The excruciating comedy of self-censorship

Mitchell and Webb return to mine the gap between inner doubt and public appearance in Peep Show.

Double acts have made a disproportionate impact since Adam and Eve. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Marx and Engels, Milli Vanilli… In each pairing, the talents of one would not have developed without the aid of the other - whether through supplying drugs, cash, or improbable rhyme. And nowhere have acts of creative union been so fruitful as in comedy. Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise loom large. More recent successes include French and Saunders and Fry and Laurie. Enter the youngish turks, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, whose sitcom, Peep Show, begins its fourth series tonight.

You may already know Mitchell and Webb as the two irritants in the current Mac adverts - you know, where the uptight, conservative, office nerd is meant to embody the PC whilst the laid-back, casual guy represents the Mac. But don’t let that - or the self-indulgent silliness of their sketch show, That Mitchell and Webb Look - put you off. Peep Show, written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (co-writer of The Thick of It), is quite brilliant.

Peep Show centres upon the travails of flatmates, Mark and Jez, played – you’ve guessed it – by Mitchell and Webb respectively. Characteristic expressions of an estranged existence, they bestride the demographic wasteland of the contemporary twenty-something-or-other: Mark desperately yearning to be fifty, Jez clinging to his adolescence. What both have in common is a lack of conviction - moral or otherwise - in the present. Neither Mark’s career, working as a loan manager for JLB Credit, nor Jez’s delusions of being a musician, compensates. Lost and neurotic, its only their pursuit of sex that seems to give their lives any direction. And the comedy comes from their ‘lives not lived’, its narrative drive deriving from their inner longings and drab outer lives. Mark, on doing Friday night grocery shopping, complains: ‘Life’s all pain. Pain, gloom and misery… Hey, 33 per cent extra free! I am doing excellent shopping. My depressed state of mind means I’m being even more frugal than usual.’

But it’s not just the Mark and Jez dynamic that makes Peep Show so amusing - there is a host of supporting characters who are all superb satirical creations in their own right. Jez believes that his best mate, Super Hans, is McCartney to his Lennon - which he might be if he wasn’t an unadulterated Shoreditch twat (1). In series two, Super Hans acquires an all too modish drug habit;  his moronic self-indulgence is encapsulated by his bewildered assertion, ‘this crack is so more-ish’. Mark’s boss, Alan Johnson, or ‘The Johnson’, as Mark adoringly refers to him, regards himself as a business ‘visionary’. He is given to expletive-mangled management-speak, achingly bad parables, and misogyny, which are all delivered in what would be a mid-Atlantic drawl if it weren’t delivered with such speedy smoothness. Sophie, Mark’s wife-to-be, is, understandably, not as admiring as Mark:

Sophie:Quite a presentation Alan – you do know Barbara went home in tears
Johnson:I’m just the doctor – I don’t make the needles sharp
Sophie:It’s not a wig Alan, it’s actually her hair

Quite rightly, Peep Show has attracted a few champions. Ricky Gervais has declared that, in his opinion, it is ‘the best sitcom since Father Ted’. But, in spite of the similarities with Men Behaving Badly, Game On, and The Likely Lads, it is the The Office to which Peep Show is most frequently compared. They are both identified as comedies of ‘embarrassment’; some would go so far as to highlight schadenfreude as their common comedic source. 

In the case of The Office, the comedy came primarily from its central character’s lack of self-awareness. David Brent, the office manager (and Michael Scott in the US version), was ‘embarrassing’ because he seemed to have no idea as to how he was perceived by other people. But there was often a specific flavour to the irony, as Brent attempted to affect politically correct postures, incorrectly. The fissure between what he thought was acceptable and what was deemed offensive by the other characters was comically exploited. Brent’s use of ‘coloured,’ for instance, was funny because it revealed not his racism, but his illiteracy in modern social etiquette. The fundamental humanity of The Office, if you like, was apparent at those moments when Brent was at his most awkward and vulnerable, dimly aware that he might be saying something offensive even if he was unsure what it was. The most ruthless irony resided not in Brent’s behaviour exactly but in his inadequate attempt to censor it. 

Peep Show continues to mine this rich seam of ‘inappropriate behaviour,’ but at an even more excruciating depth. Here, at least, Peep Show goes beyond The Office by exploring this terrain at the level of self-consciousness itself. Uncensored interior monologues, no matter how crude or inappropriate, are played off against their censored exterior actions, often complementing this focus with camera angles from the main characters’ point of view. It’s a technique both remorseless and rich in comic potential.

It is remorseless insofar as it unveils all daft, self-aggrandising moral posturing as just that. It is rich in comic potential in that it allows the writers to let the characters speak their minds, ridiculing the self-censorship it simultaneously portrays. Nothing is out of bounds. A scene from the new series sees Mark’s workmates cajole him into a lap-dancing club. Despite protestations, he’s bought a dance, during which we get to hear his thoughts: ‘This really shouldn’t be allowed. It’s what men want, and it’s horrible and it’s sick. Oh great. I’m getting an erection. How grimly predictable.’

Peep Show doesn’t pull its punches. In fact, at a time when private expression is increasingly subject to public regulation, its punch seems harder than ever. And although the new series, judging by the first two episodes, seems more conventional, almost farcical in the traditional sense, it’s still the best British comedy on television at the moment.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport reviewed an earlier series of Peep Show and thought Extras was special. Graham Barnfield thought More4’s Trial of Tony Blair was a very trying satire and Emily Hill reviewed E4’s teen-drama Skins. Or see spiked-issue TV.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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