The secret of good comedy writing

Behind Mitchell and Webb are one of the hottest duos in comedy scriptwriting. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong reveal the secret of their success to Liz Thomas
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The Independent Online

n an industry strewn with bumper egos and bust-ups, back-stabbing and creative differences, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, together with David Mitchell and Robert Webb, have mastered the intricacies of a functional creative relationship, and come up with what seems like a winning formula. Mitchell, with his side-parting and middle-aged tendencies, and Webb, the blond with slight goblin-like features, are the front men. They are the public face of Channel 4's Peep Show and BBC2's That Mitchell and Webb Look.

But behind that exterior are Bain and Armstrong, the creators and writers of Peep Show, whose CV includes Smack the Pony, Big Breakfast and The Thick of It. "We know their [Mitchell and Webb] voices and sensibility and it works very well," says Bain. "I think it makes sense for us to work for a double act because it balances things. We are lucky, because they're bloody good and very funny. But we try and make sure they don't know that in case they realise they don't need us anymore."

Armstrong interjects at this point to suggest it is a bit like being in a relationship. "Whenever we're creating a new show, we do always think of them. Would they be hurt if we suddenly took up with another partnership? I hope so." The quartet worked together on That Mitchell and Webb Look, the TV version of the Radio 4 show, which has performed solidly in the ratings and won critical acclaim, with sketches such as Numberwang and characters like Sir Digby Chicken Caesar and The Snooker Commentators, easing into the viewers' consciousness.

Bain and Armstrong, both in their early 30s, are well-placed to dominate comedy writing in the noughties, as Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran did in the 1980s and early 1990s with their hits such as Shine on Harvey Moon, Birds of a Feather and The New Statesman.

Bain says his advice to new writers is to hook up with bright young acting talent and ride on their coat tails. "That was the secret for Peep Show." The pair are now on to the fourth run of the series, which has been much-lauded by the critics and famously hailed by Ricky Gervais as the "funniest thing on television". However, this esteem has so far failed to translate into ratings success.

"It's a weird programme," muses co-creator Sam Bain. "It's very dark, and quite weird looking, and then there's all the shaky camera business. People enjoy it because perhaps it's a relief for them to realise they are not the only sad idiot with a failed life, who has stupid, dark, politically incorrect thoughts. But perhaps there's a limit to the amount of people that get that."

For those unfamiliar with the premise, Peep Show follows the lives of dysfunctional flatmates Mark and Jeremy, but is shot from their point of view and edited so the viewer hears their thoughts, as well as the dialogue between them. Armstrong explains: "It's becoming more like a soap opera. We're now exploring Mark's engagement to Sophie and there is a chance Jeremy's American wife Nancy will come back as well." Bain laughs, adding: "That makes it sound like Friends, where we're just tying up the loose ends."

Is that a hint that it might be curtains for the hapless flatmates? It is after all the vogue in television comedy right now to stop before you are stopped. "We always say we'll carry on writing it as long as David and Robert want to carry on doing it and as long as Channel 4 carry on putting it on television," says Bain. "Actually, we try and write it so that if they do decide they don't want it," Armstrong steps in quickly, then feigning loftiness he adds "we can turn around and say 'well we were never planning to do more. We were always going to stop at four.'"

The pair say that they are not expecting audience figures - usually around 1.5m - to go much higher, noting that more mainstream programmes like Extras and The Catherine Tate Show average only 3.5m. Armstrong says: "There is that whole cult thing where it is better not to get big numbers. It's almost like a snobbery, where there's more kudos to be the underdog."

The duo, who rank at number five in trade magazine Broadcast's top 100 writers, did once dip their toes in the treacherous prime-time waters, penning a sitcom script for the golden boys of entertainment Ant and Dec. "That's pretty much all over now," Bain says. "They read it and decided they didn't want to do it."

There is a short pause before Armstrong, half-concerned, half-laughing, says: "I don't think it was our script that made them think comedy wasn't for them. I think they realised that it perhaps wasn't right for them to do a sitcom. "Which is fair enough, most people love them, but most people don't take to new sitcoms - it's probably best to stay away."

Like so many creative partnerships, they first met at Manchester University. Bain tells me it was on a sweaty, shirtless night raving at The Hacienda, while The Golden Girls was being broadcast in the background. The truth is that they met on a creative writing course, and knocked about for a bit before heading off in separate directions. Armstrong went into politics for Labour MP Doug Henderson during the party's upward march into power before the 1997 election. Bain, whose grandmother was one of the resident ladies at Fawlty Towers and whose mother played Beatty in Terry and June, meanwhile penned his novel Yours Truly, Pierre Stone.

"Mutual desperation" is what they say brought them back together, writing sitcoms and working on children's shows including The Queen's Nose and My Parents Are Aliens. "We didn't take the normal route of Radio 4 and then a sitcom first. We were lucky we worked a lot on kids' television, and it was a great training ground because you are under the radar."

Now Armstrong is working on the BBC's award-winning The Thick of It but won't be drawn on the show's future, given its star Chris Langham's impending court case on child pornography charges. The pair are also involved in another Channel 4 project,Modern Men, following a group of 20-something friends set in Victorian times. Coming up is The Magicians, a film re-uniting the pair with Peep Show producer Andrew O'Connor. It features comedy favourites Peter Capaldi and Jessica Stevenson.

Bain says that, while of course they pursue their own projects, it is unlikely this neat little team will break up any time soon. Armstrong sighs: "There is a group mentality that's really working - so why would we shake it up?"

'Peep Show 3' is out today on DVD; the new series starts on Channel 4 on Friday 11 November