Armstrong and Miller: Interview

Posted: Tue Nov 17 2009

With a new show this month, a new tour next year and a new scandal in their wake, we grill Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller.

What can we expect in the new series?

Alexander Armstrong 'You have to start each series as a new thing. If it's just a reprise, you're giving out the message that we've only got at best three series in us. If anything comes back, it has to justify its place, so the WWII pilots are back, Brabbins and Fyffe are back… But by and large it has a freshness to it. This time we know our audience better.'

Do you watch each other's stuff?
AA 'I was a massive “Moving Wallpaper” fan. I'm afraid I haven't seen “Primeval”, sorry.'
Ben Miller 'I don't know how you do “Have I Got News for You”. I can't think of anything that would terrify me more.'
AA 'You have to perform to the audience in the room and make it a discussion between the five people. Just enjoy it for all it's worth, and know that anything shit will get cut out.'

There's been a lot of nonsense about the word 'gypsy' in the press, after you talked about the BBC asking you not to use it in a sketch.
BM 'Yeah, it's such a non-story. It was literally: Shall we say “gypsy”? Well, the BBC think it's not a good idea, so okay, we'll change it. I think it's still very funny with the word “itinerant”. It's a '70s public information film about how to dispose of your fridge. The target being that what we thought at the time was extremely politically correct is in retrospect quite racist.'
AA 'The problem is that some people won't understand that's the nuance of the gag.'
BM 'The whole thing is a normal part of what you do in comedy - is this the right word, is that a funnier word? What the story does show is how carefully we think about every single word in a sketch - this stuff is being broadcast to millions of people, so we always try to be precise about the target. The story a lot of the papers went for was to bash the BBC. What, so should the BBC be more racist? The angle was political correctness gone mad. It's not. It's comedy gone sensible.'
AA 'These are important arguments to have. In comedy, your responsibility is not to back away from having those arguments. Comedy still has to go into these dangerous areas.'

So you don't need to self-censor?
AA 'You can self-censor as much as you like, but you can't censor what people are going to find funny, or you're going to end up eviscerating a lot of comedy on TV and people will stop watching it.'
BM 'The moment comedy isn't living at the boundary between what's acceptable and not acceptable, what's tasteful and not tasteful, it's not doing its job. It's meant to be there so we can get off our high horses and laugh.'

Before Sachsgate, I think people agreed with what you're saying, but now it feels like there's a licence to complain about absolutely anything.
BM 'I like to think it's the pendulum swinging the other way. Before Sachsgate, you had people saying that we must curb what comedians are saying. Now, people are wondering, if we're nervous about using the word “gypsy”, are we going too far the other way?'
AA 'There's no recourse for people who don't mind. No one sets up a hotline for people to register their support about something.'
BM 'We're not making it for a certain section of the audience to laugh at another section of the audience. I'm hoping we can all laugh at ourselves.'
AA 'If you try and suppress a laugh, you're only going to make it worse. There's nothing like the forbidden laugh, and thank God for it.'
BM 'It's quite obvious from watching our show that there's nobody telling us what we can and can't put in. Hopefully we're judging where the line is, and sometimes you'll get it wrong. But as long as you can give an honest account of yourself that your intentions were good, that's okay. It would be terrible if you stopped making jokes about things in fear of people's reactions.'

It's unusual for a sketch show to go straight to BBC1. What did you think the audience was?
AA 'The BBC1 comedy audience likes a well-structured gag. We did four series on Channel 4 and we learnt a lot there. Most of it was filmed single camera, and you can get a bit carried away with that. When you're up and coming like that, it's all about potential. When you get to our age, it's time to stop showing fucking potential and get on with the job!'
BM 'I don't want to slag off our ex-girlfriend, though. I'm really proud of our C4 series. We could have got married, but even now we could still have the odd fling… At C4, we'd come from being a live act, so the novelty was exciting. Now, we crave the live thing again.'

So you're going on tour again.
AA 'Yeah - it's beginning to take shape. The crucial thing with a live show is to come up with some ingenious way of keeping the momentum up between sketches, so there's always something happening. I think we're on to something quite exciting, but that's all we're saying…'