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By Michael Hill
David Mitchell doesn’t believe comedy comes from pain. Rather, for Mitchell, it is through niggles, being “irritated by small things” as he puts it, that he derives so much of his comedy.
Mitchell first came to public attention in what he jokingly describes as “a pincer movement to conquer and destroy comedy” starring in sitcom Peep Show on Channel 4 and simultaneously writing and starring in the sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Sound on Radio 4, a show that would eventually be reinvented as BBC2s That Mitchell and Webb Look.
While That Mitchell and Webb Look was a relatively successful endeavor for the double act (having run so far for four series), critics have tended to see it as lacking the edge and dynamism that made Peep Show so refreshing. Mitchell however remains positive about the sketch show, speaking with detectable disappointment about the BBC’s failure to put a fifth series into production: “unfortunately the BBC doesn’t want a new series of That Mitchell and Webb Look at the moment. They have never said it was cancelled… they keep saying maybe next year. It is something Rob and I would like to do again”
Peep Show on the other hand shows no sign of relenting, with an eighth series of rib-achingly funny over-analysis comedy due to be aired next month. “When it comes to Peep Show We’re all committed to it going on for as long as they [channel 4] will let us… I don’t buy into this whole quit while you’re ahead thing. It takes a huge amount of work and luck to create a really successful sitcom and speaking to performers from the previous generations quitting too early was something they always seemed to regret.”
Mitchell is often compared to Mark. Both of them are incredibly “morally aware”, as Mitchell tactfully puts it, and over analytical. Although, as Mitchell wryly points out, Mark has channelled this into being nasty to others, and indeed himself, while he has turned it into a source for comic.
Recently released under the title Back Story, Mitchell’s inevitable hardback autobiography doe sat times read like a (slightly) toned down episode of Peep Show. He talks, though admittedly a little less excusiatingly than his charater, of various moments of embarrassment, a particularly memorable passage recalling his meeting with David Milliband who confused Mitchell with his Booker Prize shortlisted namesake. Speaking of the incident he assures me that he intends to exact revenge by repeatedly calling the former foreign secretary Ed should they ever meet again.
He seemed surprised when I suggested he may one day be offered an honour, but says he would accept one “I would definitely accept an honour. It is good to know that someone somewhere likes what I’m doing. Just because they’ve given honours to people I don’t necessarily like doesn’t mean I shouldn’t accept it. After all, BAFTA have given awards to not so good TV programs.”
Apart from the success of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look Mitchell’s entrance into the public zeitgeist has been due not in small part to his near ubiquity on Dave’s endless loop of comedy panel shows; “I used to get nervous before panel shows. Now I would say I’m quite nervous but overall I am having a nice time. Not preparing anything is part of the fun. If you say something and it doesn’t work it just gets cut out in the edit.” Indeed, Mitchell admits that the experience of making panel shows is on the whole one that is far more enjoyable than that of making Peep Show where he says he finds the process of filming the point-of-view style footage both hard and exhausting.
With his ‘soapbox’ series produced with The Guardian, Mitchell has to an extent styled his comic persona around the nucleus of the grumpy middle aged man. However Mitchell claims that this is only in part performance: “I do rant in private in a similar way to the way I do on television. The people I know like being to made laugh and I know that is a good way of making them laugh.”
Yet Mitchell’s panel-show appearances have been notably sparse of late, something he says is symptomatic of exploring new directions for his work to take. Most recently, Mitchell voiced a robot in Doctor Who, however he admits to being cautious about leaving the comic fold even temporarily:
“I have been offered documentaries that sound good. But I’m worried that they’ll be no going back. For someone like Michael Palin, who is one of the comedy greats, there is no need to worry, but with me… I don’t know. For now I’ll stick with the comedy.”
He will soon be starring in Our Men, again with Webb, a BBC 2 comedy-drama with hour long episodes that he described as “more West Wing than Father Ted with proper people not idiots. I jumped at the chance because it was a completely new challenge and seemed very different to anything broadcast before.”
His desire to break new ground, he says, stems from an anxiety that he was “on everything” yet everything he was doing was “much the same” and so people would tire of him. One thing Mitchell and Webb are yet to do is air a sitcom of their own creation. They recently had Playing Shop commissioned by BBC 2 which centered around two unemployed friends who decide to set up a business, but ultimately decided not to follow through with the project: “there is no precedent for the same double act appearing in two sitcoms at once, we knew it would be compared to Peep Show and we felt they were not the same but too similar…. but when Peep Show is finished it is definitely something we want to do”.
For now though Mitchell has more than enough to be getting on with. It seems that he will continue making us laugh as often as he can and will do so for as long as the powers that be let him, which if they’ve got any sense will be for a long time to come.