I meet David Mitchell and Rob Webb at a hotel in Cambridge. They're currently on tour and performed here the night before. Rob, the nervier, fairer one, looks quite scared. Indeed, when I first catch his eye in the lobby he doesn't flinch, as such, but he does shrink back into his big black anoraky thing with its big black hood. Actually, maybe that is a flinch. Certainly, everything about him seems to say: "Clear off, you nosy old witch, clear off." David, the darker, fleshier one, is grumpy. He's come down from his room with wet hair, having just washed it, and he grumbles about having to have his photograph taken before it is dry. I try to reassure him. "Don't worry, David," I say. "People will just assume it's really, really greasy." He goes off in search of a hairdryer. Rob goes out for a smoke. I am abandoned forthwith. This is not good. They are meant to love me as I love them, and I do love them. In fact, everyone in our house loves them. We certainly love Peep Show, that wonderfully inventive comedy series featuring those two brilliantly dysfunctional characters: Jeremy (Rob), who is lazy and useless yet has grandiose ideas about himself, and Mark (David), who is sad and world- weary and so socially inept he's fully traumatised when Sophie - the girl he fancies - sits on his hand on the bus. It's great. I love it, my son loves it, even my partner loves it and he doesn't usually laugh at much unless, say, I happen to trip up in the street, which always totally kills him. Come on, guys, I'm thinking, it really isn't nice when love goes unrequited. It hurts.
When they return, as they eventually do, I tell them how much I love Peep Show (which they don't write, by the way), as well as how much I'd enjoyed their live sketch show (which they do) the previous night. They don't appear won over. I then ask, apropos of nothing except a wish to endear myself, if they'd noticed the plaque in the hotel lift saying it had been installed by Waygood Otis in 1927. Waygood. How cool a name is that? "Is that why you see 'Otis' in lifts?" asks Rob. "Yes," says David, "and the other big lift people are the Shindlers." "Aha," I say. "Shindler's lift!" Now, that's funny. That may even be the funniest joke of my career - and there have been a few - and I'm not even meant to be the comedian here. They don't laugh, though. Guys, come on! I start to grumble, now. I also stayed at the hotel and tell them that, in order to meet them on time this morning, I had to leave my room mid-way through Kirstie Alley having her kitchen overhauled on Oprah. I didn't get to see the finished result. Guys, I say, I didn't even get to see the tiles she eventually chose. Now this, they get. Happily, they love rubbish TV almost as much as I do.
David says he much prefers telly to books. "A book will always be there but with television, it's going away. If I don't watch now to see whether this couple go for house number one or house number three I will never know, whereas I can read War and Peace anytime." Oh, don't read the War bits, I say. They're so boring. "Just read Peace?" queries Rob. Indeed, I say. Rob loves the daytime ads for consolidating your debts. "Why be screwed by a hundred tiny cocks? Join us and get screwed by one big cock!" We are absolutely united in our hatred for that Gillian McWhatsit woman, the one who goes on as if giving your kids a packet of crisps is akin to injecting a deadly poison directly into their veins. "The poo inspector?" says Rob. "What does she think her own turds smell of?" Potpourri? I suggest. We are quite keen on Dragons' Den.
David: "The thing is, I love to watch it but really hate it in some ways. I hate the fact that the panel are briefed to be nasty ..."
Rob: " ... that Peter Jones guy. He's got that Anne Robinson, 'I'm going to be rude to people' thing ..."
David: " ... and they can't really act. You can hear the producer saying to them beforehand, 'Yeah, it's great when you are nasty, we love that ...'" I think we're off now.
I don't think there was ever a real problem as such, although David might have something of a hangover. They went to the pub after the show last night "and then I had a crappy van burger, and you have to be drunk to want a crappy van burger, don't you?" As for Rob, I think he is actually quite shy in person, as many performers are. It's a cliché, I know, but there is often some truth to clichés. (I once watched a pot for several weeks and it still didn't boil.) He later admits he bought his big black anorak thingie "as a sort of comfort blanket. It has got this massive hood, which I do use in a celebrity kind of way." To avoid being recognised? Is it so disquieting? "Actually," says David, "it's basically quite nice. It's also disquieting but it's a nice sort of disquieting." David approves of Rob's big hood. It's better than big sunglasses. "Putting your hood up doesn't make you look like a wanker," he says. But you might get hugged by David Cameron, I say. Rob says he's not sure he would like that. "You kind of suspect all MPs have got BO, the way they sit together on those benches."
