Doing these  sexist, racist, homophobic jokes is cathartic... | David Schwimmer and Nick Mohammed on the return of Intelligence © Sky

Doing these sexist, racist, homophobic jokes is cathartic...

David Schwimmer and Nick Mohammed on the return of Intelligence

Intelligence, the comedy series set in GCHQ and starring David Schwimmer and its writer Nick Mohammed as agents, returns to Sky One on Tuesday. Here they talk about walking the line of bad taste, Schwimmer being in pain on set, and bracing themselves for the Twitter backlash….

What was it like making the second series: easier because you knew what you were doing, or harder because there was added pressure?

 Nick: This series is, I hope, a big step in the right direction. I’m super proud of the first series but I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders this time round. I suspect that’s because I knew what I was doing a lot more as a writer: you know who your cast are and who your characters are, and what dynamics work really well. And I hope that we’ve taken what worked in series one and just built on that. 

We were quite lucky that we knew that we had the second-series commission pretty early on, before I finished writing series one. So from a storytelling point of view that was useful, because I knew we could leave it on a bit of a cliffhanger. And we knew what territory we were going to possibly explore in series two. But yeah, there is absolutely – not a pressure – but a personal desire to deliver more than we delivered in series one. Everyone wanted to step up again and have even more fun with it. 

David: Everyone hit the ground running because we felt pretty confident in the characters and the dynamics and the relationships. So, it seemed like slipping into a really comfortable jacket. 

What was the reaction like to the first series?

Nick: It was lovely; kind of joyful! I’m on Twitter, and one of the things about making a show these days is that people can quite easily let you know how they feel about a  show almost instantly. And so, I was gearing up for that thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just have to take the rough with the smooth, there’ll be people who like it, people who won’t like it’. 

But in the end it was just so nice to see people genuinely enjoying the show. There was this general consensus that, because it’s such a silly show, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. 

There’s been a fashion of late for a lot of comedies to be quite dark or tipping over into drama. Whereas this is unashamedly fast-paced, gag-heavy, silly, farcical, character- driven, out-and-out comedy. It absolutely puts comedy first. 

We do dial up some drama and emotion at various points but it’s undoubtedly a comedy and it felt like people enjoyed it for that. 

David:  I think people were, as you Brits would say, chuffed. They really enjoyed the originality of the workplace and that environment. They like the ‘fish out of water’ story, and basically how much of a dick I was [as Jerry]. So, I’m happy 

Tell us a bit about filming this series:

David:  This was a tough one for me personally, this year. It was tough on everyone in terms of Covid but I was also unfortunate because I was dealing with an ear injury and I had to take different medications just to be able to get through shooting without real pain and discomfort at times. And looking back on it  I just so appreciated Nick was – as an actor, as the writer, the executive producer and as a friend – so sympathetic and supportive. 

He was also totally unflappable. There were a couple of moments where Nick had to do a total rewrite of the scene because we’d start it and realise something wasn’t working, and Nick would just say, ‘Okay, I’ll go rewrite it’. I think in fact, everyone on set - the director, all the producers – everyone came to it with great humility and a real lack of ego which is really the best way to work. 

I still feel I’m learning how to behave because I was quite cranky and grumpy a lot this year. And I’m really grateful, in retrospect, with how much people put up with my behaviour. 

Nick: Honestly, given how much you were going through with your ear, you were not cranky or grumpy at all. I mean hats off to the whole ensemble really. Because there were times when we would have to change things around so Schwim could get away early. Only a handful of times because he was an absolute  trooper but still, the whole ensemble were so understanding of that. Plus, the role of Jerry is so physical, and I added more and more of that stuff in series two because it works so well. I didn’t hold back at all. 

So we were going into these scenes knowing that Schwim had his ear thing going on and how he probably wouldn’t be able to hear so well out of one side. So, hats off to the whole cast who just rose to it brilliantly and professionally. 

Mohammed with camera behind him

David, how did you injure your inner ear? 

David: I was trying to make my daughter laugh. We’d been visiting people who had a place with a pool that we were allowed to use, with social distancing and all of that, so we took advantage of it. 

I was standing at the edge of the pool and wanted to make her laugh so I did a kind of dead fall into the pool and I slammed my ear at such a perfect angle that I immediately ruptured my eardrum, and I gave myself an inner ear concussion. 

That healed eventually after six weeks, but then a whole new condition migrated into both ears and gave me a combination of tinnitus and something called hyperacusis. It’s finally just on its way out now. It’s been seven months. It’s crazy. 

I have bad days and good days. The thing that bothers it the most is talking. So, if I talk too much and at significant volume, it generates the ringing. That’s why being that character, who’s pretty loud, was challenging at times. 

Nick, can you give me an outline of where we find a team in series two?

Nick: The general arc is that there is a cyber weapon called Eternal Blue which is based on a real weapon that was designed by the NSA but fell into the wrong hands. And it’s still used, I believe, to this day to wreak havoc across countries certainly in a cyber sense. 

