Jesse Armstrong is one of the co-creators and writers of the BAFTA-winning BBC sitcom Peep Show. (A BAFTA is like a British Emmy.) Now entering its sixth series, with a US version in development at Spike TV, Peep Show is a funny, but cringe-inducing, depiction of the lives of two twenty-something flat mates, played by past TSOYA guest David Mitchell and comedy partner Robert Webb (above). Its first season recently became available in the US on Hulu. No less an authority on UK comedy than Ricky Gervais called it "The only British thing that I was really blown away by in the last few years."
Armstrong has also written for other acclaimed television series, including the sketch series That Mitchell & Web Look and the political satire The Thick of It.
MaxFun Contributor Matthew Phelan spoke with Armstrong from the UK.
Matthew Phelan: You've said that you and co-creator, Sam Bain, and the show's stars [David] Mitchell and [Robert] Webb, met in something called a "writing team experiment" within the BBC …
Jesse Armstrong: Yeah. [laughs] It was fascinating because there is a definite mystique around American writing techniques in the UK--the long runs, the more successful audience figures. We have a problem getting mainstream comedies to work and people often think that it may be something to do with [not using] the team system. I think there are interesting things about having teams of people on a show, but I definitely don't think it's a magic bullet.
So, this was a really ill-thought-through plan to create a British, team-writing situation. The people behind it thought that, to do a team show, you got six people (in this case who didn't know each other) in the room with a producer and a one-line idea--which was, "What if there was house that was squatted and these people all lived together." We wrote the script between the six of us. Each taking, one sixth of the script and we came up with this horrible, kind-of "Frankenstein's monster" as anyone would imagine. Anyone with any knowledge of the US system knows that you still have a show creator who writes the pilot, sets the tone.
So, that was disastrous, but we went into it not knowing David [Mitchell] and Robert [Webb] and came out knowing them quite well, as we sniggered behind our hands and went, "Oh, god. This is terrible what we're doing, isn't it?"
Click "Read More" for more with Peep Show Co-Creator Jesse Armstrong, including audio of the full interview.
MP: Have you had a chance to see the pilot for the Spike TV version of Peep Show?
JA: Yeah. We have and it's encouraging. I think Spike haven't made their decision, but it looks very good to us. The leads are great and we await what Spike wants to do.
MP: I would kind of like to ask you about the more disastrous Fox pilot …
JA: Sure, I'd be happy to, [but] the only thing is I don't have much to contribute in way of analysis. The production company sold the format and it was before it was so well regarded here [in the UK], so they didn't feel any need at all to consult us or to think that they would get anything useful from consulting us.
It had never really been a massive audience grabber in the UK, and they decided they needed to change a lot--including dropping, for a large part, the point-of-view shooting style and most of the interior monologues. So, it was really a rather anemic half-hearted version that made you wonder why they had been attracted to the show in the first place.
MP: One of you had referred to the protagonists as "very ordinary weirdos" and I thought that was very apt. There's a gloriously mundane quality about their interests [e.g. trance music, WWII history], the way they express themselves, the décor of their apartment [plausibly bachelorish]. I was wondering how much of that was an early goal of the show.
JA: That was an early goal of the show. In fact, one of the inspirations was a TV documentary that got made here following a sort of minor celebrity who had a camera on a pair of sunglasses. You saw her life: photoshoots and also then going home and looking in her fridge and walking around her apartment. And it was comically mundane that people would be interested just because it was about this star.
But, I remember Sam watched it and was inspired and showed it to me and we felt sure there was something funny about that very mundane stuff: looking in your fridge and wondering, "How much yogurt have I got? I've got enough jam and I don't need to go to the shops for another three days. And when I do, I can take that money that I've got left and keep it in this pocket, a separate pocket from my keys. And it will be easier when I go into the shop."
And while that monologue [just now] wasn't hilarious, we thought "There is comic material to be mined from the minutiae of everyday life."
MP: The internal monologues in Peep Show feel truer than most. There have been previous sitcoms that'll have a brief internal monologue that's very snippy and sort of just like a "Yeah, right." Basically, a little too glib and without the manic, illogical feel that the internal monologues have on Peep Show.
JA: I am glad you feel like that. I think we always challenged each other and we talked a lot about how much you can you replicate a real "stream of consciousness," and (obviously) it's difficult to come up with a technique that really makes it feel like what it feels to think a thought. But we wanted to try and get in that area; show the kind of real connections that get made and try not to be embarrassed--because people think many more things than they would ever say. So, we tried to include things which were immoral or amoral or unusual or that first thought that you think and then think, "Oh, that's a horrible thing to think."
MP: Is it true that Russell Brand was considered briefly for the character (who goes by the self-appointed nickname) Super Hans?
JA: Yeah. I was there at the audition where he came in--and, now, it feels like "Russell Brand was considered" -- but on the day he was just another nice young man. I didn't know who he was. So, there was no sense in which we were turning down "Russell Brand." Although, we were in fact: We did not choose Russell Brand.
MP: I would be remiss if I didn't ask this, because my younger brother who I had gotten into Peep Show thought that this would be delightful: Is the show genuinely as funny as he thinks it is, or is it just because all of the actors have British accents?
JA: It's just the accents, I'm afraid. It's not funny in the UK. It's not regarded as comedy.
An extended version of this interview--with audio clips from Peep Show, occasional clicking noises from your fidgety interviewer, and one instance wherein Jesse Armstrong's AIM makes a noise can be heard below.
Matthew Phelan blogs at http://mphelan.blogspot.com/