We order coffee. Rob lights up. Do you smoke, David? "Not really," he says. "Oh, God," I say. "You're not one of those people who can take it or leave it, otherwise known as a crap smoker, are you?" "He is," says Rob. "I even know how to get away with smoking on planes," I say. "You used to be able to smoke on planes," says David, wistfully. "And buses and trains," says Rob. "It must have been great," says David, "before anyone knew it was bad for you. When people thought: 'I cough a lot. I wonder why?'" We all laugh. They're relaxed now, plus David's hair is nicely dry. I think we might be in for a good time, which we are.
They are certainly smart. They both, in fact, studied here, at Cambridge University. David studied History. Rob studied English. Do they remember their first day? "I remember," says David, "being dropped off by my parents with a car full of toasters and kettles and feeling ... there is always something heartbreaking about the thing that your parents have done for you, whether it's a packed lunch or the way your pencil case has been sorted out on the first day at school - and for university you have this room full of stuff that has been lovingly bought or prepared for you. All ridiculous things you were never going to use, like a saucepan." Rob says: "A saucepan! Ridiculous!" Rob remembers being dropped off by his dad at his college and "immediately a quite attractive second-year student knocked on the window and said: 'Hello. Hello, nice person. We're all mad at Robinson. I bet you're mad, too.' She turned out to be a Christian and she was snaring me ..."
David: "... oh no, the Christians!"
Rob: "... they get in there as soon as your bag hits the ground. They nab you for a tea party and it isn't until you're halfway though, when someone says, 'let us pray ...' that you realise ...
David: "... they don't mean any harm. In fact, they mean to save your soul. The one thing you have in your head when you arrive is that you have got to try and make friends. It's the first time you've had to make friends for years, so obviously you jump at anyone who says, 'We're all meeting in my room for tea.' I spent a few days thinking maybe just everyone is still Christian in Britain."
Did you ever use your saucepans, boys? Can you cook? Rob? "I haven't really expanded beyond studenty rice and stuff, noodles and stuff or pasta and stuff, and it usually involves a tin of chopped tomatoes, some onions and A Meat."
David? "I once made a lasagne but it was so stressful I never repeated it. I'm quite good at bread and butter pudding but that doesn't really make up a balanced diet. Sandwiches. I take a lot of care with sandwiches. Sausages. I'm good at sausages." Isn't it about time, I say, that someone redesigned the sausage? Why not make it cuboid, or square - the squasage? - so you don't have to chase it round the pan trying to get the raw side cooked? David has a better idea. How about a grill pan with wide, sausage-sized grooves. That should do it. Shall we, I suggest, go on Dragons' Den? David thinks we should although, that said, it's always the boring things that get funded. "It's never the knife that's also a kettle and egg timer," he says. "It's never the Professor Branestawm things." David, are you in or out? "I'm in, I'm in!"
Rob, who grew up in rural Lincolnshire, says he wanted to be a performer from the age of 14. "It occurred to me when I was watching that fine sitcom, Home Sweet Home, starring a young Martin Clunes and various other respected comedy actors. They were having a laugh and I thought: I could get paid for this ..."
David: " ... and seeing Home Sweet Home, it didn't look that difficult ..."
Rob" ... it didn't look at all difficult, and I thought: this could be my job."
Did you know you could be funny, Rob? "Yeah. When you're at school and there is the funny one? I was him. But I didn't start doing it on stage until I was 14 ... "
Me: "A late starter, then ... "
Rob: " ... I wrote searing parodies of Blue Peter and The A-Team and charged everyone in the audience 20p, which I pretended was going to charity."
David: "When I was at school I either wanted to be a comedian-stroke-actor or Prime Minister. But I didn't admit that to other people, I said I wanted to be a barrister and that made my parents very happy. I didn't admit I wanted to be a comedian until I came to university, met a lot of other people who wanted to be comedians, and realised it was an OK thing to say."
Rob:"It's good when you can drop the cover story."
Me: "What was your cover story?"
Me: "Why did you go off the idea of being PM?"
