Chances are, to most Americans, the name David Mitchell means very little… unless, of course, they have a friend, relation, or acquaintance by that name. I speak, however, of a brilliant comedian by that sobriquet who currently plies his trade in the sceptred isle of England.
A cursory glance at the offerings on YouTube will bring you up to speed on Mr. Mitchell, as well as his comedy partner Robert Webb - both of which, since their Cambridge Footlights days, have written and starred in Edinburgh Fringe productions, radio (That Mitchell & Webb Sound), a live tour, and a trio of sketch shows (Bruiser, The Mitchell & Webb Situation, and That Mitchell & Webb Look - the latter two of which are currently available on DVD). They’re also the stars of the Britcom Peep Show (about to begin its 5th season), the feature film Magicians, and were cast as PC (Mitchell) & Mac (Webb) in the British versions of the popular Macintosh ads.
As a solo, Mitchell is quick-witted, erudite guest on such UK panel shows as QI, Have I Got News For You, and 8 Out Of 10 Cats, serves as team captain on Would I Lie To You, and is the host of BBC Radio 4’s The Unbelievable Truth.
I urge anyone smart enough to own a region free DVD player to hunt down everything listed above from your online UK DVD emporium of choice, or at the very least scrounge the internet and YouTube for a splendid sampler. For now, tough, kick back and enjoy our in-depth interview with Mr. Mitchell…
KP: I must say, I’ve been a fan of yours ever since I was a kid…
MITCHELL: Oh really?
KP: No, but I thought I would open with that…
MITCHELL: (laughs) How old are you then? That’s a rude question.
KP: I am 30. So not that far off from being a contemporary.
MITCHELL: No indeed. And I’m sure that I was certainly not doing anything that you could have seen before you’d reached the age of majority.
KP: Yes. Although I did see Bruiser.
MITCHELL: Did you?
MITCHELL: Well, that is early. How did you manage to see that?
KP: Well just about anything is available on the internet, if you know where to look.
KP: That, and That Mitchell & Web Situation are both out there in the wild…
MITCHELL: Oh right.
KP: And obviously, so has Peep Show…
KP: So now, just about anything you’ve done is available on the web in some way.
MITCHELL: Oh, that’s good.
KP: That, and you have a massive fan base that ferrets out these kind of things.
KP: Does that in any way surprise you, that that sort of thing is out there?
MITCHELL: Well, nothing about the internet surprises me. I suppose with something like Bruiser, because it got such a brief and unnoted broadcast here, I’m not surprised that people can access it. I’m more surprised that they’ve bothered or noticed.
KP: How do you look back on something like Bruiser?
MITCHELL: Well, I really enjoyed doing it. It was my first experience of being really involved in a program. Rob and I wrote about half of it and we’re in a lot of it. So we weren’t just writing on the show; we were really involved a lot. And I was sort of relieved to discover that I enjoyed it. Because it was very unlike the theater stuff I’d done before. But it was a really good fun process. You’d write something in a sketch and then people would go and make a room look like that and it was all tremendously gratifying. It was very important in that sense, to have a good experience at that stage. As far as the show was, it was not our finest work, but I think we learned a lot from it, and there are bits of it that I would stand by completely. Given the circumstances and everything, it was a decent piece of work considering our youth and inexperience.
KP: Were you worried about not enjoying it?
MITCHELL: Well, I was. When I first did the first tiny bits of filming things that I’d done before then, I basically couldn’t believe how tedious the process was. I couldn’t believe how many times you had to do it - how tricky… just how fiddly it was. And so how unlike theater, where you do it in front of an audience and you get sort of instant gratification. But I think when you’re involved in a whole show and you’re in every day and you’re involved with the editing process and all that, I think you take a very different view of the individual moments. You realize that the repetitive nature of it is necessary and can be used for good. But I was concerned, yeah.
KP: When you compare a theater and a television piece, how different is that sense of ownership of the material?
MITCHELL: I think in terms of the theater Rob and I’d done, our ownership was complete. In that we were just doing a little show at the Edinburgh Fringe, and so within the parameters of your budget and your venue you have complete creative control, and television is obviously never gonna be like that because you need a much larger team of people. That’s always one of the things about moving into television, that people… you can’t just do exactly what you want. But I think what was good about Bruiser, and The Mitchell and Webb Situation as well, is it was an example early on of having a fair amount of say and a fair sense of control even in the much more necessarily collaborative television environment.
KP: Is there anything in those situations you recall sort of hitting a brick wall on, where there was an obvious disagreement with something that you had wanted to do, either for practical or performance reasons?
MITCHELL: Well, I certainly remember when we did The Mitchell and Webb Situation we had a sketch… not the first sketch we’ve ever written involving some Nazis…
KP: Yes, it does see to be a recurring theme…
MITCHELL: Yeah. And I don’t know why, but I think all British comedians obsess with Hitler. Not in a (laughs) apologetic way, but you know, just there’s something, I don’t know, there’s something funny about the intensity of Nazism. Particularly when you’re lucky enough to come from a background that hasn’t really been affected in a negative way. But we wrote this sketch. It had these Nazi soldiers and they were just having a very normal kind of chat about each other’s ticks and what people did in certain situations who got stressed. This, that, and the other. And we thought it was a funny sketch because it was the contrast between the sort of macabre and evil nature of soldiers on the Eastern Front, and the everyday conversation they were having. And we were told we couldn’t do it as Nazis and we had to rewrite it as contemporary German soldiers. And the sketch was shot and was utterly unusable and pointless.
KP: Yes, contemporary German soldiers on the Eastern Front…
MITCHELL: They weren’t on the… I think we put them in… they were peacekeeping in Yugoslavia or something. It was full of… it was such a fudge it was meaningless.
KP: But you still went ahead and shot it?
MITCHELL: We did. Because the changes sort of came down from on high at the last minute. And you get this sort of tunnel vision about, “No, we can still make it work, we can still make it work. Why not? Why not?” And then you realize about three weeks after you’ve shot it and you’re looking at it in the edit that it’s an unusable fudged bit of material. It just begs so many questions. “Sorry, why are we looking at contemporary German military people talking…?” There are so many questions that no one is ever going to get to the point of laughing at the actual material.
KP: That was for Situation, right?
KP: Wasn’t there another piece that eliminated from Situation?
MITCHELL: Oh yes, there was. You’re talking about the organic backstreet abortionist sketch…
KP: Yeah, that one.
MITCHELL: Looking back on that sketch, I’m sort of quite glad it was eliminated. Because I think it was quite… I stand by the premise as a sort of solid premise about taking the piss out of bollocky crystals and holistic treatments and all this sort of thing and applying that to the grim world of the back street abortionist. I think there is a proper premise there - there is a proper humorous juxtaposition, but I think unfortunately the subject is just a little bit grim. I think the vast majority of people watching it would be kind of uncomfortable and not in a laughy mood. Though at the time I was sort of irritated that we had to exclude it, in retrospect I think that the, (laughs) the right decision was made.
KP: Do you think that you would have tackled that differently today?
MITCHELL: I don’t know. It’s very odd; having written the sketch as it was to that premise, I think… I would like to do a sketch one day about the whole issue of alternative and mainstream medicine. Because it very much annoys me the way the two sides both trade off each other’s enmity, if you know what I mean.
KP: Oh yes, there’s sort of a parasitic relationship both ways.
MITCHELL: Yes, exactly, and there’s no one… the point is… there’s clearly something to acupuncture. That’s clearly worked for lots of people. But why does it have to remain sort of couched in the mysteries of the east? Can’t it be brought into the mainstream, analyzed, perfected… you know, like antibiotics… or like an operation on a burst appendix. I find the whole division between, “No, you either come into hospital, you take a lot of drugs and you get cut up, or - oh no - it’s all crystals and…”
KP: Spirits and…
MITCHELL: Yeah. If everyone genuinely has people’s health as the priority, then these worlds should merge. And the truth of acupuncture should be incorporated into medicine, and the more dodgy areas should be excluded permanently. It offends my sense of organization that neither side seems to want to do that.
KP: Do you think centuries ago alternative medicine was western medicine being introduced into their system? “It’s not about spirits, it’s about this.”
KP: “You gonna go to that quack who prescribes ‘medicine’?”
MITCHELL: (laughs) “They think it’s because of bacteria or something, when we all know…”
KP: “These little tiny organisms???”
MITCHELL: “… that the whole evil spirit analysis is a lot more plausible.”
KP: “And is well proven, in fact.”
MITCHELL: Yeah, (laughs)
KP: “It’s like the same spirit that lives in your home.”
MITCHELL: Yeah. (laughs)
KP: There must have been some kind of juxtaposition of that in the past.
MITCHELL: Oh yeah. Well, I think certainly the kind… well, western medicine was in the middle ages. A hell of a lot more dodgy than Chinese medicine then. But I do think however much… there are people who… ’cause I go to a chiropractor. I have a bad back. And he sorts it out to the extent that my life is fine, but I do have to keep going back there, so I don’t know - maybe he’s sort of keeping me in a certain amount of pain to pay for his retirement. But I vaguely think he knows what he’s doing. He will essentially try and pretend that the chiropractic approach is a general approach to all health matters. And I’m sorry, I’m not having it. What he is to me is a back dentist. I will lose a lot of confidence in him if he starts to say that a massive bacterial infection in my system can be treated with his back straightening measures.
KP: In fact, he’s got a plan for it.
KP: There have been claims that chiropracty is an addictive form of therapy.
KP: That you’re not really solving anything. It’s just adjustment.
KP: And it’s unfortunate that they do tend to wrap things up within that. As you said, being a bone straightening form of dentistry.
KP: Maybe that’s it. He keeps wanting you to come in for a cleaning.
KP: And the fact that they do have long term plans worked out does not… I thought, if you have a doctor, doctors are supposed to actually try and solve things.
KP: So this repetitive approach of bringing someone back in for continual adjustments doesn’t seem to be copasetic with that.
MITCHELL: No, absolutely. What they do is they have a… their rhetoric is saying, “What you think the problem is, isn’t the problem. There are underlying other problems that are really the problem.” And if feel like saying, “Well, no. No, actually what I think is the problem is the problem.” I don’t care anything about the iceberg apart from its tip. I’m not sailing through these waters, I just want to look at them uninterrupted. I hate going and giving him 35 quid each time. He has, in some way, won.
KP: Any form of medicine that builds up a mythology around itself probably can’t be terribly good.
KP: What is it about that that keeps bringing you back, if you have a sense it may not be on the up and up?
MITCHELL: What, with the chiropractor?
MITCHELL: I think that… I don’t really know. It seems to work a bit, I suppose, and I don’t know what else to do. And they all have something to say. When you say to people that your back’s playing up, they immediately start giving you cards of ten different sorts of people who can help you in ten different sorts of ways. And at least I can say, “No, I’m doing this thing and I do that. That’s my approach. And don’t make me go to your foot massage guy or your acupuncture person or whatever. And maybe I’m going to totally the wrong person, but essentially it’s not so bad that I could be bothered to reverse it fully.”