So we’ve created the idea that Jerry had a hand in designing this cyber weapon that has gone awry and he has to try and retrieve the weapon and regain full control of it because it’s in the hands of some rogue operatives. We first see it being used against a nuclear power plant in the UK, which is causing a nuclear meltdown, which is a very slight nod to the TV show Chernobyl in that it’s an episode with lots of long continuous sequences within it. Jerry is pretty victorious, then it goes pear-shaped, but I won’t give away too much more about that… 

And we’ve got an episode which deals with them all having to attend an anti-harassment and anti-bullying workshop. That features the brilliant Morgana Robinson who was just so fun, and a dream to work with. 

We’ve also got the amazing Diane Morgan joining us for a couple of episodes as [my character] Joseph’s date. They start off having a digital-only relationship because she’s based in another office, but she finally comes over and they go on a dinner date. Diane is a good mate and she’s just terrific. 

Morgan kissing Mohammed very awkwardly in Intelligence

David, where do we find Jerry?

David: He’s in further pursuit of power and trying to work his way up the ladder as much as he can. Maybe he’s harbouring some secret fantasy of running for president, he certainly thinks very highly of himself and believes he should be in charge of pretty much everything. As Nick said, we find him pursuing anything that will elevate his status and give him more power. But at the same time there’s a real attachment, a bromance forming between Jerry and Joseph. 

Some of the things he says to Joseph are still pretty terrible, though. As real-life friends, is that fun to do?

Nick: Yeah, we just try and push all those sorts of boundaries. Now that the audience knows who Jerry is, it would be completely out of character if he didn’t go for the worst possible thing to say in any given situation. And I love writing all that stuff, especially when he’s doling it out to Joseph, because they’ve got that kind of brotherly quality.  It has that quality to it where there’s a mutual love between them so they can get away with talking to each other like that. 

And as much as Jerry does that stuff to Joseph, Joseph will often pop Jerry’s  balloon with an offhand comment.

Schwimmer in Intelligence, sitting on office chair

David, do you ever feel bad about any of the things you have to say to Nick as Joseph?

David: Oh, no, I don’t feel bad. When we approach those jokes that are sexist, or racist or homophobic, or generally insensitive, we do make sure Jerry is always the fool. The joke is on him, as Nick says. He’s the one whose ignorance is shining bright. 

I really like those moments because the reality is that there are racist, homophobic, sexist people in almost every workplace and these  comments and jokes and behaviours persist and will probably persist for quite a while. So for us to shine a little light on it and acknowledge that, you know, this is real, it actually affects people. 

The supposed ‘victims’ of Jerry’s comments, we never really feel they’re injured. We feel that he’s an idiot or a buffoon – the racist, sexist, homophobic man in this situation.
For me it’s cathartic because I’ve been around these jokes in different settings. And I feel like for a lot of men in power, these behaviours and these attitudes persist, and so it’s quite cathartic to be able to play that guy. 

At the same time we have a really great team who we check in with if we’re going to have a joke that is, let’s say racist, with Nick’s character or the character of Tuva, we always check in and make sure we shoot a lot of alternates to these jokes. We will all weigh in and really discuss what we feel we can get away with and what’s maybe too much over the line. We want to go right up to the line, maybe sit on it, but never cross it. 

Nick: Yeah. And it’s deliberate. You know, we have a cast and a crew and execs who are a really diverse bunch, a mix of sexualities and so on, so we do ask for the group’s opinion if we’re wondering whether we’re stepping over the mark, or are we right on the line? 

Obviously, none of it is ever written with any kind of malice. It’s always ultimately a warm, silly comedy. You don’t want to go out of your way to be offending someone unnecessarily. I think that there’s never a purpose to do that. But we’ve got such a good group, there is a real kind of wisdom of the crowd. I think that  comes with shooting with such a diverse bunch of people. And we can really address some of these topics that it feels good to shine a light on. Comedy is a very good way to do that. 

Particularly in the episode with the anti-bullying episode, it feels like you’re really using subversive, powerful ways of confronting old tropes, in fact. 

Nick: Yeah, yeah. And I think it’s important to know that I’ve written those lines. And I think that that’s an example of an episode where – especially the material that is dealing with racism – is that we actually get to walk a really fine line. Which I love. 

But if I was writing about sexuality, I’m straight so I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing stuff where it treads the line in terms of the differences between heterosexuality and homosexuality, for example. 

That whole episode with Morgana is one of my favourites as every single character gets to chip in their opinion on the topic of the week. So it’s a real fun one. And it’s a super fun one for Jerry because he obviously oversteps every single mark along the way and gets caught in his own trap. 

Morgana doing anti-bullying training

To end: how intelligent do you think you are? 

Nick: I’m just going to go for a very safe seven out of ten, I think. 

David: Then I’m seven point one!

Nick: We’re certainly not nearly as intelligent as the people who really work at GCHQ. I’ve got their puzzle book and I can’t do any of them. They are hard. 

• Intelligences starts on Sky One and Now TV at 10pm on Tuesday, with a double bill . Interview edited from Q&A supplied by Sky Press Office

Published: 6 Jun 2021

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