I was fortunate enough to spend a little over half and hour with David Mitchell before his appearance in the Ivor Crewe in order to ask him a few questions about his new book and about a bunch of other topics, including The Simpsons, his all-time comedy heroes, his potential future in history documentary-making and his views on comedy panel shows, cookery shows and late-night TV gambling. This is a full transcript of our conversation, including an amusing interlude involving a mini-rant about tea with cream. It’s rather long but I didn’t want to leave anything out. There will be a heavily abridged version in the printed edition of the paper.
My questions are in bold,David’s answers are in regular type, and Paul Keane’s comments during the interlude are in italics. I hope you like it.
You’ve just finished writing a book. Can you say a little about it?
It’ll be out in October. It’s basically a memoir but it’s structured in a particular way. I had a very bad back a few years ago as a result of which I walk for an hour every day, which is very good for the back, and therefore I’ve structured this book as a walk around the area in London where I live and used the things on the walk to bring out memories of things in my life and other, hopefully, entertaining or insightful things. I link in autobiographical things but I’ve tried to keep it funny; I talk about things that annoy me in the world; it’s not just a list of my primary school teachers. But it basically tells, among other things, the story of my life up to the present day.
I link in autobiographical things but I’ve tried to keep it funny; I talk about things that annoy me in the world and not just a sort of list of my primary school teachers. But it basically tells, among other things, the story of my life up to the present day.
You didn’t grow up in London but you’ve lived there a while, do you think of yourself as a Londoner?
I do really, yeah. I’ve lived there since I left university, so that’s sixteen years. My feeling is that London is a city of immigrants and that’s what’s so exciting about it. It’s full of people who’ve gone there to do things. Obviously some people are from London, I understand that, but I always think they’re slightly cheating.
Is the book quite Londony then, and, if so, were you concerned that that might put some people off?
The walk is entirely in London but the subject-matter isn’t very Londony. I say nice things about London because I like it, but that’s not a major focus of the book. That’s one of the things the publishers were worried about – would it seem all Londony – and will people that don’t live in London get all cross. And I said, “I don’t think they will”. But if you look at the internet long enough you realise that everything you do will make someone cross.
According to Wikipedia, you’ve been contracted to write a novel. Is there any truth to that?
Yes, I’m supposed to write a novel at some point but I haven’t really given that any thought. I’d like to, but I’ve not thought about that for a while.
Which authors do you enjoy and admire?
[Paul Keane returns with some tea as well as a portion of cream for David]
Evelyn Waugh is a favourite author of mine. I love Raymond Chandler, I love– That’s cream, Paul!
– I know it’s cream. It’s what they had, at the end of the day.
Do you mean that figuratively “at the end of the day” or “because it is the end of the day there is no milk?”
– Because it is the end of the day there is no milk.
I see, that’s terrible – what has happened to this country!?
– Is that ok? Can you cope with that?
I’ve never had cream in tea before so I’ll see what it’s like. We’re getting it all on tape, at least, this whole thing: this egg-white omelette tirade.
– “Star has tetchy moment…” David, please stop putting the cream on my face – I’m sorry David!
Did they give you the tea for free?
Well they should’ve done if they’ve got no bloody milk. A cup of tea’s not a cup of tea without milk. They might as well say “we’ve got no water, here’s the bag, put it under your tongue.”
[Paul Keane leaves]
So, Evelyn Waugh, Raymond Chandler, any others?
John Le Carre.
You enjoyed the film [of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier Spy]?
I did enjoy the film. I didn’t expect to because I loved the TV series. I think the TV series is amazing so I felt almost like a traitor to it that I enjoyed the film, but it was very good.
If you could create a David Mitchell Starter Pack containing all the stuff you really like, what would be in it?
I think there would be a bottle of real ale of some sort. I mean, ideally there’d be a pulled pint but that wouldn’t really work in a bag.
I think I’ll allow it.
Thank you, Kirsty. I think there’d definitely be some TV comedy: a DVD of Monty Python and/or Fawlty Towers and Blackadder, that sort of thing. There would be some stilton and also, on the contrasting end of the gastronomic scale, there would be a bacon and egg sandwich. I think if I had a last meal – assuming I could enjoy it, assuming I gave a shit what I had – I’d have a full English breakfast: that’s my favourite sort of food, with disastrous consequences generally, but if if’s your last meal you don’t have to think about the cholesterol, depending why you’re dying, I suppose. I think maybe there would be Groundhog Day on DVD too – everyone should have seen that. And there’s nothing else really: I’m quite a boring man.
I don’t think you should treat this question as a barometer of your interestingness.
And a cloth handkerchief! Because I still believe in cloth handkerchiefs. I’ve been using one all my life. Though, if you get a cold they do become a bit gross, but I don’t like blowing my nose on paper. It’s not the same.
What other contemporary comedy do you rate?
I watch less and less comedy now because it seems like work. That’s a terrible admission. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a lot of good comedy but it’s not escapism when you’ve spent all day trying to be funny, watching someone else do it. But I think Charlie Brooker’s programmes are brilliant; I like Stewart Lee’s show; I love The Simpsons. The Simpsons is escapism still, I don’t know why – I think it’s because it’s American I don’t see it as associated with my own career.
And do you think it’s still as good?
No, I think probably it isn’t but I think, to be fair, it’s been going on so long that it’s had an up and down graph and I only have a vague sense of what’s more recent. I believe it’s had a better patch of late than it did a few years ago but it’ll probably never return to being as good as it was in the late 90s. But I love those characters so much that I’ll watch them even in the slightly less good episodes. And still, there’s got to be 150 amazing episodes which is a huge achievement.
What about all-time comedy?
The Simpsons obviously rates there. And Faulty Towers is probably the best sit-com there’s ever been. I’m a big fan of Seinfeld as well. My favourite comedy actor would be Peter Sellers. And Peter Cook obviously is brilliant, though he didn’t leave that much behind in terms of material. I just read a biography of Peter Cook, in fact – my God, what a fucked up bloke. It’s fascinating because it’s so sad, that he had this huge success in the 60s and never quite recaptured it, but never quite lost it. It’s such an odd balance.
There don’t seem to be as many of those tragic comic figures these days.
No, you’re right. Of the prominent comedians I know, I’m not aware of any of them being massively self-destructive addicts of alcohol or drugs. There must be them, but of the comedians I know they’re deep down quite sensible people.
And they don’t conform to the tears-of-a-clown stereotype?
I’m slightly suspicious of that stereotype because I think a lot of what happens is when comedians get interviewed they get asked where does it come from and obviously everyone feels dissatisfied about things and no-one feels great all the time and what distinguishes the comedian is not that they don’t feel great all the time but that they use comedy as an outlet for that. And so that doesn’t explain them; they’re like everyone else, they feel a bit miserable, they just make jokes about it because they’re a comedian.
Of the things you’ve done, what are you proudest of?
Well, I’m very proud of this book I’ve written, actually. I don’t know how it’ll go down but I’m proud of it and I hope it’ll be read by lots of people and that they’ll like it. I’m incredibly proud of Peep Show, although most of what’s brilliant about it is in the writing and I don’t write it, but it’s just great to have played a significant role in something that I think works very well. And also the sketch show I do with Rob. It’s a different sort of satisfaction because it’s always a challenge to have new ideas and we write a lot of that. Those two shows I’m most proud of, which is probably what you’d expect me to say.
How much longer are you prepared to carry Robert Webb.
(Laughs) I don’t carry Robert Webb. I’m very glad you think it’s that way round rather than the other but, no, I don’t carry him at all. I think we’re a very balanced double-act. I think we have different but complementary skills.
There’s more Peep Show happening – we’re shooting that over the summer. Sketch Show, I don’t know. 10 O’Clock Live, I don’t know. That’s currently where we are. And we’re doing another load of Soapboxes which will start going out in May.
You write those with John Finnimore. What’s the writing process?
We sit in a room to thrash out the basic shape of them and the basic ideas and then he writes a draft and then I re-write it.
Besides the Soapbox, the overwhelming majority of the comedy you do is with other people: would you want to do more solo work?
For years I’ve said I’d never want to do stand-up, and now I’d say I’d probably never want to do stand-up, but I’m wavering. Other than that, what is there you can do alone? I work in a collaborative business.
You read history at Cambridge, do you ever get offers to do history-based programmes? And would you ever want to do something more serious or scholarly?
I’m potentially interested. I get offered a lot of documentary things and I’d like to do something one day but I want to make sure that when I do something like that there’s a very good answer to the question: why is this comedian doing a history programme? Rather than just: well, he’s been on the telly before and they asked him. Because, God knows, I don’t know enough about history to rank among historians. So my own knowledge/attitude/experience/ability to be entertaining would have to be core to the programme. I think, frankly, comedy is, in many ways, a youngish mans game and people tire of comedians: you have to go away for a bit and maybe you’re allowed to get rediscovered after that but that’s usually the shape of the comedian’s career. I don’t want to hasten Stage 2. I think if I started presenting things then people might think: oh, he’s moved on from putting on silly wigs and doing sketches; he’s now a wry but basically sensible person. It’s good work, and I’d like to do that thing one day, but only while the writer/performer part of my career is perhaps on the back burner for a decade, and I don’t want to take that step too early.
Would comics be able to make a living these days without all the comedy panel shows and do you feel they’ve improved the quality of comedians and comedy?
Yes, basically I do. My living is not mainly from panel shows at all, it varies year on year but I’ve earned more of my money writing, doing the sketch show or doing Peep Show. I don’t think that’s typical of the scene in general because most of the people who do panel shows are stand-up comedians and where they make most of their money is doing stand-up tours. There’s no doubt that the money they make from stand-up tours is enhanced by the fact their profile has been raised by their being on television, so it’s almost impossible to separate the money they make from touring and the money they make from TV. Some of them would have prominence anyway, some of them wouldn’t.
