Robert Webb and David Mitchell: The Peep Show duo's new pain game
The Peep Show duo are bringing their brand of cruel - but hilarious - comedy to BBC2. James Rampton meets the new sketch-show sadists
Wednesday 13 September 2006
"What difference has Peep Show made to our profile?" asks Robert Webb. "It's given us one," chips in his double-act partner, David Mitchell. "Yes," Webb agrees. "We're officially, 'those blokes off Peep Show'. And now we get paid. Usually."
The pair may very soon be known as rather more than "those blokes off Peep Show", the Channel 4 cult comedy about a pair of flat-sharing losers. In what may prove to be a breakthrough autumn, they are starring in their first BBC2 vehicle, a sketch show entitled That Mitchell and Webb Look, and embarking on their first tour.
The Radio Times is already talking them up as "the new kings of comedy". This year, Peep Show won Best TV Comedy at the South Bank Show Awards. And Ricky Gervais recently enthused that "the last thing I got genuinely excited about on British TV was Peep Show, which I thought was the best sitcom since Father Ted".
So just who are this dynamic duo, who met more than a decade ago in the Cambridge Footlights? Mitchell and Webb, who are both 33 and hail from Oxford and Lincolnshire respectively, might be broadly characterised as "young fogey meets young dude". Dressed in a crisply ironed blue shirt, white chinos, polished black shoes and a bank-manager's haircut, Mitchell exudes a tweedy air. Webb affects a more bedraggled image: stubble, unkempt hair, messy T-shirt, tattered jeans and trainers.
They may be dissonant in appearance, but they are absolutely in tune comedically. "Any double act have to be really good friends," asserts Webb, who has asked Mitchell to be best man at his wedding in December. "You need a strong connection. You can't write with someone when you hate their guts. We never fall out." The most important thing, Webb says, is that "we've always found the same things funny and feel that as a double act we're greater than the sum of our parts."
Their comic harmony is reflected in the BBC2 sketch-show (a spin-off from their Radio 4 show, That Mitchell and Webb Sound). Their material deftly marries highbrow nuance with outright silliness. In one memorable skit, the real nature of his army gradually dawns on a slow-witted Nazi soldier (Mitchell): "Have you noticed that our caps have got little pictures of skulls on them? Hans, are we the baddies?"
In another sketch, Mitchell plays a witheringly snobbish waiter at a local restaurant, who bullies his dumbstruck customers into eating crab with a ladle and consommé with a fork, before sneering: "My, my, it's like watching The Generation Game. I expect that's a reference you get."
As this delicious ritual humiliation underlines, Mitchell and Webb major on the comedy of pain. Peep Show, in which the action is relayed alternately from the perspective of one of its two wasters, Mark (Mitchell) and Jeremy (Webb), is entirely powered by schadenfreude. According to Mitchell, "other people's pain is always funny, whether it's someone slipping on a banana skin or Ralph's agonising, unrequited love for Ted in The Fast Show. They're just different sorts of pratfalls."
Peep Show, which returns for a fourth series next year, is in a long line of comedies whose protagonists are trapped by their own inadequacies. "The comedy of perennial disappointment is very British," Mitchell declares. "The fundamental theme of British sitcom is unhappy people who fear things getting worse and becoming even more unhappy. Jeremy and Mark have become utterly co-dependent. Let's face it, they're not great role models."
The show adheres to Seinfeld's great guiding principle: no hugging, no learning. Webb admits that "occasionally Jeremy and Mark do hug, but it's always for ulterior motives. We hear their internal monologue saying, 'Should I be doing this? What does it look like? If he's got a terminal illness, will I get his room?' It's hugging, but without a semblance of sincerity."
So what resemblance do the characters of Jeremy and Mark bear to the actors who incarnate them? "There are definitely elements of us in them," Mitchell concedes with a wry grin. "Jeremy's openness to change and Mark's closedness to change are heightened versions of our own characters. They're exaggerations of us - with the good parts omitted." "That's right," Webb deadpans. "I do a lot of work for charity, but I don't like to talk about it."
Beyond the comedy of pain, do the sketches in That Mitchell and Webb Look have a unifying theme? Not in Mitchell's eyes. "In the past, we've never had the nerve to say, 'We're funny - please give us a sketch show.' But that is really the only premise of the programme. You can make a rod for your own back if you say something like, 'All the sketches are about people who are frightened of change' or 'We follow a bar of soap as it's handled by loads of different characters.' I come out in favour of a joke every time, rather than being strait-jacketed by an overarching theme.
"All you can say is that a lot of the sketches have a go at certain attitudes - that's a very good way of coming across jokes. When you're staring at a blank sheet of paper, a great starting-point is, 'What's annoyed me recently?'"
The pair are confident enough to work separately, knowing that they will always come back refreshed. Mitchell is, if not king, then certainly prince regent of the panel games, and is also starring opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in a new movie, entitled I Could Never Be Your Woman. "I play David, an English writer - which was a hell of a stretch," Mitchell smiles.
Webb, who has also appeared in Ben Elton's BBC1 comedy Blessed, earlier this year took the brave step of appearing as one half of a naturist couple in Confetti, a movie about weddings. "I'm dreading the release of the DVD, when I'll be frozen and screen-grabbed," Webb laments.
I wonder if Mitchell and Webb aim to score political points. "No," Mitchell exclaims, aghast. "If you're seen as political, people will think you would never make a joke about something you passionately believe in. There is some liberal-baiting in our sketches, but that's because we're liberal and we want to get up our own noses. Otherwise, we steer clear of politics. We're comedians, after all - we're not aspiring to govern." "Not yet," Webb adds. "Just you wait till we come to power."
Webb foresees a decidedly different future for the duo. "Sketch-writing is a youngish man's game. The fecundity dries up after a while - you don't see many sketch-shows starring fiftysomethings. My prediction is that, by our late 40s, I'll be writing bad novels and David will be in Los Angeles taking cameos as English butlers and playing for the Hollywood Cricket Club."
'That Mitchell and Webb Look' starts tomorrow at 9.30pm on BBC2
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