David Mitchell: interview
From 'Peep Show' to 'That Mitchell and Webb Look/Sound/Book', not to mention numerous panel shows, it feels like David Mitchell is on a mission to annexe primetime British TV. He talks to Time Out about his new show, 'The Bubble'
What with ‘Peep Show’, ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’, ‘Would I Lie to You?’ and more panel show appearances than would be entirely sensible for anyone less dryly witty, David Mitchell's portfolio is already heaving. This week sees yet another addition in the shape of ‘The Bubble’, a comedy news quiz with a twist. We met Mitchell in Camden and were delighted to find him every bit as urbane, self-effacing and engaging as you might imagine. Mark Corrigan from ‘Peep Show’ with social skills, if you like… You’ve done a lot of quizzes and panel shows. Do you ever worry you’re spreading yourself a bit thin?‘I suppose I do sometimes. It is in my mind and I’m trying to rein it back to just the ones I’m keenest on. But I basically love them. I turn down a lot and I do the ones I enjoy. So hopefully they’re not shit.’
Tell us about ‘The Bubble’…‘Celebrities are isolated from the news for the best part of a week and then they have to spot real stories from fake ones. I’m hoping that it will not only be a way of being funny about the news, but also a way of satirising the way the news is presented. The amount of news we get is vastly greater than the amount of momentous events. The media do report absurd things so it’s difficult to tell between what the newspapers have fabricated from a kernel of truth, and what we’ve fabricated entirely.’
Where will the panellists be hiding?‘In the pilot it was this posh house in Lincolnshire. It’s a nice house with no internet access. There’s a TV and DVD player but no aerial. I don’t think people will try and cheat. No one’s going to think they’re stupid for not knowing what happens.’ You and Robert Webb were writing a sitcom together called ‘Playing Shop’. How’s that going?‘We decided not to carry on. We weren’t quite happy with it, and with “Peep Show” continuing, we thought it would be the wrong thing to do.’
Do you worry that you’ll struggle to escape the Mark Corrigan character?‘That’s exactly why we thought now wasn’t the time to do a different sitcom. I don’t know how long “Peep Show” will continue, but I’d like to put a bit of space between that and whatever sitcom we do next. Is there any precedent for people having two sitcoms with the same double act on at the same time? I don’t think so.’
Do you think you’ll continue to work with Robert? Will that be a lifelong partnership?‘I hope so. We clicked quite early on. It may be that we come across as different but we do have underlying similarities and a similar sense of humour.’
Where do your ambitions lie? Are you going to try to break America?‘I have no real desire to succeed in the US. I’m not going to turn down a part in a Hollywood film but I don’t want to try to break LA. If you really mean it, you have to be willing to live there and I’m not. Maybe that will change. I doubt it.
‘I really wanted to be a British comedian on British TV. I saw “Blackadder”, “Monty Python”, those sorts of shows, and that was the kind of thing I wanted to do. As much as I laughed at Steve Martin, I didn’t aspire towards that. Essentially, I’m running low on ambition. I love doing what I do and would fight tooth and nail to be allowed to continue but I don’t think there are unconquered areas that I must conquer.’
There’s obviously a particularly British tradition you enjoy. Do you see yourself as part of a British comedy lineage?‘Yes, I think so. I’m nervous of comparing myself with my comedy heroes but there is definitely a British approach. We’re a very comedy-aware nation. It stems from our class system; our divided society; the position we are in the historical arc of our civilisation. We are sort of on a downward slope and that lends itself to self-analysis. It’s an admirable trait. The ability to laugh at yourself is very important. ‘There’s no doubt that brilliant comedy has come out of the US but I don’t think comedy is in their blood to the same extent. As their civilisation founders, they will hit the same skids that brought the comedy out of us. Post-imperial USA may be just as full of comedic self-analysis as post-imperial UK. Their Spike Milligan might be in Afghanistan as we speak!’
Along with the self-analysis, there’s a certain sadness to British comedy…‘Jokes about life’s disappointments make people feel better about their own sadness and limitations. You can see it in a show like “Dad’s Army”. So much of that show is about Captain Mainwaring’s class inadequacy and always being second best to Sergeant Wilson. There’s real pain in it. The truly successful homegrown mainstream comedies all have this melancholy: “Last of the Summer Wine” is about death; “Only Fools and Horses” was about loveable, doomed aspiration; then they did become millionaires and that’s jumping the shark if ever I saw it. The point is they never will be.’
How does the approach to comedy writing differ in the US?‘Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong [‘Peep Show’ writers] worked for a couple of weeks on a thing out there, and they don’t stop. They’re in there till 10 o’clock at night. I mean, for fuck’s sake, it’s only jokes! I’ve never come across that approach on shows which I’m really excited about. It’s generally people trying to prove something is worth more by spending longer on it. Like if you try harder it won’t matter if it’s shit – well, it will matter and it will still be shit and then you’ll have worked for hours on something that’s shit!’
Is now a difficult time to be a comedian in Britain?‘A few months ago, an element of the press was looking to criticise comedians. It’s linked with attempts to attack the BBC and also with the right-wing media’s agenda to perpetuate this myth of a liberal oligarchy that runs everything. Which is a bit fucking rich, coming from the heirs of Lord Rothermere!
‘When you get to the point where any joke can be taken out of context and read out with mawkish solemnity to the one person most likely to be offended, then we really will stop making jokes. In the end, I don’t think that’s going to happen – for all that the press has done, the BBC is loved. But I think it is worth saying, “You need to lay off us”.’
Are you driven by anger? There’s an undercurrent of it in some of your work.‘A lot of my material comes from that. When I’m trying to think of a sketch or a column, I look for something that’s annoyed me and then try to express why. That tends to be a way of getting jokes in and making a bit of a point. One of the things that makes me angry is people thoughtlessly dismissing what is a broadly functional society. That sort of lazy internet cynicism is maddening – people with no historical sense of quite how miserable and inept most regimes in most periods of history have been, and here we are, with street lighting and the vote and sewers and all sorts of amazing things. In the overall scheme of things, we need to thank our lucky stars.’
Do you still have any political ambitions?‘Not at all. I was just a teenage megalomaniac! But when I turned up at the Cambridge Union Society, I realised I didn’t want to spend three years with that kind of Bullingdon Club twat.’
‘The Bubble’ starts 10pm Fri Feb 19 2010 on BBC2.
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