KP: I’m sure there’s some guy that works out of his shed that has a full body brace he could sell you.
KP: You’re now more machine than man…
KP: Is there anything that you’ve ever encountered sort of like that, that within the writing process you shoot down ahead of time? Like, “This is too far. This is something we can’t do.”
MITCHELL: Joke wise?
KP: Joke wise or premise wise.
MITCHELL: I’m trying to think. With things like… not many. We did a sketch on our radio show in which the queen was executed. That was an area where we had terrible trouble getting them to agree to put it on. I didn’t think it was such a dodgy idea because so many countries have executed their monarchs and it didn’t seem to me to be a massive or particularly offensive leap of the imagination to say that that could happen here.
KP: Well, it already has.
MITCHELL: Well yeah… exactly. I mean, we’ve executed one, but that’s all brushed under the carpet now, you see. But executing the actual current queen, that seems to genuinely offend people. With that, we had to be quite careful about the way we did it. And, in fact, I was slightly irritated that the way it was cut in the final broadcast took some of the sting out of it. That was something that we were aware it was a touchy area, even though it shouldn’t have been, because having a sketch in which it happens in a funny way is not the same as advocating it.
MITCHELL: And I’m not a Republican. I’m perfectly happy with the monarchy as a thing to laugh at in the press, and it doesn’t do any harm, and I’m sure it attracts tourists. The fact that we were wanting to do a sketch about it didn’t mean that we were advocating it at all. But nevertheless, that was how some people treated it and it got quite a few complaints. (laughs) So that was one area where we had to be careful.
KP: That’s sort of an external thing. Do you ever find yourself internally self-censoring anything?
MITCHELL: There was one awful joke. A terrible, sick joke that I thought of for one of our Edinburgh shows, and we sort of had a horrible guilty laugh about it, and then realized we couldn’t possibly put it in. And I’m sort of nervous of telling you.
KP: Now you have to.
MITCHELL: I sort of do.
KP: But you’ve already prefaced it. You put the warning that it is, in fact, horrible…
MITCHELL: It is, yeah, so you can’t be offended by this because I’ve said it’s offensive. It was just we were writing… we basically… it’s just a line. And the previous line was “All evil plans have their teething problems.” And then the line I suggested was, “Look at Cyclon A…” And then something hilarious that Cyclon A did to people other than killing them. Do you see what I mean?
KP: I could see where…
MITCHELL: Are you going to now slam the phone down?
KP: My hand is above the cradle as we speak.
KP: Isn’t comedy about, at the very least - in that sort of writing process - going to the wall?
MITCHELL: Yes I think so. It is joke shaped, if you know what I mean. It is a proper joke. But it’s an area that’s so offensive to people that it sort of made me shudder to have thought of it. It’s frustrating, in a way, when you’ve thought of something, because you’re sort of aware that jokes are in limited supply. You’ve thought of something that is definitely a joke, but it’s definitely poisoned to the point of unusability by its context.
KP: No pun intended.
MITCHELL: Oh sorry, (laughs) oh yes. That is frustrating. But yes, that was one of those clear moments saying, “Yes, that it a joke, and that is a joke we can never tell.”
KP: And now I’ve broken you.
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah.
KP: What was Robert’s reaction to it?
MITCHELL: Rob was there, and also the director of the show, James Bachman, and we all… we guiltily chuckled. If you write a joke within the context of an area which is potentially offensive, it’s also potentially very funny. And going close to the line does make things funnier. And jokes that are entirely safe, you have to be so much better. A totally safe, warm joke that’s hilarious is a rare thing indeed. And almost no comedy career can be made up exculsively of those, I would argue. There has to be a bit of an edge to it. But yeah, we laughed and then said,” We are evil.”
KP: “That one’s just for us.”
MITCHELL: Yes, exactly. “I mustn’t ever tell someone from a website that.” I made a mental note.
KP: Well, I guess you should think twice about those mental notes, as they seem to be rather useless. When you talk about that warm, fuzzy, safe sort of joke, is there anything you can point to where you’ve gone in that direction and called yourself on it?
MITCHELL: No, I don’t think so. I think we’re very nervous of any sort of warmth in our work. I think it’s… I think that’s quite a common British trait, that we do like comedy to be quite harsh and cold. And I think it’s probably a failing, in the long run, in that the difference between… well, one of the many differences between the American long running sitcoms and the nearest British equivalent seems to me that in a show like The Simpsons, there are moments of genuine warmth. And they don’t compromise the jokes - and they still can have really tough, nasty jokes when they want to. But there’s a love for the characters there. And I think we found that very difficult in Britain. Immediately, everyone gets very cynical about that and goes, “Oh, come off it.”
KP: Do you think British comedy, at its core, is cold?
MITCHELL: Yes, I do, really. Well, certainly cold-er. I can’t imagine… we don’t come up with… it’s the difference between David Brent and Basil Fawlty on one hand and Homer Simpson on the other, really. I think that Seinfeld is almost like a British comedy, because it’s sort of cold. (laughs)
KP: It’s certainly filled with characters that are completely irredeemable.
MITCHELL: Yeah. I think it’s brilliant. But I think a lot of people here make the mistake of calling it the sort of archetypal American sitcom, when I think, in fact, it’s incredibly atypical.
KP: Obviously, since it hasn’t been repeated yet, as far as in premise or tone or style…
KP: It’s not the natural inclination of the creative process in this country.
KP: I mean, how influential was something like that the other way around? How do you look at that American landscape of comedy?
MITCHELL: I suppose it’s kind of… just so incredibly impressive in the amount of good stuff that is produced as to be… to sort of not help to think about it. When you’re faced with something like Seinfeld or Cheers or The Simpsons, just as a body of work, it’s just so intimidating. You just think, “Well, I’m not going to think about that.” It doesn’t help. I think the way we make programs here, in batches of six - when we have no really effective team writing process - it’s basically a cottage industry in comparison to what you have over there.
KP: You can almost count on your hands shows that run any real length… even the talk shows are limited runs.
KP: Something like a Jonathan Ross, has maybe a run of 20 a year, if they’re lucky.
KP: What is it that limits the scope of how long something can run?
MITCHELL: I don’t know. It’s always been like that, and so that becomes self-perpetuating. And I suppose if you’re someone like Jonathan Ross, why would you, in an environment where there’s not pressure on your to do a show 50 weeks of the year, why would you? For your own sanity, why not do two batches of 10? I think the competition in America is such that he couldn’t’ get away with that. And also I think, with comedy, you can’t do a season of 23 episodes if it’s just you and your mate writing. The standard would drop. It would be a disaster. So you speculate to accumulate a bit. You have to have a system where you… I mean, I don’t understand the American system, but I imagine where the more investment is up front… where the people who come up with the idea are incentivized to let go of it to a certain extent in order to get other writers involved, in order to be able to produce the volume required. Here, all that would happen if you got other writers involved writing your show is that you’d lose the script commission. And so why would any pair of writers do that? There has to be an upside to the downside of losing creative control. And I don’t think any broadcaster or production company here has ever offered that. Because I don’t think they’ve ever had the nerve to think, “Yes, if we make 100 episodes of this thing in the next four years, then we’ll be on the gravy train for life.” Because there’s never been a British comedy show that’s done that. Successful comedy shows here run for four series of six episodes each, and we should be happy with that, and then maybe it’ll get shown on tiny stations around the rest of the world for hardcore comedy fans.
KP: Do you think that the writing process in the UK - whether it be in teams or writing personally - is rather fragmented? You’ve written for Big Train and Armstrong & Miller, and such. And Bruiser. Was that a group writing scenario? Was it always you and Robert writing independently, and then everything would sort of be put together with the contributions of the other writers to make the show? Was there ever a writing room in any of those series you worked on?
MITCHELL: For Armstrong & Miller, it sort of differed, really. With Armstrong & Miller, we’d have a weekly meeting and chat about ideas. We’d pitch sketches and pitch half sketch ideas and the group would kind of… what was very useful about that - and we’ve tried to emulate that in our own sketch show - is that ideas that aren’t fully formed get turned into ideas that are, by the collective input. But that would just be one morning a week, and the rest of the time you’re writing at home on your own. I worked on The 11 O’Clock Show briefly. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that.
KP: Oh yes. Would this be earlier in its run?
MITCHELL: This was late in its run. There was a big writers room for that. It was not a good environment. The show was failing. The channel had lost faith in it. And it was just a room in which a lot of men would be smartalecks at each other. I’m not one for… I don’t mind that sort of mouthy male environment. I can do alright in that usually. But this was too much for me.
KP: Would you say it was a deconstructive environment?
MITCHELL: It was more sort of… it was just… the thing that characterized it for me was the moment when I was trying to… I came up with half a joke. I can’t remember what it was, but it was about something I said, “Couldn’t we do something about how A is like B and it should be like C…” And somebody just said to me, “That’s not a joke. You can’t put that line in.” And I realized there is a process where I can’t speak until I’ve got a fully formed line in my head. And I thought, “Well, actually, we should all go away, write somewhere else, and then read out these lines to each other if that’s what we’ve been reduced to.”
KP: Because there’s no collaborative process.
MITCHELL: Exactly. It’s just binary. Anything you said either went in or didn’t. Nobody would try and work with you on it. Obviously, writers rooms don’t have to be like that, but that’s what that room quickly became like over here. And it may be that we just haven’t developed the culture of working collaboratively in a way that’s constructive.
KP: There also seems to be a very proprietary, almost auteur, approach to sitcoms and comedy within the UK. That there’s very distinct personalities, compared to that that massive almost group think of an American writers room. Do you think that… I don’t want to say ego, but do you think that sort of singular vision largely drives the UK method?
MITCHELL: Yes, I think so. And I think it does come down to… I don’t think it’s a thing that would necessarily always have to be. But I think when you’re making a short series of things and people can essentially… one writer or two writers can just do it all, and they’re not incentivized to work in a different way. And I think it probably has the advantage that you can produce shows that are quirkier here - but still work - than anything that would be produced in a more collaborative writing environment. But at the same time it does mean you can’t sort of stumble across a real winning formula and then make 200 of them and get all that involved in terms of it being a show that the whole world knows and… and I’m sort of frustrated in a way that no one here has ever really tried to go for that. I suppose the key would be whether or not it would succeed in America.
KP: Where do you think the failing is in something like that? Is it a case of just that no one ever pushes it through?
MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know how…
KP: I mean, if you were to go pitch, say, a Channel 4 or BBC, “This is my idea, this is how we want to construct it, using the American system, and I’d like to get 200 episodes out of it…”
KP: Do you think it would be ludicrous to try?
MITCHELL: (laughs) I think what they’d say is, they’d look at the idea, decide whether they liked it, and if they liked it they’d say, “Okay, well, we’ll commission a pilot and then a series of six episodes.” That’s what they’d say. Because also… it’s so hand to mouth. There’s no… they wouldn’t… they’re not in the business of spending more money than they can recoup in the first transmission. Because they’ve got no evidence of how much money they could make further down the line if they had 200 episodes syndicated. And American audiences aren’t receptive to British comedies in huge numbers. The Office has done well when remade… I believe that’s right, isn’t it?
