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“Comedy is humanity’s highest art form”: In Conversation With David Mitchell

Freddie Evans and Sophie Magalhaes interview David Mitchell about the enduring appeal of “Peep Show”, insights into panel shows and improvisation, his new book “Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens,” and advice for aspiring actors.

David Mitchell has been a reassuring fixture on British television screens for over two decades. You’ll most likely be familiar with his face and characteristic wit on display in his appearances on a variety of beloved British panel shows like “Would I Lie to You”, the popular series “Peep Show”, which he co-created and starred in, or his witty and insightful Observer column. Beyond his creative pursuits, Mitchell’s passion for history often influences his work, making him a unique and multifaceted figure in the world of arts and entertainment. His new book on the English monarchy, “Unruly”, was recently released on September 28.

You’ve had a successful career in both comedy and drama. How do you approach balancing these two genres, and do you prefer one over the other?

“I definitely prefer comedy. I think comedy is the best thing. I think it is humanity’s highest art form. I suppose in terms of performances, I haven’t done straight drama – most of the things I have done, there is something funny about it. I would probably make the argument that there aren’t many great dramas that are absolutely devoid of humour – a bit of it really helps. I would put myself as a comedian first and foremost.”

You’ve had a long-standing partnership with Robert Webb; from Peep Show to your comedy duo work. How important is comedic collaboration?

“It certainly helps. There are different forms of artistic expression, some of which you can do on your own, others of which you can’t. There is stand-up comedy, which I have never done – a solo form of comedy that you can craft on your own. Television comedy or drama, or any form of broadcasting, is a team thing. You need lots of people to make it happen – lots of people working hard to bring a television programme together, and you do well to remember how much you rely on the other people.

In terms of writing and performing, Rob and I found it incredibly helpful to not be on our own – especially at the start. It hugely helps – you are just massively less likely to be totally wrong about a comedic notion if one other person says, – No, I like that.”

Comedy often addresses societal issues and challenges. How do you see the role of comedy in commenting on or addressing important topics, and do you believe there are any boundaries when it comes to humour?

“The thing about comedy is you never know how it will go down. I don’t think there are any subjects which are inappropriate for comedy, but there are definitely jokes that shouldn’t have been made. Ultimately, it is an art form that is entirely justified or otherwise based on whether or not people laugh and like it.

Comedy should push boundaries. We, as a species, have an impish nature: we want to say the things we are told we shouldn’t say just for the rebellious thrill of it. Comedians will always go into those arenas, and it is a difficult time for that, largely because of the internet, which allows any piece of material to be plucked out, decontextualized, and then placed in front of thousands of people who might, in that decontextualized state, find it horrific. That doesn’t necessarily mean that when it was originally performed with an audience that was expecting more of that sort of thing, it wasn’t a perfectly OK thing to attempt to amuse with. Social media and the internet provide a whole new way for it to go wrong, but it is an old problem.”

“Peep Show” is considered a cult classic and has a dedicated fan base. What do you think it is about the show that resonated so well with viewers, and how has it impacted your career?

“It is a sitcom about two young men trying to figure out their lives, and a lot of people have had that experience. Even for people who haven’t, there are elements of it that reflect on the whole human condition – or at least the human condition in an affluent way. I speculate that’s why people liked it initially, and that’s what still draws people to it, particularly young people.

We knew we were shooting it in a slightly unusual way because that might get it a bit of attention, but we just wanted to make a series that people didn’t think was terrible. We were very pleased that people liked it, and it grew from there.

I was very lucky to stumble into a project like that so early on in my career. I am very, very proud of it. I am very happy to talk about it because it’s a difficult, insecure profession – show-business. To have anything that succeeds is unusual, so I think you have to cherish those things. Obviously, I want to do other and different things, but I am very happy that it is a part of my life. It’s the kind of show I wanted to make and has kind of been the only guiding principle of my career.”

Panel shows often require quick wit and improvisational skills. How do you prepare and what’s the secret to a successful panel show appearance?

“My feeling is that you can’t go in with a set of jokes you want to make because there are parts of my brain that remember things and parts that make things up, and they don’t work well together.

When I’m going into a situation where I might want to say something specific, I won’t listen to what other people are saying, and I’ll miss opportunities to say things that come out naturally in the live conversation. These off-the-cuff remarks often turn out better because they are of-the-moment. It’s the alchemy of the people involved and the conversational situation that they are put in that leads to comic invention different from what those people would have invented at home.

The best panel shows, in my opinion, come from individuals who show up in good spirits in front of an audience they are eager not to disappoint. They try to engage in funny banter within the structure provided by skilled programme makers. When it comes to the parts of the show that aren’t as good as the rest, you can always edit them out later.”

 “Unruly: The History of England’s Kings and Queens”. What inspired you to explore this topic, and what can readers expect from the book?

“I hope it’s a funny book, but it’s also a proper history of England’s monarchy from the Anglo-Saxons to 1603. There’s a lot to find absurd and funny about the past because, obviously, living in it (the Middle Ages) was dreadful, and most people lived in depths of misery that we can barely conceive of today.

So, looking at it with a lens of absurdity and humour, I think, without being offensive to the poor people who had to live through it, the comedy naturally arises from the truth of it. This approach is like my Observer column, where I attempt to find the funny, ridiculous, daft, and infuriating in the news and apply that to events from a long time ago.

All humans, in a way, want to see the world explained, and for me, that comes through history. During the lockdown, I was looking for some creativities to come from it and thinking about the Vikings and realized that their sudden coming and terrorizing of the English coastline was a bit like COVID – something that came out of the blue and ruined people’s lives. Viewing it that way was strangely comforting and quite funny. It reminded me that history isn’t just about great men and women or grand trends; sometimes, something random happens and screws things up for a lot of people, like rain at a garden party.

I enjoyed writing about it and had reached about 30,000 words on the Anglo-Saxons. I thought, “Well, maybe there’s a book in this.” I decided to focus on England’s monarchy, starting from the Dark Ages and medieval times, leading up to the merger with the Scottish monarchy in 1603.”

What advice do you have for young individuals aspiring to make a career in the entertainment industry, and how did you navigate the early stages of your career?

“Finding collaborators whom you like, admire, and are willing to commit to, and who are willing to commit to you, is a great way to enter into the world of comedy.

If you want to perform, also try to write if you can. Writing gives you significantly more leverage and control – you can always be writing, but you can’t always be performing. If you aren’t getting performance opportunities, writing can help you create them for yourself.

The Edinburgh Fringe was a huge thing for Rob and me. We went there every year, and it’s a place where many influential people in show-business attend. They often check out new talent. The key thing is to keep trying. Don’t give up unless, of course, you can give up, in which case, explore other options. But if you feel deeply that this is your calling in life, then go for it, keep trying. The more you roll the dice, the more likely you are to get a favourable outcome.

I recall someone from my university years who wrote to a very famous actress (I can’t remember who) seeking advice about becoming an actor and expressing concerns about the profession. The reply was quite brutal: “If you think of being an actor, don’t. If you have to be an actor, go for it, and I wish you luck.” There’s some truth in that. It’s an insecure profession, and if you must do it, then go all in. You need a bit of luck, and to have luck, you have to be there for a long time, waiting for your opportunity. The key thing is, if you know in your heart that you want to be in this profession and you’re willing to keep trying until you succeed, then go for it – try everything, and you’ll get there.”

David Mitchell will be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman live on stage at New Theatre Oxford on October 16th. Tickets (beginning £24) can be bought at the box office or at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/unruly-in-conversation-with-david-mitchell–his-new-book/new-theatre-oxford/. Tickets include a copy of ‘UNRULY: A History of England’s Kings and Queens’.

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