Peep Show Writers: Exclusive Interview

Archival note: this interview took place in 2008, but has dated pretty well, due to mainly focusing on the duo's early writing years.  

You do know that I love you, right? Like the brother/sister I never had? Well, in case you were in any doubt, I’d like to treat you to an epic, utterly exclusive interview with Jesse Armstrong (on the left, in the picture) and Sam Bain, the creators and writers of Channel 4’s painfully funny sitcom Peep Show.

I recently interviewed the duo in a Clapham boozer, ostensibly for a forthcoming feature in The Word magazine. They’re a friendly, self-deprecating pair, as dryly funny as you’d expect – and like any self-respecting writers, were delighted when I bought them lunch. While The Word’s feature focuses on the story of how Peep Show came to be, and how it works as an entity, I naturally couldn’t resist asking them all kinds of things which would be primarily of interest to writers and would never make the article. I was thinking of you, dear reader. And, clearly, myself.

Sam and Jesse in the early 90s, while on a university writing course in Manchester. After producing various short stories, they spent a while doing their own thing – novels, short films. They finally got together to collaborate on a script in about 1996, and did a few. 1998 saw them start writing professionally, working on various shows until Peep Show finally convinced the world of their genius in 2003. 

So when you started work on Peep Show, did it feel like the classic last roll of the dice? A now-or-never type deal?
Sam: In retrospect, that would’ve been quite pathetic, because it was quite early in our careers! But we definitely felt like we’ve been through the mill a bit. We’d done Days Like These, that big ITV show, which really flopped big-time. So that was quite interesting to be around.
Jesse: Then we did another flop – Ed Stone Is Dead, which starred Richard Blackwood as a man who’d died, then come back to life.
Sam: We were part of a large writing team, but it turned out to be another big failure that we were involved with. After those big projects, it was a bit of a fallow time. I mean, we were always doing okay - we would write links for The Big Breakfast…
Jesse: And a lot of sitcoms, which was good training.
Sam: We know a lot of writers who have real talent, but haven’t had their own original sitcom. And that’s just because they haven’t had the confluence of the right people, the right commissioners, the right production company. It’s a real piece of luck when you can get everything to work, and it all comes together.

Bedsitcom is one of the entries on your pre-Peep Show CV…
Jesse: There are a number of people who have been really important to our careers. Andrew O’Connor was a producer who went on produce Peep Show. But before that, he developed a couple of projects with us, and believed in us when we were at our lowest ebb. That’s when you need the money and the support. Bedsitcom was one of the shows we helped him out with. 

And how was working on Smack The Pony?
Jesse: That was one of the ‘jobbing writer’ things we did before Peep Show. I don’t think we ever thought we were particularly good at writing sketches, but it was our first experience of telling people in a pub about a show you’d written for and they’d go, “Oh! I’ve seen that”. So that was quite a nice feeling – to work on a quality show. We’d worked with lots of good performers, but Smack The Pony’s were at the cool end of comedy, rather than the… less cool end.

You knew Peep Show stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb before Peep Show, right? How did that come about? 
Jesse: We were all part of a writing team experiment at the BBC. We liked them a lot and we had a show which we wanted to write for them. The four of us wrote episodes for the BBC with Gareth Edwards. It was a really good show – a bit like Peep Show, in the sense that two guys shared a flat, and they were a bit like Mark and Jez. There was also a Super Hans figure! It was a helpful process to develop a show like that – we got a sense of Robert and David’s voices, and spend a lot of time collaborating with them. They’ve really got their DNA into Peep Show, because we’ve got similar comic sensibilities. Not always, though – they write amazing sketches that we could never come up with. There’s just a big common ground of comedy stuff that we know from that period – what works for them and what makes them laugh. Not only how they speak, but good comic things that they appreciate. It was an incredibly important and fertile period for us. There are plots and idea and vibes that we still go back to now and plunder. 

Did you cannibalise any of it for Peep Show?
Jesse: We did, actually. The Peep Show episode where Mark’s sitting on the toilet at the end is a more developed version of something we originally wrote for that show.

What are the main benefits of writing as a duo?
Sam: With comedy, if the other writer is laughing, you know you’re onto something. It’d be so hard otherwise. You get constant feedback.
Jesse: It’s a morale thing, because it’s quite tough when you’re starting out. It’s good to have someone to talk to and laugh with, about the constant disappointments! With two people, as well, if one of you isn’t having a great day, you can still keep going. It probably triples your output, at least, because you’ve always got double the ideas and can work things out together. As long as you’ve got the same work ethic and sense of humour, it’s gold.

So how does your writing system work? Is one of you the typer, while the other one paces around?Sam: For the actual writing, we use the same method as Richard Curtis and Ben Elton used on Blackadder. We write separately, then cross-edit. But when we are breaking plots, one of us will write stuff down. Often Jesse, because he types faster.
Jesse: I do have a good typing speed. I think that was one of the things Sam originally liked about me. He thought, “This guy can really type!”.

