Live Peep Show Action

David Mitchell is a happy man, and he has every right to be. He is currently mid-way through a UK tour as one face of “The Two Faces of Mitchell and Webb”, which comes to London next week. “We feel like we’re back in it now. We’ve been touring for just over a week, but we hadn’t been on stage before that for about five years, and that was when we were playing the Edinburgh Fringe and tiny little venues, not the massive hangers we’re playing now.”

David is clearly enjoying his return to the theatre. “It’s really good to be on stage again. You feel like you can shout and ham it up a bit. You can’t really do that on television. On stage it’s not just that you can shout, you actually feel like you should!”

However, he can’t help sounding a little like his Peep Show alter-ego Mark Corrigan when he mentions some paranoia about the upcoming dates. “The shows we’ve had have gone really well. Everyone’s laughed. We haven’t had any awkward silences yet, where there’s been a car crash outside the venue that we don’t know about and the whole audience is still traumatised.”

It is of course starring in Channel 4’s cult sitcom Peep Show that Mitchell and Webb have garnered the most attention, but they have been working together since meeting at Cambridge’s legendary Footlights society, of which Mitchell became president. Footlights is a veritable production line of comedy genius, and the presidency has previously been held by the likes of Peter Cook, Eric Idle and Hugh Laurie. “Footlights was a great experience, it’s like a drama society but it only puts on comedy. We did three main shows a year, including a pantomime, and then also lots of little informal shows as well. There’s an ongoing show called ‘Smokers’ where you can go along and try out new material every week, so it’s a really good place to just be creative and come up with fresh ideas. It’s somewhere where you feel like you can just have a go at it.”

I ask how much influence he feels the ability to join Footlights had on his career. How would he have fared, for example, if he had ended up at the LSE? “I’d probably have still have had a go at comedy. Do you have a drama society? I would definitely have joined that. Without Footlights I would probably have become a serious actor or something like that. Or maybe an economist, who knows?”

I ask whether he was ever tempted to go it alone as a stand-up comic. “I much prefer comedy that’s sketch based. I think you tend to start off doing what you like, and I’d got into comedy through watching TV. My heroes were people like Monty Python, Fry and Laurie, and shows like Blackadder. I didn’t grow up watching Lenny Bruce, or Billy Connolly. Even though they’re very funny, it’s not what I wanted to do. Also, I don’t think stand-up comedy works that well on TV. My goal was always to get into television, and to me that meant sketch-based comedy.”

After graduating, Mitchell’s partnership with Webb continued, as they began searching out their niche in the comedy mountain, stuffed full of vivid dreams of television superstardom. Inevitably, however, their first work was less glamorous, and away from the cameras, and indeed the limelight. “Our first jobs were writing for other shows. We were writing for Armstrong and Miller, and lots of other places, for television and for Radio 4. At first it was just exciting to be getting properly paid, to be able to see your jokes on actual television shows was great! At the same time we always knew that we really wanted to be doing something for ourselves. That’s why we kept doing live shows, and kept going and playing the Edinburgh fringe. In the end, it was actually a bit of a surprise that we eventually broke through with a show that someone else had written for us. For a long time we thought we’d break through with something we had written for someone else.”

That show, of course, was Peep Show. Since its humble beginnings in 2003, the show went on to win the inaugural sitcom Rose d’Or in 2004, had more than a million pairs of eyes peeping inside the heads of Mark and Jez in 2005, and in 2006 if you piled up all the DVDs they’ve shifted, you’d have a pile over half the size of Mount Fuji, and eight times more explosive. A fourth series was commissioned just a minute ago. “Yeah, we start shooting series four in January, so that should be on TV sometime next year, Spring I guess. We’re incredibly proud of the show. But we’re also very happy with our own show that’s on BBC2 at the moment.”

That would be That Mitchell and Webb Look, in which the duo stop satirising the foibles and neuroses of thirty-something men, and instead start dressing up in silly costumes, putting on funny voices, and generally farting around pretending to be game show hosts, posh waiters or superheroes. I ask David about the contrast between Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and about how challenging he finds it to be funny in two very different scenarios. “I really like the fact that I have that mixture. Sometimes when we’ve been shooting for seven weeks I can hear myself moaning on and on, as Mark does, and realise I’m starting to get bored of it, and worry that other people will as well. But I suppose they just get it in 24 minute bursts. They don’t have to live with it for seven weeks. At the end of that it’s nice to be able to put on a funny beard and a silly voice and pretend to be a superhero. On the other hand, after a few weeks of that you get sick of all the make-up and just want to go back to playing someone who looks a bit more like you!”

The success of Peep Show means that next year you’ll be seeing a lot more of Mitchell and Webb in the New Year. As well as the new series of Peep Show, they’ll be stretching their faces by a factor of 1000 in order for them to appear on great big cinematic silver screens in a proper moving picture about a pair of competing magicians. David is excited. “We’ve just finished shooting ‘Magicians’, which will be out next April. It was written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the same guys who write Peep Show. It’s really great to be working with them again, not only because we respect their work and enjoy working with them, but they’re also both really funny! Shooting the film was very similar to shooting Peep Show, except that we were all aware that it had to look even better, you have to kind of justify the use of the much bigger screen. It was also great to have the time to go back and do things in different ways. When you’re shooting for TV, or doing a theatre show, you’re always working against the clock, but with the film you have the extra time to go and try things from different angles and in different ways.”

While on this form Mitchell may seem inseparable from Webb, they have in fact worked separately on a couple of recent projects. Mitchell has a small part in the forthcoming Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle I Could Never Be Your Woman, and Webb played a lead part in last year’s Confetti, with Mitchell relegated to a fleeting appearance. As anyone who has seen Confetti will testify however, it seems that the two do their best work together, and David agrees. “I still love working with Robert. Having time working on separate projects was really good though, as it meant we were able to give each other some much needed space, after we’d been working in such close proximity to each other for so long. Also, when we started working together again we were able to come back with fresh new ideas.”

In that case, rejoice merriment-seekers! Mitchell and Webb are together again. Next spring, they will be on your television sets and in your cinemas. But wait! Put down those pills and forget about sedating yourself until next year, for this very week they are playing a great big show in London, and, like some sort of mirth-orientated Justin Timberlake, they’re bringing funny back.

Originally published in the LSE’s The Beaver, 5 December 2006.