BBC Comedy Hit Heads to U.S.

Scott Simon talks to the wacky team of Robert Webb and David Mitchell, whose award-winning sketch comedy show on the BBC is coming to America next week. That Mitchell and Webb Look premieres on BBC America.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

But first, there's a moment in the BBC's "That Mitchell and Webb Look" where the principals, during a break on their set, pore over a newspaper.

(Soundbite of TV show, "That Mitchell and Webb Look")

Mr. DAVID MITCHELL (actor, "That Mitchell and Webb Look"): (as character) I was just going to say that my eye was caught by this whole scandal in America.

Mr. ROBERT WEBB (actor, "That Mitchell and Webb Look"): (as character) Oh, the scandal in America. Yeah, that is interesting. That must be the biggest scandal since Watergategate.

Mr. MITCHELL: (as character) Watergategate? Isn't it just Watergate?

Mr. WEBB: (as character) No. That would mean it was just about water. No, it was a scandal or gate, add the suffix gate, that's what you do with a scandal, involving the Watergate Hotel. So it was called the Watergate scandal, or Watergategate.

Mr. MITCHELL: (as character) Well said.

SIMON: Robert Webb and David Mitchell's award-winning show of sketch comedy is finally making it to air in the United States. BBC America beginning Friday, February 8th. They'll bring the whole repertoire of characters they've created. The snooty waiter, the kind you don't see anymore; the daft Oxford professor who clowns for the camera; and a man who can move biscuits with his mind.

Unidentified Man: How?

SIMON: It's British humor, okay. And it makes some of us laugh our biscuits off. Robert Webb and David Mitchell join is from the studios of the BBC. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MITCHELL: Hello.

Mr. WEBB: Thank you for having us.

SIMON: How did the two of you begin to work together.

Mr. WEBB: We both went to Cambridge University, and they have a sort of comedy society there called the Cambridge Footlights. And we were both involved in that writing and performing comedy. And I was there a year before David. I'm the senior member only by age, not rank. And I saw David do some stuff, and I asked him if he wanted a two-man show with me. And then it all sort of glumly progressed from there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And you both have a background in radio I understand, or you began to do sketches in radio?

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes, well the show that's coming out of BBC America started as a radio show called "That Mitchell and Webb Sound." I think radio's a brilliant medium for comedy, 'cause apart from anything else you can set the sketches anywhere and it has no sort of budgetary issues.

Mr. WEBB: All the comedy you otherwise couldn't afford.

SIMON: But there are really some lovely visual bits in what you do. I'm thinking of the man who can move biscuits with his mind.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, we were sort of very excited with that, because that was one of the few sketches that actually had a special effect.

Mr. WEBB: An actual special effect. It's like he's got the force, but it only applies to biscuits.

SIMON: The biscuits fly through the air.

Mr. MITCHELL: I believe you usually call them cookies.

(Soundbite of TV show, "That Mitchell and Webb Look")

Mr. WEBB: (as character) Jane is that you?

Unidentified Woman: (as Jane) What? What's the time?

Mr. WEBB: (as character) Why didn't you call me?

Unidentified Woman: (as Jane) It was complicated.

Mr. WEBB: (as character) Your mother told me you'd died.

Unidentified Woman: (as Jane) I didn't want to hurt you (unintelligible) So, water under the bridge, eh?

Mr. WEBB: (as character) All my rage and fear welled up inside me and expressed itself in biscuit form.

Mr. MITCHELL: (as character) Are you all right?

(Soundbite of sound effect)

SIMON: I'm struck by the fact that a lot of your sketches seem to take off on actual BBC shows. I'm thinking for example of the, what's the quiz show called, "NumberWang."

Mr. MITCHELL: "NumberWang."

SIMON: Which seems purely inspired by all those big British game shows that have become big hits in the United States too.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I don't think there's a specific show that inspired "NumberWang." But I suppose, just, you can watch game shows, and if you don't concentrate, they just seem like nonsense. You don't know what's going on. And so I think the reason "NumberWang" actually works is that it's just a quiz show that makes no sense at all.

(Soundbite of TV show, "That Mitchell and Webb Look")

Mr. WEBB: (as game show host) Hello and welcome to "NumberWang," the math quiz that (unintelligible) everyone. Joining me today are Julie from North Hampton and Simon who is also from South Hampton. So Julie, any funny stories to tell us?

Unidentified Woman #2: (as Julie) Yes.

Mr. WEBB: (as game show host) Simon?

Unidentified Man #2: (as Simon) No.

Mr. WEBB: (as game show host) Great. Let's play "NumberWang." And it's Simon to go first. Too slow. Julie?

Unidentified Woman #2: (as Julie) 38.

Mr. WEBB: (as game show host) That's "NumberWang." Let's move on to round two, imaginary numbers. Simon?

Unidentified Man #2: (as Simon) Twentington.

Mr. WEBB: (as game show host) That's "NumberWang."

Mr. MITCHELL: Anything that seemed for a moment to make sense was wrong.

Mr. WEBB: We had to get rid of that.

Mr. MITCHELL: Take it out of the script. But yes, we do do a lot of stuff based on other television programs.

Mr. WEBB: That's probably 'cause we've watched too much television.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, and also when you're writing a good thing to write about is things that seem illogical or annoying. And there's a lot of television that's illogical or annoying.

SIMON: Well you also seem to get a little, am I right, upset about the fact that there aren't snooty waiters anymore. Explain this character to us a bit if you will.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well I think that restaurants - certainly in Britain, but I imagine in America as well - used to be places that were very sort of self-consciously, you know, smart and posh, and where a lot of the customers were nervous and felt that they weren't behaving quite properly and actually they were quite slovenly at home and now they need to be on their best behavior. I think a lot of the staff would sort of allow them to think that. So some of the theater of the incredibly grand starch restaurant where the food isn't terribly good but there are dozens of knives and forks and you don't know which to use when. It's a shame to have entirely lost that. And I suppose, yeah, that sketch is a little bit of nostalgia for the age of nervous customers and horrible headwaiters.

(Soundbite of TV show, "That Mitchell and Webb Look")

Mr. MITCHELL: (as waiter) Are you ready to order, sir?

Mr. WEBB: (as character) Sorry, mate. Haven't really had a look yet. But can we order a bottle of the house red to be going on with?

Mr. MITCHELL: (as waiter) Mate? House red? To be going on with? Where the hell do you think you are? Do you even know what the house red is? Are you even an expert on wine? Because if you're not, I don't know on what basis you venture to order it.

Mr. WEBB: (as character) Sorry, what happened to the friendly Australian girl that used to work here?

Mr. MITCHELL: (as waiter) She's gone, sir. They've all gone. And we're back.

SIMON: I get the impression that a lot of your sketches as bits have become very popular on YouTube.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes, I think so.

Mr. WEBB: Yeah, one or two. Yeah.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, particularly a sketch we wrote about a publisher suggesting new ideas for a rewrite for a book.

SIMON: I love that exchange.

Mr. WEBB: Coming up with bad ideas and then saying not bad. I mean do something like that, I mean not that, but that.

(Soundbite of TV show, "That Mitchell and Webb Look")

Mr. WEBB: (as character) I mean what is… I mean not this, ignore this. What is Henry, although obviously not, if he has sex. I mean not sex but sex, right at the beginning with Sarah. I mean not Sarah, but you know.

Mr. MITCHELL: (as character) Henry has sex?

Mr. WEBB: (as character) No, forget the sex. I'm just throwing things out there. I mean you're the author actually. You've got the talent. You know what you're doing. I'm just here to help.

Mr. MITCHELL: (as character) No, I appreciate it.

Mr. WEBB: (as character) So what if it's not that but it's "Jaws?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: (as character) Isn't there already a book called "Jaws?"

Mr. WEBB: (as character) Not Jaws the shark, but yeah maybe a big shark. And, I mean not that, but Sarah falls in love with a shark.

SIMON: What we're going to see on BBC North America is about a dozen shows?

Mr. MITCHELL: That's right.

Mr. WEBB: Yes.

Mr. MITCHELL: Our first two series that first went out here in 2006 and the series that will first go out here next month.

SIMON: I wonder if the two of you have any thoughts on the differences between American and British comedy.

Mr. MITCHELL: I think fundamentally there are more similarities than differences. But comedy relies on shared references. And there are a lot of references in British comedy that an American audience won't get. And it doesn't take long before you start to understand the frame of reference of the other country. I've learned much of the things I know about America through references in sitcoms. You hear a joke, you don't get it, and then you work out… I remember working out that Walter Cronkite is a newsreader. Is that right? Yeah.

SIMON: Yes. Long retired at this point.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, but I worked that out from jokes. There were lots of references to this bloke, and I realized well that's only a joke if he's a newsreader. So my feeling is there could be a growing audience for British comedy in America as there is a huge audience for American comedy over here.

SIMON: Well gentlemen, been a pleasure to talk to both of you. Thanks so much.

Mr. WEBB: Thank you very much.

Mr. MITCHELL: Very nice to talk to you too.

SIMON: Robert Webb and David Mitchell. Their series, "That Mitchell and Webb Look," will premiere on BBC America beginning Friday, February 8th. To see clips from the show, you can come to our website, NPR.org.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: