Dara Ó Briain and Hugh Dennis on 15 years of Mock the Week, filming with a Zoom audience and the big mistake fans always make
The Mock the Week stars reflect on the show's 15-year history and chat to Lauren Morris about performing to a Zoom audience.
The first episode of Mock the Week aired on 5th June 2005, with Dara Ó Briain making his hosting debut and Hugh Dennis, John Oliver, impressionist Rory Bremner and late comedians Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy becoming the first ever panelists to sit on the satirical show.
Fifteen years on – and 100 comedians, 204 episodes and hundreds of millions of viewers later – Mock the Week is still going strong on BBC Two, with Ó Briain and Dennis continuing to helm the long-running series. From relentlessly ridiculing the latest political faux pas, to watching comedians rush to the mic when thinking of "unlikely things to hear on a children's TV Programme", the show's two key cast members have witnessed (and often contributed to) some of the funniest moments in UK TV history.
Did they think Mock the Week would still be going all these years later? "Oh god no," Ò Briain says over the phone. "I mean, you don't presume that anything has any longevity."
"Obviously we were running alongside Have I Got News for You, which is in its 16th year or something, and it's very much a legacy thing now. I mean, nobody knows why it's on anymore but it will always be there. It's just kind of pre-printed on the schedule – so we hopefully slide into that."
Becoming a platform for new comedians has been handy in some ways, Ò Briain adds. "There's always new comics coming out of the woodwork, a whole generation of them coming through. But you don't presume in show business. You might get a couple of years, but you don't expect this longevity, or that Christ – this is what I'll be known for! Oh no!"
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"I'm very happy about that myself," Dennis chips in. "But what is amazing to me is that even after 15 years, people always get the name wrong. People come up to you on the street and they never go, 'Oh you're on Mock the Week, I'm really enjoying Mock the Week.' They say: "Really enjoying Mock of the Week.'"
"It's written in huge letters behind me!" an equally frustrated Ò Briain jokes. "We should just for one week, rename it Mock of the Week just to see whether anybody notices that."
Dennis, who's been a regular panellist on the show throughout its long run, revealed his other pet peeve when it comes to fans' questions. "People always ask me how many we record at one time. Every week! We do one a week! Five wouldn't make any sense – we can't see the future."
The pair are currently in the midst of recording Mock the Week's 19th series – their very first without a studio audience following the introduction of a second national lockdown. Instead, the comedy stars are performing to a "massive" Zoom audience, which has taken some getting used to.
"You worry about the lag and what they go for and what they don't go for," Ò Briain says. "You also worry that they're totally free to go to the toilet at any time."
He adds that Zoom audiences tend to laugh at different jokes to their in-person counterparts. "An audience sort of wants to forget themselves and that's easiest when they're packed in together. But if you separate them out and give them a two-metre bubble, they remain quite isolated."
With the show's live Zoom audience watching from the comfort of their homes, this 'new normal' has led to number of strange situations whilst taping the show. "[There was] this guy we didn't get to on the Zoom chat last week who was in the dark. Whatever room he was watching in, the only illumination was the laptop he was watching it on and the rest of the room behind it was in darkness," Ò Briain says. "I was going to go to him and address this but then we lost the Zoom chat – we lost all 300 audience members. Somebody closed a window or something broke and the entire audience disappeared."
The new Zoom audience isn't the only change allowing Mock the Week to run during a global pandemic. "The biggest thing is in terms of we're doing it with the perspex sheets," Ò Briain says, referring to the see-through plastic walls separating each comedian on the panel, which are virtually unnoticeable.
In fact, the sheets are so hard to spot that the show has received several complaints about COVID safety measures. "We have actually had angry calls saying, 'You're not observing social distancing.' No – between us there is a bulletproof sheet – I insisted it be bulletproof, there's no reason for it to be bulletproof but I insisted," he jokes.
Dennis adds: "The temptation to breathe on it heavily and leave condensation and messages for the person sitting next you – it's almost too much to bear."
Comedy couldn't be more important in dark times like these, when the public are in much need of some comic relief – but how do you write jokes about a very specific, widespread global disaster which is already constantly on everybody's minds?
"This year, I have found it weirder, not just for Mock the Week but generally because the lockdown is so unique to now," Ò Briain says. "There's only so much people want to hear about it in a certain sense and you're aware that you won't be still doing jokes about lockdown when lockdown is over. When it comes to writing the jokes and routines that you'll tour for a couple of years, the last thing you want in 2023 is to be going, 'Hey remember when we were in lockdown?'"
"The topic of stuff this year was so incredibly specific to the situation that we were put in at that time – there was a point where stockpiling toilet paper was a thing, now it's a thing again but it won't be in a week," he adds. "Everyone's been doing the same thing, we all have gone through exactly the same experience. But in a way that will never happen again, and we'll be very happy not to have it happen again."
For Dennis, COVID-19 taking over the news cycle has meant there've been fewer small stories to joke about on the show. "We'd quite often do silly small stories, but they're just completely dominated by variations on one subject really. But it's all been sort of a national water-cooler moment really, whereby we're all sharing the same thing, which has been very good but I would have liked more silly stuff."
Looking back of the show's 15-year history and the thousands of jokes broadcasted over that time, it's difficult for the two comedians to pick out some of their favourite – although for Ò Briain, one of James Acaster's comes to mind.
The gag, which was a response to 'Unlikely Film Trailers', saw Acaster take to the mic and say: "Part man, part machine, part bird, part drum – it's Robo-Bongo-Cuckoo-Cop."
"That killed me," Ò Briain adds, while for Dennis, his favourite moment from the show isn't a joke more than it is an achievement.
"There was one show where I caught a fly in the studio in one hand. I grabbed it somehow in that way that you never can and I actually managed it." he says. "It's a bit sad that 15 years of the show and that's all I can remember."
In terms of their dream panellists, the duo would love for some previous stars to the return to the show.
"It would be nice to have them come back – and not the obvious people. I'd like to make [Last Week Tonight's] John Oliver do it again. That would be funny because he's so used to now doing 30 minutes of an uninterrupted [show], then to have him in a fight with six other people...so to bring him back and make him do it again would be quite fun."
He continues: "I'd just like an episode with some of the old people – get David Mitchell back in again, you know people who haven't done it in years."
For Dennis however, his ideal panellists would be great comedians, both alive and no longer with us. "People in the past who'd have been very good at it, like Billy Connelly and Eric Morecambe."
"We can turn it into a FIFA game where you unlock all the legends," Ò Briain adds, before Dennis replies: "Or get holograms!"
Mock the Week is back on Thursday 19th November at 10pm on BBC Two. If you're looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.