MITCHELL: And there’ve been plenty of examples of British formats remade succeeding in America, but the actual original British versions tend to be viewed by appreciative but small numbers.
KP: I think that’s more a matter of lack of presentation than the quality or acceptance of the material itself. The fact is, when you can barely find the material… the British Office was quite a success when it was actually presented as, “You should watch this… Oh, and we’re actually giving you the ability to do so.”
MITCHELL: Yeah, right.
KP: I mean, the fact that a lot of this stuff isn’t presented… Peep Show has done well for BBC America, when they’ve actually run it.
KP: But I think it’s a matter of getting it… I’ve spoken with John Lloyd quite a bit about this in regards to QI, and I’ve tried to convince him that an American remake and rethink of QI is ridiculous. Because the fact is that humor travels, and funny is funny.
MITCHELL: That’s very reassuring to hear, because it’s kind of what I’ve always thought. On the basis that American shows have been really successful here. They’re all in English.
KP: I think it’s a reticence…
MITCHELL: The original version of a show always tends to be the best version of it, I think.
KP: Oh yes. Well, look how many times we’ve tried to remake Fawlty Towers.
MITCHELL: Hmm. It’s interesting, you saying about going… because I think if there was one example of a British show that had really been big in its original form in America, I think, then, going in and pitching that would be a lot easier. What it needs is it needs one example.
KP: I think it’s just… I mean, you have something like a BBC America that ostensibly is supposed to be a distribution point for the cream of UK material. But when the bulk of their schedule is filled up with Changing Rooms and What Not to Wear and Ground Force, what are they actually accomplishing when they’re actually supposed to be presenting everything?
MITCHELL: Yeah. I occasionally have a look at the schedule on BBC America and I can’t believe how much of that stuff…
KP: Is filler.
KP: Do we have to see Antiques Roadshow in five hour blocks?
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yeah. And it’s not as if… I mean, there’s so much other stuff they could be showing.
KP: And they have the ability, and they’ve done before, to show Channel 4 and BBC shows. They essentially can pick the best of the best.
MITCHELL: Yeah, because Channel 4 and ITV don’t have equivalent channels. And they’re always glad for the exposure. Peep Show’s not a BBC show.
KP: Right, it’s Channel 4.
KP: And the fact that they’ve shown it before… it’s just such a poorly programmed channel. And now they’re trying to branch into original content, and it’s kind of like, “No, you have all this stuff you’re not showing! You could have all this for pennies compared to original content. Why aren’t you using what is essentially original content to an American audience?”
KP: I think it’ll take a paradigm shift in how the stuff is presented here.
KP: The thing that concerns and confuses me is how many UK performers are almost… they think that the US market is closed because the stuff isn’t accepted over here or they don’t understand it or there’s not an appetite for it. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. If they’re not gonna come over and actually introduce the audience to themselves - because BBC America, let’s say, is not doing anything to change things. And I think it’s up to the performers to understand that, no, there is an audience. And the audience wants to be entertained. Bill Bailey came over - and I was talking to him around the time he came over - and he played like gangbusters. He sold out in L.A., he sold out in New York. The audience is there.
KP: And I think it’s just a matter of they have to actually see it first. And if they see it, just the same as… I mean, the audience is the same. Again, funny is funny.
KP: I think something like QI is one of the funniest things that I think has come down the pike. And it’s based almost wholly on an excellent framework within which quite gifted performers can be quite gifted in their performance, presenting fascinating information in a funny way.
KP: And I think to try and reenvision that is a waste of energy and time.
KP: Because I think it will play as is.
KP: And Peep Show, when they showed it, played. I mean, it played enough to where BBC released the DVD here in the US. But again, I think it’s just presentation.
KP: What is your view in sort of… because you’ve never come over and done an American tour, or any kind of American run, have you?
MITCHELL: No. We’ve sort of only done one UK tour, really, properly, and that was at the end of last year. From our days of… before we kind of broke through, we did the Edinburgh Fringe every year, but then when television things started to happen for us we kind of didn’t do any live performing for four or five years. And then we did this tour last autumn which was a great fun, and great sort of suddenly realizing - contrast to our Edinburgh days - that we do have an audience now.
KP: You mean more than 11 people show up?
MITCHELL: Yes, exactly. But no, I mean… we sort of never considered doing anything like that in America, but maybe we should.
KP: What fuels that? How do you perceive performance in America?
MITCHELL: What, live performance?
KP: Yes. Is it something that you’re leery of, or interested in?
MITCHELL: I think probably a bit of both. It would be great fun to do a tour that did well in America. That would be very exciting. Just as a thing to do itself and in terms of what could come from it. But at the same time, I’d be terribly afraid of turning up and no one’s bought any tickets. But I think that’s almost just an exaggerated version of the performer’s constant nightmare, of you’re constantly oscillating between despair and megalomania.
KP: I think it’s one of those things that if you don’t build it, they won’t come.
KP: And obviously there’s been certain UK performers that have almost pathologically pursued the American audience. You know, Eddie Izzard for example.
KP: Where that was a very clear intended goal…
KP: … that he worked feverishly towards. And definitely he was rewarded with having an audience. It just seems that… I’d spoken with Alan Davies two years ago…
KP: I always thought it would be a wonderful thing to do a… are you aware of that Kings of Comedy tour that was done a few years back? It was a whole bunch of performers that got together…
MITCHELL: Oh right.
KP: And did a presentation. Sort of like an all evening kind of thing, geared towards increasing their exposure without it depending on the strength of any one performer.
KP: And the idea is to do a British comedy tour that way…
KP: Where you could take a whole bunch of performers. Make a night of it, and with the multiple performers thing you could have comedians swap out when they’re were available. But it’s a themed evening, and use that as a vehicle to introduce American audiences to all these British comedians.
MITCHELL: Yeah… that’s a very good idea…
KP: It’s sort of like a tide floating all boats kind of thing. What is your view of that sort of approach to…
MITCHELL: That, I think, sounds like a very good idea, basically. That would be something I’d be very interested in.
KP: Why do you think there hasn’t been that sort of methodical approach towards breaking into America? And I hate that phrase “breaking in.” It just seems like there’s some kind of wall that’s perceived to be there, when there’s really not.
MITCHELL: Yes… I don’t know. Probably because people perceive that wall, and also because… well, I don’t know. I think a lot of British comedians would like to be able to work in America and be known in America, but wouldn’t necessarily want to live in LA. And wouldn’t indeed want to live in America.
KP: I know, I share that view.
MITCHELL: And I sort of feel…
KP: I don’t want to live in LA either.
MITCHELL: (laughs) And I think maybe the perception here - and I hope it’s the wrong perception - is that in order to “break America”, you have to kind of abandon Britain. And you’re essentially emigrating. And that you could emigrate and fail, and that would be awful. And even if you succeed, you’re a visitor in your own country.
KP: Do you think there’s a real resentment that’s perceived amongst your compatriots that, “If you go to America, don’t come back…”?
MITCHELL: I think it would never be expressed as resentment, but I think it’s probably a very British sort of resentment, which is essentially going, “Well, he took that choice and it’s good luck to him. But I’m very happy here…” kind of thing.
KP: “Even though I’d like to go over, too.”
MITCHELL: Yes, exactly. It’s the whole… I don’t know whether the sort of Peter Cook/Dudley Moore thing defines it.
KP: Are you afraid that Robert would go over and have his 10?
MITCHELL: Oh yes, perpetually.
KP: Just tell him, “Don’t come back.”
MITCHELL: (laughs) No. But yeah, so I think probably… yeah, maybe people are nervous because they think it’s a big risk, it’s a big jump, and it means you’re in some way changing. And I would certainly…
KP: Do you subscribe to that?
MITCHELL: I’d like to think of it as it’s just more audience. It’s just more… it doesn’t in any way invalidate what you do here. It’s just more work, if you want to be a freelance performer.
KP: Have you ever held that sort of view of it?
MITCHELL: I suppose I… yeah, I… I don’t know. I’m a bit frightened by LA.
KP: And rightly so. But I think it’s… if you’re not going there to live…
MITCHELL: Right. What you’ve been saying has been good to hear, in terms of it being not a market you have to think about breaking so much as just…
KP: Showing up.
MITCHELL: … turning up.
KP: And I think that it’s the kind of thing that has a carry back effect. Because if they know that there’s this material out there, they’ll go and seek it out. The material that you’re producing in the UK…
KP: I mean, if they enjoy you in the performance and you go, “By the way, we star in Peep Show.” People will know what to do. Multi-region players are available. There’s YouTube. This stuff is out there for people to find.
KP: And it’s the kind of thing that, you know, you could tell them to go to someplace like BBC America and say, “We want to see more of this.”
KP: It broadens the market. And I think that if there was a more concerted effort on the performers side to broaden that market… like, the thing I was telling Alan about, why not have this sort of mass influx? Because if people find something funny, they’re gonna look for more of it.
KP: And I think to underestimate or dismiss the American audience… and I don’t know if you’ve encountered that. I’m actually curious if you have encountered an almost sort of dismissal of the American market as not being worth it as long as they’re a success at home…
MITCHELL: No, I’ve not come across that attitude. Because I think to dismiss a market from which such brilliant shows have come, if you see what I mean, is nonsense. How can you dismiss an audience that’s made a hit out of The Simpsons? So yeah, there’s no logic to that. But I think perhaps what people feel is that it’s not so much that the audience’s ability to enjoy British shows is so underestimated by the television people over there as to make trying to get on there an impossibility. Has that torturous sentence made sense?
KP: Yes. I’m diagramming it as we speak.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Because it’s not just… you don’t just have to not underestimate the American audience yourself; you have to be in touch with people on American television channels who don’t underestimate that audience.
KP: It seems like not only that, and in conversations I’ve had with John, even the British production companies like TalkBack underestimate the appeal. If it’s sort of undercut at home, before you even get over to the American side, as, “Let’s not even pursue that. It’s not even worth taking over there… ” Or the assumption at home that things have to be changed before they travel…
KP: I think it’s destructive.
MITCHELL: I think there’s probably also a kind of negative kind of, “Let’s not try things that we’re afraid might fail…” thing. If you know what I mean.
KP: Is that a view that you share somewhat?
MITCHELL: Oh, definitely, to a certain extent. I think in all sorts of areas. I don’t try to somehow rotate myself from failure. I’m always having to battle that. (laughs)
KP: I know that with the Mitchell and Webb material, I used to program a film fest every year, and I would program a lot of sketches from different UK shows to put into the mix, and they all went over gangbusters.
MITCHELL: Oh great.
KP: And obviously with You Tube it’s much easier to make things viral and spread things around. And some of your stuff from That Mitchell and Webb Look I’ve passed along and it’s gone quite far…
MITCHELL: Oh excellent.
KP: I think the Nazis sketch and the BMX Bandit sketch. The stuff travels.
MITCHELL: Oh marvelous. Well, thank you for doing that.
KP: It’s always my hope that the audience responds. I’ve never had anyone that I’ve shown the stuff to that have gone, “Well, why are you showing this? Can we move onto the funny American stuff?”
KP: “Oh, they talk funny. You can’t laugh at that. And they’re so intelligent. How dare they!”
KP: But it just seems that… I wish there was a more concerted effort… or more confidence, I think, is a better way to put it, and less insulting…. to sort of pursue that. Because I think it’s a shame that the material that you and Robert have done hasn’t come over here in the way it should. At what point is that even something that’s sort of within your wheelhouse to control?
MITCHELL: In terms of getting our material to a wider audience?
KP: Or yourselves.
MITCHELL: I think probably one of the reasons we’ve not thought about it very concertedly is because in the last two or three years we’ve been very busy here, and when things are just starting to happen you sort of deal with the things right in front of you, if you know what I mean. And also I think we’re not good at… we’re not our own impresarios. We’re not good at that. We were always, in the days before we had any kind of representation, the process of getting an Edinburgh show on would be a tremendously panicky, hectic process where we basically have to sort of spend all morning trying to put together a letter and get a stamp on it and, you know, we are bad at that. We’re badly organized. And one of the great things about when things start to go right is that those kind of problems get taken away from you to a certain extent. But I suppose the other side of that is then you’re, in terms of how you’re sort of… your area of reach is limited by the sort of capabilities or ambitions of people who are handling that for you.
KP: And if things are going smoothly then they have no real ambition to expand.
MITCHELL: Yeah. So it’s probably something we’ve just not really had serious enough conversations with people about because we’ve been always kind of thinking, “Well, we’ve got this coming up now and then that,” and our main state of panic is always about making sure the next thing we’re doing isn’t going to end up being shit because we haven’t put enough time into it. We do tend to be thinking more about that than about sort of longer term strategic goals.
KP: Have you ever had a conversation like that between the two of you - as far as a long term plan - or has it always been sort of thing-to-thing?
MITCHELL: We haven’t for a long time, I suppose. We used to.
KP: But were those pie in the sky, “We’re going to be fabulously rich one day!” chats?
MITCHELL: Exactly, (laughs). Essentially we used to talk about…
KP: “I’m going to own a gold woman.”
MITCHELL: (laughs) It’s a weird thing, actually. You sometimes get asked, “Did you ever imagine things would go this well?” And you feel like saying, “Do you know what an imagination can do? I imagined I was emperor of the universe!”
KP: “This is all a disappointment to me!”
MITCHELL: “I can certainly go on BBC 2. I can imagine, say, shoving off to BBC 1.” I am genuinely pleased with how things have gone, but I imagined much, much better. And also I feared much, much worse. And I wouldn’t appear half a human if I hadn’t.
KP: When would you say, then, was the last conversation you had about the future like that? Would it be back to the Edinburgh days?
MITCHELL: I don’t know. I think probably not that long ago. Probably about four or five years ago when Peep Show was just starting. Then we were sort of last thinking about… we talked to Sam (Bain) and Jesse (Armstrong) about Peep Show, strategically, in terms of wanting… we all decided we want to keep doing it as long as they’ll let us, which is actually quite an unusual choice to take over here. Things like The Office and Fawlty Towers having famously “quit while they’re ahead.”
KP: How detrimental do you think that sort of precedent has been to British comedy?
MITCHELL: I think it is a shame. I think, in a way, with a sitcom the proof of the pudding is in the sort of repetition.
KP: It seems almost like a badge of honor now that a comedy show will go, “Well, we decided to walk away. Let them want more.”
MITCHELL: Yeah. And I don’t understand it. I can see why it happened with Fawlty Towers, because there might just not have been another six remotely that good. But I don’t see why The Office couldn’t have carried on. Are you aware of The Young Ones?
KP: Oh yes.
MITCHELL: I worked with Adrian Edmonson a few years ago, and he said, “We stopped after two series for the noble Fawlty Towers ‘quit while you’re ahead’ reason,” and he massively regrets it. Because it was a great show. They could easily have done some more. And nothing they’ve worked on subsequently has been quite such a hit. I thought that was very interesting. I think it’s very healthy of him to have admitted it. But also it shows the dangers of just giving up on a successful show out of a weird sense of… I don’t know. A weird sense of pride, I suppose.
KP: Do you think there’s almost a resentment within the community for any show that runs longer than those two golden series?
MITCHELL: I don’t think… no, I don’t think it’s quite like that. But I think there will be… there’s always a sense that if you try and go on, you’re doomed to get worse. And I think that’s probably true in the very long term, but things can get worse a bit and then get better a bit. And a big, long running show like The Simpsons has gone up and down and up and down, but it’s still always been worth continuing with. They’re still creating good stuff. I suppose our feeling with Peep Show is that we don’t mind if the last series isn’t the best, as long as it was worth watching. (laughs) But if you obsess with quitting while you’re at your absolute best, then you’re always going to fear carrying on.
KP: I think the audience, even if there’s a bad season or something ends on a sour note, they’ll stick and rewatch for the stuff that they enjoy.
KP: So even if a bad thing is produced, let’s say, the audience knows well enough that they’ll still… they’re not gonna hate you for it.
MITCHELL: Yeah, you’ve earned a few… you’ve earned a bit of loyalty if they’ve watched a few good episodes. Then a slightly duff one they’ll forgive you.
KP: And it’s all selective anyway. People choose what they want…
KP: So they’ll just go, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, Season 3 didn’t exist. But 4 was great.” But it almost seems that there is a sort of comedy class system in the UK, to some extent…
MITCHELL: Explain that.
KP: If you look at the perception that there’s some comedians that have sort of “sold out” on certain things. But then there are purists that are somehow higher or elevated because they haven’t… I mean I was surprised and actually a little bit dismayed about all the attacks that you and Robert took for taking the Mac ads.
MITCHELL: Yeah, we were very surprised as well.
KP: Which seems like, well, if you’re offered a job, you take a job.
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah.
KP: It’s almost like people believe comedians should be in a garret starving, writing their sketches. Just for the sketches sake.
MITCHELL: I think you’re right. The whole “sold out” sort of rhetoric is essentially damaging and meaningless. The problem is, I think a lot of people who enjoy comedy like to think it’s just for them. It’s their private little joke that they’ve discovered. And that’s not the point of television at all. It’s supposed to be for lots of people. The jokes are put there deliberately and they’re not just found by you. I think that any kind of movement or something, when shows become more popular, the assumption is that they must have become worse, by the people obsessed with this sense of purity.
KP: I remember… I forgot who told me, but they said they thought one of the worst things that happened for comedy was Edinburgh.
KP: That it created this belief in comedy purity that was somehow damaged if a comedian wanted to make a living and eat.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yeah, I think that may very well be true. It’s certainly where the real comedy happens, is in Edinburgh. And actually that’s not the real comedy because it doesn’t pay its way. Television comedy is real comedy.
KP: Did you feel, when you were playing to four or five people at 10 in the morning, that that was the real comedy?
MITCHELL: No. (laughs) Absolutely no sense of being a sort of comic cutting edge. I felt like a failure. And I felt like I was never gonna get on TV.
KP: And it certainly undercuts the whole idea of comedy, which is it’s supposed to entertain. And it’s amplified, obviously, by the amount of people you’re entertaining. And as a performer I can imagine it being quite painful. Bill Bailey talked about he and Sean Locke walking on to do their show, and only one person was there, and they were just, “Well, you wanna just go have a drink?
KP: It almost undercuts the comedy for it to be this sort of exclusive, exclusionary club.
MITCHELL: Yeah. The thing is, it’s like they say - everyone’s got their mate that’s funnier than any comedian. And that’s because, in a small group, it’s much easier to be funny because you know all the references. And the trick is to find the things that everyone gets. And so being of a wide appeal is very important. And I say that as someone who’s in relatively niche shows. But if lots of people don’t get it, it’s certainly not as good a joke.
KP: There almost seems to be a similar criticism for those comedians who frequent multiple panel shows. Which I don’t understand, because I think the base determiner should always be, “Is it funny?”
KP: Then if it’s funny, I think there’s a reason for it being extant. I probably found out more than I wanted to find out about you in Would I Lie To You. I’ve never seen someone quite so uncomfortable about the truth and the lies.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Oh, thank you.
KP: But it was funny! Was the show as painful as it seemed?
MITCHELL: No. I enjoyed it mainly, but I think they focused on the pain in the edit. Yeah, I found the truth. The lies I enjoyed doing, though I found the truths about myself awkward.
KP: You kind of present yourself as the perfect mark for a con man, though.
KP: It seemed like the lies, if genuinely told, you bought into pretty quick.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Oh dear.
KP: Now you’re going to be the target for every confidence man in the UK.
KP: Derren Brown’s probably knocking on your door right now.
MITCHELL: (laughs) I think the sort of problem, and the reason the format works, is that when I know - you know that the truths they’ve given people are going to sound unlikely. They’re not going to pick obvious truths. And I think that’s what tripped me up many times. “Well, it could be true. It could all be true!” (laughs)
KP: Where else could you have a teammate who collected and ate belly button lint?
KP: I don’t know how you sat there after that.
KP: I’m surprised she didn’t ask you for any. How much was actually cut from those tapings?
MITCHELL: Oh, quite. They were long recordings, actually. They were a couple of hours each. So yeah, more on the cutting room floor than in the program.
KP: You certainly made a wonderful team captain, though.
MITCHELL: Oh, thank you.
KP: Mainly deferring to your team going, “Oh, I don’t know. What do you think?” Which, I think, is the best sort of all-inclusive type of captain for a team.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, when everything goes wrong, I don’t want to be the only one blamed.
KP: But it seems like there are certain performers who are made for those sort of shows, which obviously require a large bit of attention and interaction and quick wit. Do you feel comfortable slipping into those kinds of programs?
MITCHELL: Yeah, I enjoy them, actually. I think I probably enjoy… the ones I enjoy doing most would be QI and Have I Got News for You. And I think they’re the best structured ones. But yeah, I find them fun. They’re a sort of outlet for a different kind of way of being funny from scripted material. You can sort of think of something on the hoof, get a laugh, and that’s the process completed. From idea to television in a few seconds rather than several weeks of writing and development and shooting.
KP: What was the first one you ever sat in on? Was it Have I Got News For You?
MITCHELL: No, the first one I did was several years earlier on a show that did not work on Channel 4 called Does Doug Know?, which was hosted by Daisy Donovan, and I did a couple of them. And I didn’t shine. I don’t think anyone shone on it, really.
KP: Do you think that was a format issue?
MITCHELL: Basically it was a format issue. And also it was a practice issue. But then I was not asked on another one for three years. And then I did one on Channel 4 where I was sort of hosting it for a week called FAQ U…
KP: Oh yes, I’ve heard of that…
MITCHELL: And that was sort of… Again, I don’t think that was a successful show, overall, but I was perceived to have done well on it. And that kind of got me on the list of people who get asked to do the other ones.
KP: Do you think there is a list that exists, even unofficially?
MITCHELL: I don’t know whether it’s a list that’s written down anywhere, but something changed. As a result of doing that show I was asked on Have I Got News For You, QI, and Armando Iannucci’s radio show within a week of each other. It was quite… something quite definite had changed in my status..
KP: Quite a trifecta…
MITCHELL: Yeah. And I found all three very intimidating but ultimately very enjoyable.
KP: So what was it like going into… because I’m real curious about Have I Got News For You, which always seemed sort of an odd atmosphere. Obviously being as topical as it is…
KP: And also that, particularly since Angus (Deayton) left, it really is Ian Hislop and Paul Merton’s roost.
MITCHELL: Yeah. I’ve always been on Ian’s team. And he’s always been absolutely lovely. And very supportive. I’ve actually found it a very quite friendly, easy environment. But there are definitely tensions under the surface there that I’ve always been shielded from. But I think probably the most terrifying moment for me, because actually it’s been on since I was at school, and it was sitting there in the studio just listening to the signature tune play in on a show that I’ve watched as a teenager at home, and realizing I was in it, was tremendous in one sense, but absolutely terrifying at the same time. I just kinda, “Blimey, I really am doing this, aren’t I? I’d better not fuck this up.”
KP: How much rehearsal is there prior? There’s at least one camera rehearsal, isn’t there?
MITCHELL: Well, there’s a basic camera rehearsal. You don’t get any of the questions or anything. You get the least on Have I Got News For You and QI. And they are the best shows, and I think that’s sort of… that’s a sign that… I don’t think preparation of the panelist ever really works. Because I think the audience can spot, subconsciously, if some of the material is not off the cuff.
KP: That was one of the criticisms about Unbelievable Truth, wasn’t it?
MITCHELL: The radio one?
MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, that was at least all… well, everyone had their own…
KP: Their prepared…
MITCHELL: Prepared thing.
KP: Their prepared story.
MITCHELL: At least that was openly prepared. And I certainly… it’s a legitimate criticism, but at the same time I think it’s much worse when you’re on a show where people are passing off as wit things that have been written in advance, and sometimes by others. I think when it’s openly read out - as the host’s script on all these things is openly read out from an autocue - I think it’s very different from passing off prepared material as on the spot wit. You can always spot it on They Think it’s All Over when Gary Lineker says a joke. You can sort of see him trying to remember how it goes. And there’s something about the remembering look in the eye is different from the thinking up look in the eye.
KP: That’s why I always feel sorry for, since Angus left, the guest presenters on Have I Got News For You that have been guests prior. When they’re sort of straight jacketed by that teleprompter.
KP: And you know that they’ve shone as guests in the past but they’re now locked into the vagaries of that teleprompter…
MITCHELL: Yeah, you don’t get the same flexibility when you’re in that chair to join in, really. You just have to do the jokes that have been written for you in the week.
KP: Have they presented you with the opportunity to guest host at any point?
MITCHELL: I was approached last year but I couldn’t because I was on tour. I think I would do it if I was asked again, because I just admire the show so much and I feel that’s kind of a thing to tick off that I haven’t done. But I am sort of aware that if you go on as the host, you’re sort of out of it slightly. You have to deliver your autocue script as well as you can, and you might get to occasionally do a bit of banter, but you’re not primarily there to banter. And the banter’s the most fun.
KP: Obviously, being a fan long before you were on it, how do you perceive the Angus and the post-Angus years? What is your preference?
MITCHELL: I think they should go for a regular host now. I think, personally, it’d be impossible for them to get Angus back because there’s so much enmity there. And I don’t quite understand why. I’ve met all three people, they all seem perfectly nice. But anyway, they don’t like each other any more, (laughs) and there’s nothing to be done about that. But I think the guest hosting worked really well for a couple of series.
KP: As sort of a novelty?
MITCHELL: Yeah. And they were able to create a bit of buzz about as a single show by having interesting guest presenters. But now it’s essentially a rotation of people. It’s not news and it just means that the show is less stable. So yes, I think the novelty of that has thoroughly worn off and they should look to get a new permanent host. But I don’t think they will, because I think Ian and Paul like being in control of it.
KP: Yes, you can definitely see that they step to the fore of that.
KP: Although I’m sure that they’ll just decide on Boris (Johnson).
KP: A more pleasurable deer in the headlights I don’t think they’ve ever had.
MITCHELL: No, they get on very well with him. And they’ve probably made sure he’ll never be a mayor of London as well.
KP: Oh yeah. I don’t know, I think there’s something about… people love a novelty, and Boris as Mayor certainly would be that.
MITCHELL: Yeah. (laughs)
KP: I don’t know, Boris for President. After Bush, I’d vote for him.
KP: I think anything goes at that point.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yes.
KP: And then something like being a team captain. How, when you’re doing that sort of circuit - and obviously I’m assuming the shooting times really aren’t that long for a lot of these things. How do you juggle that with obviously wanting to do your own material?
MITCHELL: Doing the panel show stuff with Peep Show and the sketch show?
MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, as you said, panel shows basically take a lot less time. It’s kind of from middle of… it’s from like 4 or 5:00 in the afternoon into the evening of a day, and that’s your contribution done. So I just fit them in between. My priority is always to do the scripted stuff. Because that’s one of the reasons people want me to be on these panel shows at all. I certainly would never want the panel shows to become my main thing.
KP: Do you worry about that? Because obviously there are some performers that panel shows become the rest of their career.
MITCHELL: Mm. Yeah, well, I’m not worried about it at the moment. While the sketch and Peep Show are both being recommissioned I’m not worried about it. When that ceases to be the case, I’ll have to be careful, I suppose. And I’d also like to do more acting in other people’s things as well as being myself. And that’s… I’d love to be in a costume drama. For some reason I’ve decided that.
KP: Really? What period?
MITCHELL: Dickensian. I’d like to be some nasty Dickensian character in some adaptation. I think it would be fun to be able to do a bit of that kind of character acting as well as comedy.
KP: I’m surprised you haven’t been asked yet.
MITCHELL: Oh, well, thank you very much. So am I. (laughs)
KP: Heck, even Johnny Vegas has been in a Dickensian piece.
MITCHELL: Yeah, exactly. He was great in that. Probably the best thing he’s done.
KP: I’m actually shocked that more people haven’t offered you acting roles. I thought you and Robert were both very good in Magicians. Which I think was unnecessarily dismissed.
MITCHELL: Oh, thank you.
KP: I’m surprised they never tried again for an American distribution on that.
KP: How did you feel, doing film? That was the first film you had done, correct?
MITCHELL: Yes. To us, because we were doing it with Sam and Jesse, it felt very like television, really. In terms of, it’s just acting. I think that the real difference for film is the writing challenge, to make the thing work, whatever, an hour and a half, two hours rather than half an hour. And that was Sam & Jesse’s job, and I think they did a good job on it. But yeah, I’m always nervous saying this, but it was just acting for the camera in the same way. It maybe suffers because I didn’t, in some way, raise my game, but it did feel just so similar.
KP: Yes, you really should have at least put in an effort. Come on.
MITCHELL: I should have put on my film cowboy hat or something.
KP: Yes, your magic film underwear.
KP: That I’m sure they sell in all the special shops.
MITCHELL: Yeah… (laughs)
KP: Do you think that there is a belief that there should be some kind of different dynamic to that?
MITCHELL: Yeah. I think perhaps one of the problems with the British film industry is the perception that there’s some kind of magic trick to film that there isn’t to television. And I think in our fears that we haven’t got that trick, many a straightforward film is fucked up. And I think we just need to make a few more films and calm down about it. Everyone always tries their best in films, as in television. But this sort of weird rictor of panic you get in thinking, “This is a film for god’s sake! Justify the size of the screen!” I don’t think is very helpful.
KP: I’m always surprised by the lack of independent comedies…You look at your average film festival and 90% of them are coming-of-age dramas. The other 9% is some other hand-wringing drama, and you’ll be lucky if a comedy ekes in there.
MITCHELL: And the weird thing is how many people sit at home on a Saturday saying, “I really fancy going to see a coming-of-age drama tonight.” (laughs)
KP: “Oh yes, it was so wonderful last week. When the hell did they come of age?”
MITCHELL: Yeah… (laughs)
KP: “I wonder how the other half comes of age.”
KP: What do you think it is about that makes that it so difficult… it seems like people don’t even pursue comedy as something to do in a low budget film. When comedy, you would think, is one of the easiest things, if you know what you’re doing, to sort of put together and have a universal appeal.
MITCHELL: Yes, and it’s one of those things that, when the various times when we have made any reasonable numbers of films here, what we have made quite well has been comedy. Yeah, I don’t understand it, really.
KP: Yeah, where is the Ealing of today?
MITCHELL: Well, they sort of tried to relaunch it, didn’t they?
KP: Yeah, well, in the worst possible way.
MITCHELL: I agree with you. We definitely… there are lots of comedy writers, lots of comedians in this country, and yes, a comic film… Magicians didn’t cost a lot of money to make. And I don’t see why we can’t be making two dozen of those a year. As a country. I think some of them would be real classics if we did. Because I think people would… but I think the difficulties of getting a film off the ground here are so overwhelming, it puts a lot of people off.
KP: I thought the lottery was supposed to solve that.
MITCHELL: Well, it hasn’t.
KP: I guess unless you’re a costume drama or a coming-of-age film.
MITCHELL: Well, yeah, so many films are just on a real wing and a prayer. Whereas television, you know where the money’s coming from.
KP: If you were to go in with a comedy to pitch, is comedy almost looked down on as being unworthy?
MITCHELL: Oh no, I don’t think that. I think we’d get a lot of interest, then the vastly slow process of getting these various funding bodies all to commit the money in the same tax year, would again… It took four years for Andrew O’Connor to raise the money for Magicians. And for my and Rob’s point of view, it was a great process because we just came in for the odd read-through over that period while the script was being developed, and then did it. But it’s such a lot… in many ways, one film is not a lot to show for five years work. If you’re in the business of making films, you kinda wanna make one a year, wouldn’t you? But it doesn’t seem to be the system in place. Andrew O’Connor originated that film, got the script together, directed it. I think he did a good job on it. But he’d have to go and start the whole process again. He’d be directing his second feature around the time of the London Olympics. That’s a pretty grim process.
KP: There’s no incentive to go through that grinder again.
MITCHELL: No. There just doesn’t seem to be a system where there are just people who are routinely saying, “Yes, you can make that, you can make that, don’t make that. There we go. There’s the money. It’s fine.” It’s always, “While we’re waiting on the Arts Council, the lottery says they’ll give us £180,000, but that has to be spent by March, and that is only in place if we get the £200 from this weird…” It’s incredibly tedious and inefficient.
KP: “And my uncle is giving a couple thousand…”
MITCHELL: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
KP: Does writing film even come into your view at this point? Is that even an interest?
MITCHELL: It’s an interest but not an immediate priority, I suppose. Rob and I have got a lot of sketches we need to write. But also we’d like to do a sitcom that we write as well. And I think that’s more of a pressing ambition for us than a film. So I’d like, in the next couple of years, to try and get our own sitcom that we write, as well as the performing, off the ground. Not in place of a feature - hopefully alongside it. I think we sort of feel that we - and I think it would be very different from…it’d be much more kind of heightened, and in a more sort of Father Teddy kind of level of reality…
KP: Sort of a Black Books kind of thing?
MITCHELL: Yeah. I think we’d like to do that.
KP: Do you think there’s still a perception out there that you and Rob write Peep Show?
MITCHELL: Oh yes. Lots of people… I think people still routinely assume that, which I find really embarrassing. Rob and I are pretty good about always making it clear that we don’t. But the look of disappointment on people’s faces when they sort of, when they have to readjust their estimation of you downward. And obviously it’s irritating for Sam & Jesse - and why wouldn’t they be irritated, because it’s brilliantly written.
KP: Do you get the sense that people almost wish they could retract the praise they just gave you?
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yeah. “We write most of our sketch show…” and they go, “Oh. Right.”
KP: “But I love Peep Show.”
MITCHELL: Yeah. “Peep Show made me come over.”
KP: Do you think that people approached That Mitchell and Webb Look as sort of a follow-up to Peep Show, even though it was the first thing that, since Situation, that you guys were doing?
MITCHELL: Yeah, I don’t know. I was worried when it came out that people would just essentially go, “This is nothing like Peep Show. What are they doing?” At the same time, I suppose it’s probably quite good that it was a very obviously different show. Yeah, I think we… a great feeling of justification of the sketch show was when it won its BAFTA - because at that point we kind of felt, “It’s all right now, we can say this show is also doing well. So the one we’re writing is doing well as well as the one we don’t.” And we were probably a bit insecure about it before that point.
KP: And if it hadn’t, would that have put a severe detriment on your enthusiasm to write another show post that?
MITCHELL: No, no. I think we’d definitely have kept it going as long as they’d let us, whatever. But it gave us a bit more of a spring in our step.
KP: Has your writing process changed in any fundamental way over the years?
MITCHELL: Not really. We write a bit more separately than we used to. We used to write absolutely every word both sitting next to each other. And we still do a lot like that. But we can sort of now divide up jobs to do and work separately. So that’s the only major change.
KP: Do you think that your interactions have changed in any way over those years?
MITCHELL: I’d be lying if I said that Rob and I haven’t at certain times felt the pressure of being constantly in each other’s company. I think we’ve had to be quite careful not to row, not to get too angry with each other when it’s essentially just the nature of circumstances. So that sort of pressure has been put on our friendship. But I think it’s weathered the storm quite well.
KP: How does that pressure usually express itself?
MITCHELL: Well, we’re neither of us… we don’t have rows, really. But we get kind of terse and a little bit sarcastic and a little bit quiet. And I think we both sort of fear having the row.
KP: You mean the one that says, “I want you out of here. It’s over…”
KP: “We’re never going to write again.”
MITCHELL: We’re not experienced rowers, so we might say things… and we don’t like rowing, so we might say things that would be difficult to forget. So our policy is very much to bury things under the carpet.
KP: Maybe it will be some kind of arcane conversation that neither of you will fully understand.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yeah.
KP: Shouting some kind of 17th century epithets at each other.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yes, who knows. There might be a sketch in it, anyway.
KP: Yes - that’s the final blowup. Something that’s just so obscure in all of its references and points, that… “Are we actually fighting?”
KP: Is that an active worry? Is it always in the back of your mind that there might be a ticking time bomb?
MITCHELL: It’s not a massively active worry at the moment. There have been times that it’s been more of an active worry. But I think basically the fundamental strengths of our working relationship is that we really do agree about comedy. And we’ve got a lot of respect for each other’s work. And I think we both feel we’ve never done anything nearly as good without each other as we have together. And I think those are big strengths that we’d have to be very, very unhappy for them to stop.
KP: Would you say that you’re similar or dissimilar in temperament?
MITCHELL: I think we’re pretty similar, really. I think it’s one of the reasons why we work as a double act is that we seem different but are similar. Yeah, Rob’s quieter than me, and probably a bit less of a worrier. But we’re both worriers, really. If I’m stressed about something, I basically know he will be, as well. Even if he doesn’t necessarily moan about it quite as loudly. So yes, I think we are quite similar.
KP: Is there any comedic sensibility that you don’t share? Is there anything that… if you were to find one thing funny, is there any segment where it doesn’t overlap in that sensibility?
MITCHELL: I think, in the sketch world, Rob puts more faith in a character than I do. And I put more faith in an idea. That sounds like I’m just saying it in a way that makes me right. I don’t think it’s a right/wrong thing.
KP: It’s just a different approach.
MITCHELL: Rob sees writing more from performing point of view earlier, I think. There’s a slight difference of emphasis. And also, I think I’m the one that comes up with… well, I came up with the Cyclon A joke. And I occasionally come up with the nastier stuff, that he goes, “I don’t think we should put that in.” It’s not usually that bad. And on that occasion I was thoroughly with him. But if we’re having an argument about whether or not something’s okay to do, I think slightly, usually, I’m the one going, “I think this is fine, this is funny,” and he’s going, “I think that’s just… I see where the joke is but I think it’s just gonna hurt people’s feelings.”
KP: Do you find that you generally go towards the darker areas?
MITCHELL: I think overall we’re not a particularly dark… dark comedy is tremendously fashionable at the moment, and I don’t think we’re really very dark on that scale. But I think between the two of us I’m just… I’m slightly more… I more like to make a sort of horrible joke.
KP: Yeah, I don’t know how many people would do the Donitz sketch.
KP: Which was brilliant.
MITCHELL: Oh, thank you.
KP: But I don’t know how many people would go into that area.
MITCHELL: (laughs) That kind of sketch I sort of feel is almost quite warm, in a way.
KP: Just the enthusiasm alone, that you would expect when someone gets a promotion - even if it’s to be the post-suicide successor to Hitler. You have him call his wife…
KP: Which you would assume a person would do in that situation.
KP: It does take a certain sort of skill in sketch writing to sort of walk that tightrope with material that in the wrong hands could be… I wouldn’t say extremely distasteful, because you would think that comedy should go anywhere. But that sort of button pushing material. And, obviously, stronger comedy is comedy of greater juxtaposition.
KP: So to have the newly appointed head of the Nazi regime absolutely giddy about it, as everything is coming down around him, and wanting to enjoy just that little moment, and having his little tiny notebook of… “These are my plans.” His happy book.
KP: I think was sort of wonderful. And I think there were a lot of things within it that sort of pointed to that. It’s obvious that I’m assuming that you get a real sense of elation writing sketches that sort of pull those two opposing sides together.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Yes, I think that’s… as you say, it’s that kind of juxtaposition that I think is very satisfying when you feel it’s coming together and it’s worked.
KP: Would you say that the writing process for you, generally, is difficult? Or does it seem to proceed along at a nice clip?
MITCHELL: I think it varies massively. I think what Rob and I try and do, more over the years, is avoid trying to write when it feels impossible. And try and give yourself enough time and enough space and enough sort of ideas in the bank that you don’t have to succeed that day. I think that’s the kind of danger. When you’re sitting in front of an empty screen and it’s a situation in a show where you kind of have to come up with something great *now*, I think that’s the worst circumstances in which to come up with anything great.
KP: Do you generally find that you’ll throw away any material that you come up with during that situation?
MITCHELL: Yes, I think, quite often. I think with a sketch show, in a way, the proof… the sketch show is as good as the best sketch you don’t include, if you know what I mean.
MITCHELL: So I think you always want to have surface material. You always want to be feeling, when you’re deciding what to shoot, “That’s a real shame that we can’t do this, this and this. But we absolutely have to prioritize this, this…” And, you know, when you’re feeling like that all the way through, then I think that’s when the show will come together well. Because there’ll always be mistakes. Things you just think are hilarious and aren’t. And you often realize that in the edit. But if you’ve not shot anything you were unsure about at all, you should have enough stuff that really comes off to fill a show.
KP: I thought it was interesting with Look that you went back to sort of a Marx Brothers technique of putting the stuff in front of an audience before you shot it.
MITCHELL: Oh, doing the tryout?
MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, we did that with our radio show, as well, and it’s something that our producer, Gareth Edwards, suggested. And I think it’s really handy. It’s very handy with material that you kind of really like but think might just not work at all. And there’s quite a lot of that, usually. There’s quite a lot of stuff that you say, “This is either great or it’s unusable.” I sort of enjoy those tryouts. It’s also very enjoyable how an audience will really join in with the process of, you know - even though we’re just reading out stage directions to them, they will sort of listen and tell you how funny they think it is.
KP: Is there anything that didn’t fly that you’re disappointed didn’t work, that you really thought would work?
MITCHELL: There are things. Yes, well, for the first series we wrote a sketch about a monastery, about some monks. We just thought it was very funny, the idea of two monks in a very civilized, pastoral little monastery kind of environment. And one’s saying to the other, “So, are you getting any?” It just made us howl, just that thought. And these monks who’d come to this monastery thinking it was a great place to get loads of sex.
KP: You have that sketch on the DVD, right?
MITCHELL: Oh, is it on the DVD?
KP: Yes. That sort of Spring Break monastery.
MITCHELL: Yeah. I don’t think it really came together. I’m glad they put it on the DVD.
KP: Treating it like a party college or something.
MITCHELL: Yeah. With the abbot who just has a fantastic time. That was one bit of material we absolutely loved, and we shot it and it didn’t really come together. It didn’t quite work, I don’t think. And so that’s why it’s a DVD extra! (laughs)
KP: I think the premise was strong. How do you feel about those sort of things having an afterlife on the DVDs?
MITCHELL: I’m happy with that. I feel my priority is the program, though. DVDs are so important now, there’s increasingly more pressure to care a lot about the DVD. And I’ve sort of bloody mindedly want to care most about the program. So our stated aim in making it was to make six half-hour episodes. Now, anything on top of that, if people don’t like it, I’m not taking that… that’s not legitimate criticism, if you know what I mean. If people don’t like the monk sketch, fine, they didn’t have to watch it. It’s not in the program. But anything in the program they didn’t like, fair enough. I’m sorry, I’ll try harder… (laughs) Kind of thing.
KP: Do you find that there are any lessons that you took away from the first series that you’re bringing to the second?
MITCHELL: Yes, I think… Well, the sort of main lesson - or the good lesson, which is that we felt that the kind of behind the scenes of us being ourselves bits did work. And so we sort of had the confidence to do them some more. But we sort of felt that people responded to the fact that the sketches didn’t repeat themselves that much and we’ve kind of continued with that.
KP: You mean the sort of Little Britain method of sketch writing?
MITCHELL: Yeah. We very definitely wanted to get away from each episode having the same sketch in every week. That seemed to come off, avoiding that, and people seem to appreciate that. So we’re sticking with that. In fact, we’re not even having the snooker commentators this time. Which I’m sad to see them go, but I think we’ve done all the jokes there.
KP: You kind of run the risk of that running into the ground.
MITCHELL: Yeah, exactly.
KP: Is there any kind of pressure you feel, that if you have something that works, to keep it going because that’s an easy write, or an easy character to slip into?
MITCHELL: Yes, I think there is always that pressure, and I think - touch wood - we’ve sort of avoided it. And I think our producer, Gareth, takes a lot of credit for that because he’s always been very firm on not repeating a sketch more than you should. If you’ve done the joke, then that’s it. Don’t do it again. For the people who missed last week’s episode, they can watch it on DVD.
KP: There’s a sense that there’s an afterlife to all these things.
KP: Either in digital form or in repeats. Which I’m sure there’ll be more of on the BBC now.
MITCHELL: That’s just day to day! (laughs)
KP: Certainly they’re going to be able to see that material in perpetuity…
KP: How do you feel, knowing that there is sort of a long life for this material, and that even if it was a one-off series, it would be around for quite a bit?
MITCHELL: Well, I find I like that. A lot of work goes into it, and I’m glad it’s not all disappearing after its first transmission, because the television has less impact now, so I think it takes a while for shows to get into the public consciousness. It is through not just broadcast, but people seeing clips on YouTube, people watching DVDs, and that’s how you get your stuff out there now. It’s more complicated than it used to be. But yes, I think when you’re shivering on a beach in the rain pretending it’s Australasia at five in the morning, you want to think that you’re doing it for a reason. (laughs)
KP: I think you need to go out and film one of those pitch tapes of yourself for one of the Dickensian costume dramas.
MITCHELL: Yeah, (laughs) I should do that, shouldn’t I? Maybe I should start sending photographs of me with mutton chops on.
KP: I think you should. I think you should start your “David for Dickensian” website.
KP: Just have your head shots in various poses.
KP: Get yourself an accounting house.
KP: An orphanage.
MITCHELL: Yes, you’re right. This is just the kind of marketing idea I should be thinking about more seriously.
KP: Just random 8×10s of you with an urchin of some kind.
KP: I think you’d be a shoe-in at that point.
KP: Just do a little enquiry button that they can hit - just, you know, “Would you like to cast David? Have you got a production going?”
KP: “He’ll do day work.” How do you view the internet and that component of being a performer in this day and age?
MITCHELL: I sort of… I don’t know, really. It’s great in terms of people being able to see stuff more easily. But I don’t know what it’s going to do in the long run, and I sort of fear instability in my profession. I don’t find technological advances in my own lifetime inspiring. Because there are so many historical examples of people who’ve been fucked over by perfectly necessary technological change, and I don’t want to be one of them. (laughs)
KP: What’s the piece of technology that you point to as being the clearest example of that?
MITCHELL: In terms of a writer/performer?
MITCHELL: Yes, well, I think potentially it’s the internet. The internet threatens the ability to pay people for making stuff.
KP: Do you think the converse of that is it offers a much more direct access to the people that do pay and support you as a performer?
MITCHELL: Oh yes, absolutely. And I think it will… I genuinely think it will all be fine and, indeed, be better. I think it will be something that, in the long run, rewards quality material and brings it to a wider audience and all will be well. My only fear is that the transitional period could be a little bit dicey, and it might last for my whole life.
KP: Well, you said you want to be in some kind of Dickensian thing.
KP: Some performers have fully embraced the web and have their MySpace page and their Face Book page and monitor the Wikipedia page…
MITCHELL: Yeah. I think I would like to be like that, but I’m just not that… what’s the word?… enterprising. Should I watch now? So I’m always a bit behind with that kind of thing, and I find it difficult to concentrate on two things at once, essentially. This, I think, links in with the whole not having thought about America much. What I’m thinking about usually is making the thing I’m trying to make, rather than the broad issues about our web presence, about our profile in America, all these issues that…
KP: Do you view them as largely esoteric?
MITCHELL: I view them as just as important but utterly beyond me.
KP: When, really, it comes down just to you.
KP: And you and Robert famously have the most minimalist web presence you possibly can, with a perpetual “coming soon” page.
MITCHELL: Yeah. No, I’m sorry about that.
KP: Well, thank you. Are you going to personally apologize to everyone who’s visited?
MITCHELL: (laughs) We’ve got a MySpace page!
KP: Well, it’s one of those highly impersonal MySpace pages that’s clearly maintained by someone on staff at an agency.
KP: It’s the kind of thing where, like, “Oh, this is the Mitchell and Webb page, and I’m a PA.” It’s the kind of thing that it’s sort of… it’s sad to read the comments on pages like that, when people obviously think they’re interacting with the performer. “I love your work, I love everything you’ve done, I’ve been to all of your shows, you mean the world to me…”
MITCHELL: Oh dear. It’s actually maintained by a friend of ours, not an employee. So I don’t know whether that makes it better or worse. We’re not even paying someone.
KP: (laughs) It just means you’re more of a user. It makes it that much colder. You really are living the Dickensian thing, aren’t you?
KP: is it something that you’ve ever entertained the idea of taking a more active role in, or it just doesn’t interest you in the least?
MITCHELL: I sort of want to have what we should properly have, but I don’t want to, if I’m honest, spend lots of my day replying to well meaning messages from people I don’t know. I suppose. That sounds bad now.
KP: I don’t think it sounds bad. It’s certainly a practical approach to how much of a time investment it is if there wasn’t a sort of filter.
KP: There. Although I don’t think that any of those things mean that you have to be there replying to every single message that comes in.
MITCHELL: I think we certainly hope to do better.
KP: Having a web presence like that, when you talked about that sort of paradigm of technology taking money away from performers…
KP: If you have that sort of portal where they know where to get the material… If you say, “Listen, here’s our DVDs. Here are the projects we have coming up. Here’s our show schedule.” A lot of people don’t like MySpace just because it’s poorly designed and an eyesore to look at…
KP: … whereas if you have sort of an easily navigable, straightforward, easily maintained web presence, it seems like that’s the perfect portal to say, “Here’s all the ways you can support us as artists.”
MITCHELL: No, you’re right, that’s what we should do.
KP: As far as dissemination of information.
KP: Maybe there’s another friend that would do it for free.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yes.
KP: I’ve allowed you to paint a horrible portrait of yourself.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Horrible, mean spirited, victorian who makes horrible jokes about the holocaust.
KP: I’ve really done a poor job. Now you’ll never give another interview.
MITCHELL: (laughs) My life as a hermit.
KP: Well, you’ll finally have an interest, then, to actively avoid the press.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yes.
KP: Is that accurate? Your representation of yourself as a man with no interests?
MITCHELL: No, I sort of… I hope not. I don’t have a mad hobby, I suppose, because comedy was that and now it’s my job. But I like reading history books, reading novels, going to the cinema, playing tennis. You know, normal things lots of people like. But none of them are a passion, I suppose, in the way comedy was. But you can’t really call it that. I mean, it is still that, but it becomes less of a legitimate thing to cite as an interest when it’s your job. I can’t say all I want to do on the weekends is go and fish for salmon or anything.
KP: Do you find that, in any ways, you regret the idea that your passion has become your job?
MITCHELL: I think there is a downside to it. Definitely I’m less… I find watching other people’s comedy less enjoyable than I did before.
KP: Because you view it as a professional exercise?
MITCHELL: Yeah, exactly. And I sort of regret that. But the up side is fantastic. Because essentially my job is fun. And I would do it for free. I used to do it for free.
KP: Do you think that UK comedians, as closed as they are, as communal, staying within the UK as they are, with not many making the transition over to the US - do you think that’s potentially why they hold or find the US comedy so dear, is because it seems like a foreign object to them? That they’re not personally involved and that sort of distance is key?
MITCHELL: You mean sort of not threatened by it ’cause it’s so separate?
MITCHELL: Yes, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I find, yes, watching a new British comedy show - which will almost certainly involve people I know - is a stressful experience. I’m thinking, “How good is that? Am I angry that it’s so good or angry that it’s so bad? Worried that it’s mediocre.” You know, “What’s my view?” Whereas watching an episode of Seinfeld, I’m just enjoying it.
KP: So you’re completely divorced from a professional mindset, looking at it.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Watching the big American comedy, it’s like the closest I get to my former innocent enjoyment of comedy.
KP: I found it fascinating that so many revere our comedy, whereas from my perspective I obviously get a huge, huge delight out of discovering new UK material.
KP: I suppose it all comes down to your sort of the perspective on it.
MITCHELL: Yes. I think that’s a very good analysis.
KP: Some kind of familiarity breeding contempt kind of thing.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yes.
KP: Speaking of interests, it seemed like the biggest shock that anyone had was when you sort of revealed your not particular passion for music on Would I Lie To You…
MITCHELL: Yeah. I slightly regret having… I’ve never been that interested in music, but I don’t mind it being on in the room, and I never thought that that was as odd as I now realize it is.
KP: There goes that booking on Buzzcocks.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, they still approach me, but I said, “No that wouldn’t be right. I really wouldn’t know what to say.”
KP: So there’s some ethical boundary of, “I’m not a real music fan…”
MITCHELL: Oh, to stop me going on?
MITCHELL: Yeah, I sort of think I’d be slightly taking the piss.
KP: I don’t know. You could have a lot of Phil Collins questions. Do you still own the album?
MITCHELL: I do somewhere, yes. I haven’t listened to it for quite a while. I’ve got an iPod which my flat mate put all of his music collection on for me. So I’ve got quite a lot of music on that, I just don’t know what any of it is.
KP: Isn’t that wonderful, to have someone else’s taste programmed onto your iPod?
KP: What would you fill it up with if you had your druthers to put anything on there? Is there anything you just detest listening to?
MITCHELL: Jazz. I don’t like jazz. What I think is jazz, I don’t like.
KP: What in particular…
MITCHELL: Sort of just generally. The kind of…
KP: Lack of order?
MITCHELL: I actually haven’t even got the vocabulary to describe it. But yeah, the slightly disordered sort of swinging tune crap. I can’t get into that at all. But god knows, that’s fine. I cannot sit in judgment against it.
KP: So now, if someone were to sit here in analysis, they’d go, “So, you distaste something with a lack of structure?”
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yes. I think that would be good analysis. But also analysis I’d be unwilling to pay for.
KP: Oh, so then I should do your website, too! I see a pattern emerging here…
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yes… “Freeloader Mitchell”…
KP: Is that your nickname within the community?
KP: Do you regret in any ways not fulfilling your childhood dream of being Prime Minister?
MITCHELL: No, I don’t. It was a very quick… My swap from politics to comedy was a very quick experience when I met a few student politicians. I think politics is a tawdry business.
KP: Do you think you could have gone in a different path had you not gone into performing?
MITCHELL: I hope not. I hope, if I tried to be a politician I would have failed, because I think it would reflect quite badly on me if I succeeded. Yes, I think you have to… it seems to me that a lot of modern politicians, I don’t think they’re for a moment evil. Nothing so interesting. But what they are is people who’ve been able to believe logical inconsistencies in their own behavior, and believe that they’re doing things for the common good when they’re doing them out of self interest. And I don’t think it’s healthy to court such powers of self delusion.
KP: Do you think they’re the ultimate rationalizers?
MITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah. Tony Blair is the perfect example of that. He’s someone who’s made himself believe that he’s done no wrong. That’s what’s ultimately untrustworthy about him. I believe he believes that. If you can get to the point where you’re such a developed politician that you don’t even have to lie, that’s not a business I regret not being involved in.
KP: And you can sort of revise your own personal view of your history despite the well-documented reality …
MITCHELL: Yes, exactly.
KP: … of former stances and opinions.
MITCHELL: Yeah (laughs)
KP: It’s an amazing ability to warp reality.
KP: Almost superhuman.
KP: Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the horrible thing, is they’re some sort of modern mental superheroes.
KP: With the ability to warp time and space.
MITCHELL: Only inside their own skulls.
KP: Yes. (laughs) Everything’s sunny there. Iraq’s going fine. It was the right thing to do, and one day it’ll be proved.
MITCHELL: The right thing to do, and everyone has always agreed.
KP: “My wife loves me, my kids adore me.”
KP: “I’m handsome.” It’s amazing to see what other convictions you could convince yourself of.
KP: Do you find that you’re strong in your convictions?
MITCHELL: I don’t know. I think probably… no, probably not in the overall… I’m more inclined to doubt my own opinions now than I used to be. And it’s something I’m wary of in the world of the panel show and the quick remarks, that you have to say something and be very sure of it. I do that a lot, and then afterwards kind of think, “Oh, does that hold together at all, what I was banging on about there?” So I think the older I’ve got the more I come to be not sure about a lot of things.
KP: Do you think that sort of caution can be crippling?
MITCHELL: Yes, it can be, but I think it’s also… it’s all about sort of balance. And I think, certainty, it can be damaging.
KP: Is there anything you regret having said in one of those shows?
MITCHELL: Lots of little things I regret. In general, you regret saying something that doesn’t get a laugh. But I had a massive rant about Ann Robinson. And it sort of went down well, I think. And I don’t like Ann Robinson’s work. I’ve not heard well of her as a person. But I haven’t met her. And she’s not killed anyone.
KP: As far as you know.
MITCHELL: Yeah, as far as we know. So, I did feel afterwards that I… yeah, I felt slightly dirty.
KP: Do you find that… I’ve noticed particularly with Would I Lie to You, that you sort of have almost perfected the art of the rant.
KP: And can build quite nicely a head of steam into an incredible crescendo.
MITCHELL: I enjoy doing those rants, but they are the things I think… those are the things that sometimes worry me afterwards. If I feel I’m not on as strong a logical ground as I perhaps wished or behaved as if I was.
KP: I think that, with Would I Lie to You, the things that really provoke your massive rants, because of the structure of the show and that you’re telling personal lies, is that you seem to have reacted strongly against people’s perception of what you would or wouldn’t do.
KP: I remember the one thing about walking out of the Tarantino film Kill Bill in disgust…
MITCHELL: Oh yes, yeah…
KP: That you took particular umbrage in that anyone would believe that you would be that sort of sheltered.
MITCHELL: Yeah, that the reason they didn’t believe my lie was because they thought I would have never have seen Kill Bill. And that I’m that tweedy that I would have just have been… yeah. And I had seen Kill Bill, and I wanted the credit for that.
KP: Do you think that’s the biggest misconception that people potentially have about you?
MITCHELL: Well, I think people are very quick to… they want to pigeonhole you as a comic type, and that’s something that I’m at least as grateful for as I am irritated by.
KP: And obviously Peep Show has done nothing but encourage that perception of you…
MITCHELL: Yes, exactly. It’s very difficult to come across as a fully rounded person and a lot harder to be funny. So, essentially, stereotyping probably does me more good than harm in terms of helping me get laughs. But it’s always fun if I can then get a few laughs by getting annoyed by it. And obviously everyone wants to… you know nobody… the sort of slow realization of how people perceive you is not always an entirely painless process.
KP: What has been the thing that really draws blood?
MITCHELL: Sorry, what?
KP: What has been the one thing that you can point to that really draws blood when it comes to how people perceive you?
MITCHELL: I don’t know. I think it’s when people… sometimes people sort of slightly angrily assume that I’m massively privileged. That I was very… while my parents are perfectly well off, they’re not rich. And I’m not very posh. I’m certainly no aristocrat. And some people have sort of thought I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth kinda thing. And that’s a bit annoying, because it also implies that nothing you’ve done in your life is a real achievement. And actually, I come from just a normal, middle class background. Like most people who are involved in the media. It’s certainly not… the media are more middle class than the country, but I don’t think I’m more middle class than the media, if you know what I mean.
KP: Right. Do you think coming from that Cambridge Footlights school of comedy, that’s automatically the assumption that people make?
MITCHELL: Yes, I think so. That’s why I think a lot of people who’ve been involved in Footlights don’t mention it too much. But also I slightly resent the association of Cambridge with, say, Eton. Eton is a school that you get into with money. Cambridge is a university that, when I went there, was free. Not anymore, thanks to the supposedly left wing government. So anyone who got the right exams could go there. It’s not a selection based on wealth at all. It’s based on academic success. I think it’s unfair on the institution to label anyone who went there some sort of chinless wonder. And it also discourages people from backgrounds who don’t associate themselves with Eton from applying to universities like Cambridge. And that’s not helpful for either the institutions or the individual.
KP: Do you think Cambridge has done very little to disassociate itself from that?
MITCHELL: I think they’ve tried in some ways, but also the way they are has made them… the thing about it is, when you’re there, it feels like an incredibly posh place. That can be intimidating for some people, but essentially…
KP: That just because of the age and the architecture…
MITCHELL: Yeah, the sort of buildings, the traditions…
KP: It’s definitely not a cinder block college.
MITCHELL: No, exactly.
KP: So, really, people are just wary of anything with ornate masonry.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Architecture has long intimidated many people and will continue to do so. That’s how the medieval church kept all of western Europe under control.
KP: If Cambridge would just throw on some neon. Spice it up a little bit. Dumb it down. Maybe put a McDonald’s.
MITCHELL: There is a McDonald’s.
KP: See, one step in. Maybe take down some of that ivy.
KP: Some color. That’s what it needs. It needs color.
KP: Everything would be… maybe a Tesco’s…
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yeah…
KP: You know, just for that late night student shopping…
KP: Why don’t they consider that?
MITCHELL: I know. They just need to get those bulldozers in on a couple of medieval chapels, and the whole place will look sort of contemporary.
KP: That should be your big campaign - “Cambridge: Let’s Tart It Up”.
KP: Schools today are much too posh looking. Let’s make it look homey and inviting by making it look like the academic equivalent of a slut.
KP: That way, if people think it’s easy, they’ll want to go.
KP: Are you, overall, satisfied with where things are at right now in your career?
MITCHELL: Yes, I am. We had a great couple of years. I’m doing a sketch show and a sitcom alongside each other. Yeah, I’m very happy. Much as I can be doing this for the next few years, I’d be very, very happy. And if some other opportunities happen, then that’s great as well, but I certainly… I don’t feel… yeah, I feel very happy at the moment. And also, therefore, nervous that it’s all going to go away.
KP: Do you find that that nervousness has abated any as you’ve become successful, or it just increases?
MITCHELL: I think it’s… yeah, I don’t think it’s abated much. I think the constant feelings of nerves are just… well, it’s just how I am. I think if I stopped feeling them, I would in some deeper way become more nervous.
KP: So it’s a self-perpetuating thing.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah.
KP: Do you have any aspirations outside where you’re operating right now? You talked about an interest in history. Do you see yourself going the Terry Jones route?
MITCHELL: Not for a while. But yeah, no, I’d love to do that kind of thing one day. But I sort of feel I’ve got a bit more special comedy to get out of my system. Terry Jones wasn’t doing that when he was my age, so I think it’d be a bit soon to go too deeply into other areas.
KP: Is there any one of the previous generation who’s career path looks appealing to you?
MITCHELL: Oh, lots of people. But by mentioning them it seems like I’m saying I’m as good as they are.
KP: Well, now that we’ve prefaced by you’re not saying that…
MITCHELL: I’m not saying that. Well, I must say, I think you can go a lot further wrong than Stephen Fry’s career path, can’t you?
KP: And even Stephen’s in America right now.
MITCHELL: Is he? There you go.
KP: He’s doing his tour of all 50 states.
MITCHELL: Is he?
KP: He’s driving from state to state.
KP: In a left hand drive cab.
MITCHELL: Oh, I look forward to watching that.
KP: And I guess his plan is to actively avoid places like Manhattan and Los Angeles and get sort of an off-the-beaten-track view of America.
MITCHELL: Oh, excellent.
KP: I think he probably misjudges how immense this country is and how difficult that drive will be.
MITCHELL: Yeah. Well, he can always do a follow up series, can’t he?
KP: Yes. Stephen Fry In America: Still Going. Maybe he’ll just film the next few series of QI from whatever state he’s in at the time.
MITCHELL: Yes. Just have a video linkup.
KP: “I’m still not done!” Well, if Alan could pull of his disappearing act… although eventually I think there’s gonna be some kind of robotic Stephen Fry that’s marketed…
KP: That people can install in their own homes.
MITCHELL: Yes. There’s definitely people who would do that.
KP: Push a button and occasionally it’ll give you a reading of something… some kind of Oscar Wilde short story. Then just tell you a random fact.
KP: I’m surprised he hasn’t popped up on people’s iPhone’s yet. “A Little Stephen Moment”. Well I hope the conversation hasn’t been too painful.
MITCHELL: No, I’ve really enjoyed it, actually. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. And you’ve said many wise things that I should do in my life, like not be frightened of America or the internet.
KP: Yes, either, in that order. By the way, have you thought up your Dickensian name?
MITCHELL: No. Now, I should be able to say it to you. If I was Stephen Fry, I’d say a really funny Dickensian name now.
KP: Yes, like Mr. Chiselfig.
MITCHELL: Yes. And you’ve done that for me.
KP: I guess it would be Master Chiselfig.
KP: That sounds ludicrously Dickensian enough, right?
MITCHELL: Yeah, absolutely.
KP: Well hopefully at some point you will at least do an exploratory venture into the US. Hopefully this conversation has at least prompted the desire to have a conversation with Robert about it.
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
KP: Or get a stun gun and just drag him over.
KP: That would work too, right?
MITCHELL: I’m sure.
KP: Just have him wake up and you’re on some theater on Broadway.
MITCHELL: (laughs) I don’t like it when he talks too much anyway.
KP: See, now is when the truth comes out!
KP: But I hope you guys have the confidence to know that you have a prospective audience in the US.
MITCHELL: Well that’s certainly good to hear. Yeah.
KP: Really, you guys just need to have like a massive meeting of all the comedians in the UK. You can crack this. It’ll be like an Ocean’s 11 thing.
MITCHELL: (laughs) You’re right, we should do.
KP: There’s strength in numbers. Or at least many places to point the blame.
MITCHELL: (laughs) Yeah.
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