With acres of time stretching before me and a newly revamped TV room I’ve been catching up on the last few years of British sitcoms and quiz shows.* Partly this is about getting a comedic education, and part of it is the stunning realization that globalization means we can live in media bubbles of our own choosing, at least if our concerns about intellectual property have been bound and gagged and left in the linen closet. And we have a broadband connection.
For the last few weeks, my viewing and listening hours have been devoted to exploring the comedic partnership of Robert Webb and David Mitchell. That Mitchell and Webb Sound, their radio show, has been playing in the background while I put together corporate training materials and reformat bullet points.** I watch their sketch shows while chatting online and working on these bloglets. These formats have proven great for my divided attention, as they seem to occupy the same part of my brain that is stimulated by listening to music. And they make me laugh.
But if you don’t mind closing that chat window or clocking a few less freelance hours, their Channel 4 sitcom, Peep Show, definitely deserves your undivided attention. It should be available if you get BBC America (Lucky bastards. Although I guess they edit the shit out of it, which probably makes it slightly less fun), and there are a number of full episodes up on Hulu. For a while I was constantly comparing their stuff to that of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, who are a serious gold-standard pairing, in my mind at least.***
Peep Show really sets Mitchell and Webb apart from their intellectual comedy double-act predecessors, what with it being a sitcom and all, and the writing, by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong is just superb. In its earlier seasons, less so as the series progresses, Peep Show makes heavy use of POV shots. It’s unique in that much of the script consists of the running stream-of-consciousness thought of the two main characters, Mark and Jeremy. This device comes courtesy of the film Being John Malkovich, but I actually find it much more accessible and used to better effect here.****
Unlike other shows that rely on narration– SagetTed on How I Met Your Mother and the Carrie-Bradshaw column voiceover of Sex and the City— this technique is remarkably well-integrated.
It’s also horrific to watch, in the way that a lot of British situation comedy tends to be. Most of the action revolves around painfully embarrassing or awkward encounters. Which makes it closer to The Office in its first few seasons, or the cringeworthy ramblings of Ricky Gervais in the original Office, or Extras, although Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm hits a lot of the same notes. And it goes full on into the intertwining of guilt, self-loathing, misanthropy and intermittent half-bored sexual encounters that define interpersonal relations these days. The handjob scene in the sixth episode of Series 1 borders on the grotesque, for instance. As does the scene linked below:
Anyways, this series has got me thinking a lot about the American relationship with darkness and bona fide misery. It doesn’t crop up all that much. And still less is it something we want to laugh about.
* Can I just say how fucking amazing is it to have a dedicated TV-watching couch? Given that this was supposed to be a couch given over solely to the pursuit of academic reading and doctoral exam prep, I feel a little frisson of both guilt and nervous glee when I use it for this much more pedestrian purpose. But it is a thing of joy, never mind that I had to spend a month rearranging my entire apartment to make this possible. But that’s a story for another day.
**BBC’s iPlayer works in the US, but only for radio, not television. Waaaah.
***It doesn’t help that Robert Webb looks Hugh Laurie smushed together with John Malkovich. With maybe a touch of Jude Law, but I won’t hold that against him.
****How very Formalist of me! Voloshinov and Medvedev would be proud. But to be honest, it’s a situation comedy, not fucking Tristram Shandy, right?