They’re the stars of dark comedy Peep Show and masters of risky humour – but David Mitchell and Robert Webb have revealed they often feel stifled by the sensitivity regarding edgy comic material in modern Britain.
“We’re going through a bad patch in terms of people being very judgemental about jokes,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been noticing on recent episodes of Have I Got News for You, things that are just pretty reasonable jokes with a bit of edge to them, you can hear the studio audience are going ‘gasp!’
“And I think, five years ago the audience would just have laughed. But now it’s really gasp! How rude!”
Robert Webb interjected: “Shall we blame Twitter? Let’s.”
David Mitchell in the final series of Peep Show
“I think I’m gonna blame Twitter,” agreed Mitchell. “I think the fact that there is a sport of trying to find offence, and enjoying an afternoon of ‘oh they said this terrible thing that’s rude about so-and-so’.
“The fun people have doing that – and it is fun even if they don’t admit it to themselves – is potentially killing the joy of humour for MILLIONS. And we just need to relax a bit about jokes.
“We should celebrate the urge to amuse, and not be so quick to assume that the person who’s done a bit of an edgy joke has in fact, a lurking horrendous, prejudiced agenda. There’s a couple of intakes of breath and you think ‘oh come on everyone, it’s only a joke!’”
“Also it ruins it for everyone else,” added Webb, “because once you’ve heard that there’s now this atmosphere. There’s this thing in the air that oh, right, I’m part of something unpleasant, because somebody went ‘gasp!’”
But what of the argument that comedians should be able to defend their material if they really believe that it shouldn’t be seen as offensive? Is the onus on them to prove it’s a joke worth telling? Well, yes and no…
“You should be able to defend every joke you make,” Mitchell said, “but the massively increased statistical likelihood with each joke that you’re going to have to, does make you go ‘is it worth it?’”
“That’s how I feel on social media,” Webb agreed. “It’s a terrible place for jokes but it’s a great place for jokes for people who like to be misunderstood.
“If I do this, how many sanctimonious replies will I get, how many willfully pedantic replies will I get?”
Mitchell and Webb with Tim Key in Peep Show series 9
That said, both comedians, along with Peep Show co-creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, agree that their work on TV allows them to get away with more – just as long as they keep within certain moral lines.
“On Peep Show we’ve never really had a problem with that, because Channel 4 have never stopped us saying anything, and we’ve never censored ourselves,” said Bain.
“I think once you’ve eaten dogs and pissed in a church and taken lots of crack, like Super Hans you can sort of do anything. If you’re writing a show about people’s inner thoughts and you start censoring yourself, you might as well not bother really.”
“I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do a joke about,” Mitchell said, “but there’s some jokes that, you know, that aren’t on the side of the angels.
“And what you’re doing there is saying something deeply unpleasant. And I don’t think there’s ever been a joke like that in Peep Show, but it’s not the subject matter but the comic take that’s important.”
Peep Show returns to Channel 4 next Wednesday at 10:00pm