'We couldn't write a sitcom while Peep Show was still on' | Interview with David Mitchell and Robert Webb © C4

'We couldn't write a sitcom while Peep Show was still on'

Interview with David Mitchell and Robert Webb

As Peep Show returns to Channel 4 for its eight series, we caught up with stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb....

How is this series of Peep Show different from the previous ones?

Webb: There’s a growing self-awareness from Jeremy. Slightly more frequently these days, the possibility occurs to him that he’s not going to make it as a musician.

Mitchell: They are definitely reflecting. They know they are getting older and they know that their mode of living that in Series One was not glorious but not particularly shameful is now getting a bit odd. You shouldn’t be doing that unless that’s what you set out to be doing with your life, and it wasn’t for either of them. It’s impossible for them not to confront the fact that their situation reflects their failings.

Webb:: The older they get, the more tragic it gets.

Mitchell: Mark is desperate for Dobbie to move in with him. He’s in love with Dobbie, as far as he knows what that is. But he also feels that the important thing to move the relationship on is for her to move in and show that she is sufficiently defeated in soul and spirit to stay with him for the medium to long term.

Mark gets promoted to being a sales rep, despite the fact he can’t drive and doesn’t have a car, and has to try to be sales rep on public transport. I think he’s desperately wants to go back to somewhere like JLB where he’s in an office.

In this series there’s no real sign of getting the sort of job he craves: a nice, respectable office job. He’d like to be living in the Home Counties, getting the train to work every day, living the Reginald Perrin lifestyle. And then he would be ready for the Reginald Perrin breakdown.

What was it like to return to the roles?

Webb: Like putting on a comfy pair of shoes

Mitchell: It’s so well written by Sam [Bain] and Jesse [Armstrong] that it’s always immediately obvious how every bit should be done. As you read it, you can hear yourself saying it before you have, which is a joy. They’ve learned how limited we are, and now they don’t write things we can’t do. Although they do insist on writing the word ‘tsch’. If they have flaws as writers, it’s believing that ‘tsch’ is something that people ever say.

Did you know Peep Show was going to be successful when you first started working on it?

Webb: Peep Show then – or PoV as the pilot was called – was just one of those irons we were keeping in the fire. It wasn’t necessarily the most exciting thing we were doing. It was a favour.

Mitchell: You don’t know what’s going to come off when you’re pitching ideas when people have never heard of you, and Peep Show, or PoV, didn’t seem like it was anything.

What was your favourite episode?

Webb: The wedding episode took some beating; it was great,. But what always springs to mind is the dog-eating by the canal. That whole episode was fun.

Mitchell: Those are the two that I always remember, they always spring to mind.

Will the show continue forever?

Webb: I think we’ve all said we’ll do it as long as a) we’re welcome and b) it still seems fresh and worth doing, and the scripts show absolutely no sign of not being as fantastic as ever.

Mitchell: The thing about a sitcom is that it’s a lot harder to come up with an idea that works, than it is to keep it going. The power of the medium is in the repetition; it’s the thing the Americans have got better than we have.

Webb: And when you’ve eaten a dog and nobody accuses you of jumping the shark, then I think you’re fine. I think it would be a disaster if either of them found any measure of contentment or fulfillment. They mustn’t win the lottery... I don’t know what show I’m thinking of.

Mitchell: I don’t think I like my character, particularly. I can see where he’s coming from a lot of the time, but he does terrible things. He’s really selfish.

Webb: Jeremy on paper is an absolute shit. That’s the great joy of playing a basically really unsavoury character, the challenge of the audience quite like him, although he really behaves quite badly a lot of the time.

Mitchell: Both of them think the unworthy thoughts we all have, but the always act on it. They are aware of moral complexity and they take the route that is the cowardly, self-serving one a lot of the time. They are not, fundamentally, that good.

Do you think the Americans could ever do a successful remake?

Webb: There were two attempts; there was a pilot made about five years ago, that wasn’t very good; then there was another one with Sam and Jesse more heavily involved - they had nothing to do with the first one. I don’t know what happened to either of them.

Mitchell: Because British comedy is quite well thought of in America, without necessarily being that well-known, so I think it’s a very saleable thing. To have brought a British format and be vaguely developing it. I think they wrongly thought that it would help a project to say it’s a remake of a British show – and that’s very different from actually remaking a British show. So I don’t know if anyone’s had a go who really loved the original.

Webb: In the original pilot, they amalgamated episodes 1 and 2 from the first series, so it was a very strong script, but they didn’t do any point of view stuff, and they didn’t do any internal monologues, but apart from that... When you take away those things you lose all that makes it special.

Mitchell: I’ll tell you why it’s never been copied: Because it’s a fucking nightmare. It takes a lot longer than filming things conventionally. At the start, we were thinking ‘why can’t we do something more normal?’ There are obvious reasons we couldn’t have done something more normal - because no one had heard of us.