David: "The turning point against politics for me was turning up at the Union Society and finding it to be a moldering institution full of arseholes, whereas Footlights was full of nice people who seemed fun."
Me: "Which political party would you have aligned yourself to?"
David: "Whichever one would have got me into power. I sort of realise now that I didn't really want to be PM. It sounds like a headache. But I'd love to be a former PM. Tony Blair has got so much fun ahead of him. When he's not PM anymore people will gradually forget about his fuck-ups and he can sort of roll his eyebrows when future leaders do things he wouldn't do and generally dine out."
Me: "But then Edwina Currie will crawl out the woodwork and say she's slept with him."
David: "The great thing about that for f John Major is that it added massively to his cachet. It might even have started it."
Rob: "Imagine sleeping with Edwina Currie adding or starting your cachet, when you have been Prime Minister ..."
David, who grew up in Oxford, first performed at prep school. "I used to be in school plays largely because you got to play cards backstage. These plays would have everyone in, so most people were on for a minute and then you'd go back to playing cards. Then, in one play, I suddenly got a part that was quite big. It was Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh and that is the first time I was consciously aware I was doing a performance, that I was deliberately saying the lines in a certain way, and the audience was laughing. It was better, even, than playing cards."
Rob: "I'm imagining you in a full-body rabbit costume. Did you have big ears?"
David, proudly: "Big ears and an adorable little white tail."
They met during a Cambridge Footlights production of Cinderella in 1993. Rob is now 34, and David's a year younger; they instantly forged both a friendship and partnership. The following year they took a two-man show to Edinburgh. After graduating, there was a sketch show on Play UK (whatever that was) followed by a Radio 4 sketch series that recently transferred to TV. Sorry to whiz through all that stuff, but I so want to get to Peep Show, written for them by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain. How did it come about? "We met Jesse and Sam during a doomed attempt to write a team-written sitcom for the BBC," says Rob. Meeting people, I say, is so important. If we hadn't met, David, we wouldn't have come up with the Squasage Pan. "Exactly," says David, "that is the way of the world." Anyway, Jesse and Sam had an old script they wanted to revive, asked David and Rob to help, and eventually it evolved into Peep Show with its, as Rob puts it, "internal monologue thing". I say I love the episode where they all go to the Quantocks. David says that wasn't fun to shoot. "I had the shingles."
Everything seems to be on the up for them. Their tour is doing well. They'll be making a fourth series of Peep Show next year. Their sketch show - That Mitchell and Webb Look - has been recommissioned. They've finished making a film, Magicians, also written for them by Jesse and Sam. Rob appeared in the Brit-flick Confetti. David has done a film with Michelle Pfeiffer. Wow! Really? "Well, doing a film is one way of putting it. I am very slightly in a film with Michelle Pfeiffer. She is much less slightly in it." Did you laugh her into bed? "Um ... no. I didn't. It's a romantic comedy in which I play a British writer called David Mitchell so it wasn't exactly a stretch." Nice Winnebago? "No. She had two!"
So, are you raking it in now, boys? "We're doing all right," says David. Are you spending? Rob says he's getting married at Christmas "in a slightly more extravagant way than I otherwise might have done." David says: "I have it in mind that if I have another couple of good years, I'll move. I'll buy a small house rather than the small flat I've got [in Kilburn, near Rob]. I'd like to be able to play table tennis where I live. That's as far as my imagination stretches; that's my dream."
Rob: "I'd like to have a house big enough to put up all those newspaper wall charts."
David: "I love table tennis but I only get to play on holiday. I used to have a table at my parents' house that we just put over the dining room table. I used to play that endlessly. It struck me a year ago that I could aspire to once again live in a place where I could have a table."
Rob: "He's very good."
Me: "I'm quite good at table tennis, but get bored so lose on purpose."
"I don't!" yelps David, shocked.
Anyway, they have to go now. Their tour bus has drawn up outside. We part affectionately. I get a hug from each and Rob doesn't even flinch. I hope they love me, if only a little bit. If nothing else, I feel the future of the Squasage Pan might depend on it.
Mitchell and Webb are currently touring the UK; their show culminates at Brixton Academy, London SW9, 12-14 December. For full details, visit www.mitchellandwebblive.com. The DVD of their live show is released on 27 NovemberReuse content