When it comes to whether or not panel shows have been good for comedy, some of them are good and some of them aren’t. I think people wrongly perceive, possibly because of the existence of Dave, the channel, that the panel shows are like a new phenomenon. In fact, they’ve been radio panel shows since the 60s; still the market leader of the TV panel shows, Have I Got News For You, started in 1990; there were loads throughout the 90s. It’s not a new phenomenon. What is new is the ability to turn the television on and watch one at any point, 24-hours a day because they’re repeated on various channels, which I know annoys some people but there’s always something else on.
There’s probably been a bit of a spate of them; there’s probably been a few produced that didn’t succeed; but basically I think they’re usually quite entertaining. I’d say, as a comedy format, they’ll never hit the heights of the best sit-coms or sketch shows but they seldom descend to the depths of the worst.
And better an endless stream of comedy panel shows than more reality TV?
Exactly. On a comedy panel show, if it’s well-produced, you get original jokes that people have ad-libbed off-the-cuff in front of an audience and I think that’s a higher quality of product than, for example, all the cookery shows there are. Now, you want there to be some cookery shows on the television, I totally understand that, but there really are loads and they don’t get subjected to the same kind of negative scrutiny as comedy. And I think it’s largely a lamentable side-effect of a good thing in that in this country we really care about comedy – a damn sight more than we do about food – so when we see comedy on and we think “there’s too much of this sort of thing” or “that’s happening too much in this direction” or “he’s on too much” people get very angry about it in a way they don’t get angry if they say “that’s the fifth recipe for chicken and parma ham I’ve seen this month.” They don’t mind that so much.
The downside of that sort of scrutiny is that, for broadcasters, cookery shows get good ratings and are a lot cheaper to make than comedy shows so there are times when a channel has put on a new comedy panel show or a new sit-com or sketch show and gets a massive kicking in the press and a kicking on the internet for having done so it almost makes me wince, even when I’m not involved. Because I think this is just going to put the channels off making comedy altogether and it’s already expensive. They’ll just say “sod it – we’ll just get Gordon Ramsey to make more episodes; we’ll get a new pretty girl to show us how to bake cakes.” That’s so much easier for them because people watch that and it doesn’t make them angry. They don’t say: “That’s the worst fucking recipe for butter icing I’ve ever seen.”
That’s a long answer to your question, but I think you lead me this way. The conclusion, and I think this is right, is that there may have been the odd panel show that wasn’t as good as it should have been but that is not the problem with television. While broadcasters are trying to make comedy shows, that’s all good news and the bad news is when they make more reality TV. And the thing that never gets talked about at all – and this is disgraceful – is that all night on ITV from about eleven at night it seems, they show this gambling programme. It’s not a game show with a competition, it’s just getting lonely people to spend a fortune making premium rate calls in the hope of winning £1000 and they have no chance of winning, well they have a miniscule chance of winning, and on average they’d have to spend £3000 making phone calls for every £1000 otherwise this programme would not be in profit. Those are my figures – I’m making them up, they’re not an allegation – but in general this is not public service broadcasting; this is not a good thing for the culture. And that’s on all night on ITV, the second most watched channel. That’s a disgrace! And it’s the same on Channel 5. Those are the things in television that need looking at. I mean, Jeremy Kyle! Every morning. Just preying on the weak and unfortunate.
At least people complain about Jeremy Kyle.
That’s true, people do complain about Jeremy Kyle, I am not a lone voice here.
Obviously you were part of the Channel 4 election coverage and you co-present 10 O’Clock Live, do you think of yourself as a political comedian?
Not primarily, no. I enjoy making jokes about politics; I enjoy writing a column. When I’ve got an opinion to express I try to express that comically because you can make points very powerfully if you can do it through jokes. So I enjoy that process, but it doesn’t come from a burning desire to change the world. I’ll apply my mind and try to be entertaining through making an argument but it’s not that I’m actually really angry about stuff. It probably should be; I’d probably be a better person if that’s how I felt but, in all honesty, it isn’t. When I say something I always believe what I say but I’ve come to form that argument in order to try and find something to be entertaining about rather than being entertaining because I desperately want to try to change the world. I don’t think comedy often changes things.
But comedy is a particularly powerful way of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.
Yes, absolutely. It’s devastating when you can do it through a joke. When the right satirical joke is simultaneously funny and damning, as it never is when done by political cartoonists, that’s tremendously satisfying but I suppose I find it tremendously satisfying just as a work of art. If we lived in Utopia, I’d be very unhappy because there’d be nothing to take the piss out of.
When you look back to your own university days, what do you feel most nostalgic about?
I most miss the sense of possibility; the sense that all these exciting opportunities are opening up before me. That’s what university felt like for me, particularly in terms of comedy and acting. It was a wonderful time for me and I’ve never been happier, so I miss that, but I miss it in a good way. I’m very glad that at that time in my life that’s how I felt. It would be wrong for me to feel like that in my late thirties. It’s good that I have those memories and I’m glad that I used that period of my life to create memories like that.