

I watch BBC One’s Pointless religiously. Working from (your parents’) home has its perks. Being able to drop everything, every weekday evening at 5.15, yell, “Pointless!” at my mum and have her “warm up” the TV in preparation for our 45 minutes of pure, tea-fuelled viewing bliss, is probably the perkiest perk.

Pointless, for those who are missing out horribly, is a programme where some people who – well – probably shouldn’t be competing on a quiz show, and a few slightly cleverer people, battle it out to see who has the most obscure knowledge. While the smarty pantses usually win, the entertainment is provided almost entirely by the people who think linoleum is a vegetable, lemons are bats and Ross Kemp is the capital of France. Or, as was the case in a recent show, have never heard of Edgar Allan Poe.

Now, I don’t want to sound all “I have an English literature degree, I eat artichokes and know who the fuck Edgar Allan Poe is”. But, for a poet, this guy is remarkably visible in popular culture. He’s heavily referenced in more than one Simpsons episode. His sad, moustachioed face is practically a logo. If the name isn’t ringing any bells, I challenge you to Google image it and not recognise that face. You’ve probably at least seen it on a T-shirt worn by a gothy teenager who thinks that he knows some unfathomably dark truth because he smokes Djarum Black cigarettes and has Nosferatu on DVD.

But back to Pointless. When a contestant comes up with a particularly silly answer to a question I practically start salivating. Meanwhile, presenters Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman (who seems like the nicest man on earth) are ostensibly non-judgemental. True professionalism, it seems, is keeping a straight face when someone has just come up with Simon Cowell when asked to name someone on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people (this actually happened).

“Dude, no way does she think that! Jesus fucking Christ, what is wrong with people?” I’ll say, so excited by this horrible situation that I’ve started calling my mum “dude”. There’s no way around it: delving into the great, echoey gaps in other people’s knowledge makes for weirdly compelling TV. This is ignorance porn. It’s the phenomenon of someone saying something so stupid that it kind of makes you want to tug on your balls. This is unfortunate for me, seeing as I have very few testicles. Nevertheless, it’s a combination of fascination, horror and, for some reason, mild arousal.

When I was very little, I cut my finger. Having never seen blood before, I was so panicked that I kept a plaster on it for what seemed like months. When I finally psyched myself up into taking the plaster off, the tip of my finger had turned green and smelled like vinegar. I stared at that finger for a long, long time. It was so horrendous, so unashamedly repulsive that it was almost handsome. Like an inside-out Ryan Gosling, with his guts flailing all over the place. I enjoy other people’s ignorance in the same way that I enjoyed that unholy green finger.  

And I know it’s not just me. Ignorance porn is absolutely everywhere. Last month, for example, Tamara Ecclestone (a socialite of some description) revealed that she doesn’t know what toast is. By some miracle, this woman has thrived for thirty years in this unforgiving world, without that little nugget of knowledge. What ensued was an internet-wide extravaganza of people tugging on their balls. “She doesn’t. Know. What. Toast. Is. Holy shitbiscuits this is nuts,” said the internet, while enjoying itself thoroughly.

Similarly, earlier this year, when some poor 20-year-old from Blackpool tweeted about the UK’s “President Barraco Barner”, she became an unwitting ignorance porn star. The Only Way Is Essex's Joey Essex, on the other hand, is a true veteran of ignorance porn. The entire premise of the TOWIE spinoff, Educating Joey Essex, was “Joey Essex is not a particularly bright guy”.

Ignorance porn even has its very own Redtube in BuzzFeed, which seems to thrive on listing people who have been publicly thick. I can only speculate that our morbid obsession with other people’s stupidity comes from collective low self-esteem. Want to feel intelligent? Peruse a BuzzFeed listicle of cretins. What’s actually happening here is bullying on a humungous scale. It’s like everyone who was teased at school for being bookish is exacting revenge against The Idiotic.

Admittedly, there are almost definitely gaps in my knowledge that could form someone else’s ignorance porn. I have close to no knowledge of physics, and if I was tasked with killing, eviscerating and cooking a cow, I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, judging other people’s ignorance has made me utterly fixated on my own. I recently read the entire Wikipedia entry for microwaves, because I realised I had absolutely no idea how one works. And when it comes to ignorance porn, I’m a sports fan’s wet dream. Honest to God, The only cricketer I can name off the top of my head is the retired Ian Botham – and that’s only because he starred in that recent Twitter dick pic debacle. For all I know, those people who had never heard of Edgar Allan Poe could’ve been experts in cricket, microwaves and animal slaughter.

As ignorance porn has proven, stupidity is this great, palpable, throbbing thing. It almost seems a shame that we can’t harness its power as a source of clean energy. Imagine it: something resembling a wind turbine powered by people asking what the capital of Africa is.

Until that breakthrough, I’m going to try and cut down on my unhealthy ignorance porn habit. And maybe try out a butchery course.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt