British-comedy fans, man your televisions! Tonight at 9 on BBC America you’ll find back-to-back new episodes of the two BAFTA-winning shows starring the crass and clever duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb: the sketch program That Mitchell and Webb Look and the P.O.V. roomie sitcom Peep Show. In the former, they take the piss out of Victorian England, lazy TV writers, bomb technicians, egotistical Sherlock Holmes stars, and even themselves (in Britain they’re misunderstood as a bit smug). In the latter, they portray mismatched thirtysomething best friends and roommates. Webb plays Jeremy (the Oscar to Mitchell’s Felix), a selfish sponge who hates work, has a crack addict named Super Hans for a constant companion, and snogs with his roomie’s girl. Webb took some time while babysitting his infant daughter to speak to us about overly picky (and sensitive) comedians, not casting Russell Brand in Peep Show, and forgetting his own TV sketches.
You’re thought of as a comedy trendsetter. What do you, yourself, find funny?
I grew up watching British comedy on TV, really. Things like, I don’t know, have you seen Blackadder? And The Young Ones, and a show called A Bit of Fry & Laurie, which was a sketch show with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, who is now House. That was the thing I really enjoyed.
What about the things you find unfunny?
Well, I’m sort of reluctant to name them, really, because some comedians can get very carried away hating bad comedy. And, actually, at the end of the day, trying to make people laugh isn’t exactly a war crime. So, basically I try not to knock other comedians.
You and David gave an interview to the Telegraph last year in which you insisted that British comedy was just as good now as it was in past.
Yeah, I mean, it’s very hard to tell, obviously, because we’re right in the middle of it. But I don’t think it’s possible to say, you know, whether there’s been a Golden Age for British comedy. I think it’s incredibly robust at the moment. And we always remember the good stuff and forget all the rubbish. There was a lot of terrible, terrible comedy in the seventies along with Fawlty Towers. It’s easy to forget.
Are there any “underground” series that British comics are excited about?
I think you’re mistaking me for someone cool. I don’t know. I’m sort of watching things as they come out, really. I can’t say that I hang around the Internet finding cool stuff. No, I’m 37 with a baby daughter. I’ve got no idea what’s cool now. There’s the short answer. I’ll stop saying, “I don’t know” in twelve different ways. I’ll say “I don’t know.”
Is it weird to be doing publicity now for seasons three and four of Peep Show and season three of That Mitchell and Webb Look, which all aired on British TV years ago?
It will be. And it will get definitely weirder if you ask me to name a Mitchell and Webb sketch, ‘cause I can’t. I’ve forgotten the whole series. But no, seriously, series three of that show is something we’re very proud of. We had a new director and it had an extra bit of vim and pizzazz that the first two series maybe didn’t always have quite so much of. It’s full of terrific sketches, which I can’t possibly remember. I vaguely remember dressing up as Queen Victoria.
When she notices a tree smells like semen?
Yes, that’s right, the linden tree. That’s definitely one of my favorites. I also quite like “Jan Hankl’s Patented Flank Pat,” from the first episode, if memory serves me right. It’s about a new way of finding books on shelves … Yeah, we do about 85 to 90 sketches per series and I’ve remembered two. It’s a disposable form.
In Peep Show, what’s it like to play someone like Jeremy who is so …
He has a heart, though.
Of course he does. The thing about Jeremy is that he knows he’s doing the wrong thing, but he carries on doing it anyway. He is essentially a dishonorable person. It’s a load of fun to play someone like that. He’s selfish and he’s lazy and he’s feckless and he sneers at Mark a lot. Obviously, David and I spend a lot of time working together, so to be paid to be that rude to him is quite cathartic. Jeremy is a joy. He’s awful and I love him.
According to online trivia, Russell Brand tried out for Jeremy’s drug-addled, odd sidekick Super Hans, but lost out to Matt King (RocknRolla).
He did, yeah. He had an audition, but Matt King was just more Super Hans. I mean, if we’d known Russell was going to be so famous, I’d like to think that wouldn’t have made any difference. I think Russell would have, without sounding disrespectful, got quite out of hand half the time by series three or four. So I’m glad we got Matt, ‘cause he’s a nice lad. It wouldn’t be Peep Show without him.
With actors like Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand so popular in the States, and BBC America gaining ground, do you experience more Anglophilia these days?
What, more Americans liking us? Well, I don’t really have that much contact with Americans. I mean, I see the oddest things on the Internet, I suppose. And I’ve got a couple of American friends, but they are Anglophiles anyway because they’ve decided to come live here. So I don’t really know. I haven’t been to the States in a couple of years. But I’m really pleased that these two series are getting some exposure over there just because we’re proud of them, and of course we want as many people to watch them as possible.
Finally, I was just reading This Mitchell and Webb Book, which was published last year. In it, you have several sections about “How to Cope” with different things in contemporary life. Can you end by telling us Americans how to cope with universal health care?
[Laughs.] Well, I’m glad you’re getting the idea of having universal health care. That’s come as a relief because it looked like for a moment like you just didn’t want it. So, well done and yes, join the universal-health-care posse. It’s an absolute toot.