What’s your estimated words-per-minute speed, Jesse?
Jesse: Wellll… it’s not amazing. I’d say 45 words, tops. But on a good day, I go like the wind! 

So does one of you ever say, “Hold on a minute, why did you rewrite my scene involving the goose-heads in a bag? That was hilarious, you bastard!”. 
Jesse: That’s what collaboration is. We have three of those moments, per page! Co-writing works because you’ve found a way of negotiating difference of opinion. Of course, it’s not always three moments per page. Sometimes I’ll send a scene to Sam and he’ll completely re-write it and I’ll be very pleased because I know it wasn’t totally working. Equally, sometimes you might think, “Hold on, I thought that quite good. Didn’t you think that was quite good?” And what you need to be able to do, to have a professional collaboration, is ring each other and go, “I really liked that bit”. Hopefully, the way the conversation then goes is, “Oh, I liked it too, but I didn’t like this about it, or I didn’t understand this bit, or I didn’t think they would do that”. Occasionally, you’ll have a difficult conversation but generally you’ll hit on a third idea which is a mixture of both ideas. That’s just how you have to be able to work, with that level of communication.

You must have a pretty good shorthand with each other by now.

Jesse: Yeah. Swear words. We say that things are either “shit” or “good”.
Sam: Or, in our case, “shit” or “acceptable”.

If you ever reach a complete stalemate, does the readthrough ever become the decider?Sam: Yeah, actually, sometimes you do that and see what happens.
Jesse: Often, like a lot of writers, we overwrite. It becomes a difficult decision, as to what to cut and what to leave in. That can often be the most painful part of the process. Up until that point, everything’s like, “Well, give it a go, try it that way – we can always put it back”. But as you move towards that final script, you know that if a joke goes, no-one’s ever gonna see or hear it. That’s why the readthrough is really great, because you know when something’s working or not, and that’s illuminating.

There’s bonus behind-the-scenes readthrough footage on the Peep Show Series Five DVD, which makes it look like you’re all having a right old hoot.
Sam: We only film the laughter, of course! Not the uncomfortable, painful silences.
Jesse: It probably looks pretty self-congratulatory, because we all like each other in the room! And our director Becky Martin is a good laugher. It’s important to hear people laughing when that material’s first done.
Sam: The readthrough is make-or-break for us. If a script dies, you have to start again. It happens.

Does the readthrough freeze your guts with terror?

Jesse: No, it’s exciting.
Sam: It’s scary and exciting. We often end up heavily rewriting at least one episode after the first readthrough. Last series, we did major surgery on a couple. We expect that, so it’s not a huge surprise. Obviously it’s disappointing because you want it all to be perfect, but it never is.
Jesse: What often happens is that the episode you thought was great ends up lagging behind and becomes the runt of the litter. You’re like, “Shit! I thought that episode was great, but now it seems to be crap!”.

Did Peep Show’s POV concept go through Channel 4 quite smoothly? Or did someone go, “Christ, I don’t know about that?”

Sam: On almost the eve of filming the first series, our lovely commissioning director, who’d been very supportive all the way through it, had a kind of wobble. He said, “Look, the scripts are great, and so are David and Robert. But do we really want to do this weird filming? Is it going to blow it out of the water?”. I think Andrew O’Connor told us about that afterwards! We didn’t know about that at the time. Andrew talked him down!

Beyond Peep Show’s neat camera-POV gimmick, it’s Mark and Jez’s internal monologues which really make the show work and make it special. It’s a different approach to the comedy of recognition - revealing people’s lowdown, dirty thoughts, which we might often be ashamed to admit we share. Are human beings that rubbish, or is it an exaggeration?
Jesse: It is an exaggeration…
Sam: We all think reprehensible thoughts. I certainly do, as much as possible.
Jesse: We could have people thinking nice, kind thoughts, and it might be a more accurate picture of the average person. But it really wouldn’t be as funny.

How did you feel when the first episode of Peep Show went out?

Jesse: Absolutely terrified. I particularly remember waiting for the Guardian Guide review, which people who I know read, and thinking “Oh fuck”. I lose all sense of perspective in things I’ve been involved with. You swing from thinking it’s possibly going to change civilisation as you know it, to thinking it’s utterly worthless and not really any good at all! So other people’s reviews become disproportionately… interesting! We’re keen watchers of other people’s comedy, and shows come and go all the time, without really entering the public’s consciousness. Peep Show could so easily have been one of those shows which people vaguely remembered as the thing which Mitchell & Webb did before their massive series!
Sam: And we would’ve been saying, “Yeah, we still know them. They’re still nice to us!”.
Jesse: Sean Lock had a show on at the same time as ours. We thought it was a great show, but it never really ‘arrived’. Our show could’ve so easily been like that.
Sam: Our show is quite small. But after five series, you feel like you have some little place in the culture. You feel as though everyone who might like Peep Show has had a chance to watch it.