Webb: It was a barrier. The first time you see it, it takes five to ten minutes to ask what’s going on here? Why are they doing that? It’s very irritating. but as soon as you get used to the grammar of it, you forget about it and you just watch a sitcom. I think it put a lot of people off the first time. I remember Graham Linehan saying in an interview that he heard about it and said, ‘I hate this, I hate this. Stupid Channel 4 gimmick, why can’t they just do it properly?’ He hated it right up to the moment he watched it. And yeah, it’s very fiddly to make.

Mitchell: Looking back now, I think the internal monologues are absolutely crucial to Peep Show. Point-of-view filming I think gives a nice visual feel, but it’s not in itself what makes it funny. But it gives an excuse for the internal monologues, and they often are what makes it funny because you can contextualise actions so easily.

Webb: And also because people think things they would never say, so that’s partly what makes it such a rude show. That and the fact everyone likes rude jokes. It also makes the viewer more complicit in all the things they do.

What are your plans for the future?

Mitchell: We’re doing a comedy-drama, which I’m excited about [Our Men, in which they play British diplomats in a corrupt Central Asian state] but it also makes me feel incredibly old. We’re supposed to do comedy-dramas now

Mitchell: We had a meeting in a pub about coming up with an idea for an audience sitcom

Webb: And it was a good night in the pub... Coming up with ideas for sitcoms is difficult anyway, but when you know Peep Show is going on, your heart just isn’t in it, because you know you can’t do anything while Peep Show is there and even for a couple of years after. That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep trying to develop something, but it’s a very intimidating thing to compete with.

Sam and Jesse have set the bar very high and anything we do is going to be unfavourably compared with Peep Show, because all sitcoms are not as good as Peep Show. So it would have to be very different.

But if we end up not doing anything every again, and we didn’t write a sitcom we would feel we underachieved, so we will have a go again one day.

Mitchell: The key thing with Sam and Jesse’s approach is to get story right.

Webb: They spend a lot of time on the structure of the story, then it’s almost as if they treat themselves to dialogue at the end, which is the opposite way around to whenever we’ve done stuff, when we’ve done it one joke at a time.

Mitchell: They’ll throw anything out, however funny it seems, if it doesn’t fit what they see as the right arc for that story, episode or series, they will throw it out without a qualm.

Webb: They are amazing rewriters. That’s the trick, to be really unprecious about really funny stuff.

Mitchell: It’s also the difference with us being writer-performers. We got into this to go on stage and make people laugh then and there. If you’ve got something in your hand that you’re 99 per cent sure will go over well and get a laugh, you’re very reluctant to throw it out. Sam and Jessie have never been on stage getting laughs, so they can be a lot more ruthless with what they throw it. It’s such hard work getting the structure of a sitcom right. You have to think how are we going to get him from A to C and they just sit there and think hard...

Webb: And they know how long it takes to make a good series. A couple of times they have had to fight their corner with broadcasters who wanted something in a fortnight.

Mitchell: That rigour combined with their amazing creative powers is their USB... USP, I mean. USB, that’s a form of plug, isn’t it?

Have you ever worked on something you thought was going to be a hit, but wasn’t?

Webb: We were developing a thing with Pozzitive that was going to be a sort of TV Goons show where we play all the characters and there was going to be a different story every week. That didn’t get commissioned.

Mitchell: We loved that script. We did a performed reading that went really well, and we thought, ‘Why not this?’ but that didn’t happen.

Also I did a BBC One sitcom called Doctors and Nurses, written by a couple of friends of mine. And I think it was a patchy, flawed show, but it was so much fun to make a mainstream studio sitcom with quite a big cast and you put on the show every week for the studio audience who are basically generous laughers. That felt like such a fun experience, but edited down and put on BBC One it didn’t really capture the public’s imagination.

Webb: I did I thing called The Gist, which was written by John Morton, who did Twenty Twelve and used to do People Like Us. That was sort of an arts review parody; it was on the first night of BBC Four and it turned out it was only ever going to be a one-off – but I spent a couple of years thinking ‘What a shame they never made a series of that”’ But it was never going to be a series, so I wasted a lot of regret on that.

Is there going to be another series of 10 O’Clock Live?

Mitchell: I think so. The dates haven’t been sorted out yet because we’re all busy at different times. But the channel has asked for more - and the plan is to have some more, probably in the spring. I enjoy doing it, I think there’s room for a show like that - there seemed to be a gap in Britain’s TV stuff that needed plugging and I think the second series was a lot more successful that the first. I think we learned a lot. With another couple of series it will continue to improve... so I’d like to get to the point where it’s getting worse.

  • Peep Show returns to Channel 4 at 10pm on November 25.

Published: 14 Nov 2012

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