I’ve hardly ever met anyone who doesn’t like Peep Show.

Jesse: That’s because we’ve had them all hunted down and killed.

The character Jeremy is hilariously selfish. Was it ever a concern, though, that he might become too unlikeable? 

Sam: That was a concern in the first series. One thing we tried to do in the second series was give him a love interest. That did help, because we then saw him being more passionate and vulnerable, like a puppy dog, which then made him more likeable. Also, Robert’s a very good, versatile actor, who can do that stuff really well. It was one of the most important changes, after the first series. We saw the more emotional sides of Jez.

Any other learning curve realisations, after the first series?

Jesse: We’ve always been very keen to improve our storytelling. I’m very proud of the first two series, although there’s the odd story which doesn’t quite hold together. We’ve tried to improve our consistency as we’ve gone along.

The media’s partyline on Peep Show is that it has fairly poor viewing figures, but does well on DVD. How true is that?

Jesse: There are a few caveats to that one. With more and more TV channels, what used to be not-so-great viewing figures are now quite acceptable viewing figures for Channel 4. But that’s basically true: it has the culty thing of having a smaller, loyal audience.
Sam: It doesn’t really bother us that much. The show keeps being commissioned, we get good reviews. We’re not too worried about beating Jonathan Ross. It’s a good position for us to be in.
Jesse: Channel 4 has been pretty good for us over the years. It would be nice to give the people that we deal with there, like [Channel 4’s head of entertainment and comedy] Andrew Newman, a birthday present in terms of a massive viewing spike. But on a creative level, the main thing is to have the respect of people who I respect. People who I like, like the show.
Sam: We’ve been very supported by Channel 4. They’ve never said, “You’ve got to buck your ideas up or we’ll cancel!”. The only thing they ever did was suggest we put a sexy girl in the second series – which turned out to be the American character, Nancy. But that wasn’t even exactly about changing everything: it was about maybe getting a few more viewers.
Jesse: Luckily, we’d had the sexy girl idea anyway.

Mitchell and Webb are credited with additional material on the show. How does that work?Jesse: Before each series, we have a “plot party” at one of our houses. We tell them things we’ve been thinking about, and they tell us what they think of storylines. They offer up ideas and maybe things develop out of that. At the other end of the process, we’ll often send them a script that we’re not happy with and they’ll suggest lines. It’s nice for us to have input from their very good comedy brains and to know they’re available.

I noticed that one episode in Series Five was written by Simon Blackwell – a different writer, for the first time… 
Jesse: It wasn’t mentioned in the Radio Times, which was unfortunate, because Simon’s brilliant. It was something we’d been toying with for a while, wondering if Peep Show was too personal. But he did such a brilliant job. We storylined the episode with him, so we still felt involved! Most people wouldn’t have noticed a difference, good or bad. It was such a shame he didn’t get credited more widely.

So how did that come about? Was it a time thing?

Sam: Yeah, time mainly. We just didn’t quite have enough time to write the full series, for various reasons. We also wanted to experiment with another writer on the show and see if it worked.
Jesse: We’re very collaborative – there’s always been a big committee around. We like having a lot of comedy brains around, so it wasn’t really such a big deal, having someone else come in and go that extra step. Although it actually quite a big deal for us to let them write the script and hand over the reins.

It must have been nice, when Series Five was commissioned while Series Four was airing.

Jesse: Absolutely. The show grows a bit on the back of David and Rob’s fame. And of course we won a BAFTA, which was good.
Sam: Did we?
Jesse: Oh, didn’t I tell you?

Series Five’s final episode was quite brave territory, I thought, in the sense that Jez joins a cult which could be interpreted as a Scientology affair.
Jesse: Well, we’re both in a cult. So that was handy.
Sam: People have asked if it was all about Scientology, and we thought about doing that. But we didn’t know enough about the subject to do a specific satire of Scientology. It’s just about that world where people go into these places and feel a little wobbled and changed. It felt like a good area to do – especially with Jeremy. I did a ‘personality test’ about ten years ago, while researching a script. It was an emotional experience, which was the jumping-off point for the story. I went in there, not really knowing what I was dealing with, and leaving feeling quite emotionally raw. You go in there, thinking you’re going to patronize these idiots. Then you come out thinking, ‘Maybe my life is all a failure. Maybe I should call my mother and apologise. Oh my God, I need a drink!’. The most interesting scenes, for us, were when Jez was going in and coming out. We only did one scene where he was fully fledged.

How would you sum up your experiences in writing the film Magicians, which also starred Mitchell and Webb, but sadly didn’t do especially well at the cinema box office?
Jesse: It was fascinating and Andrew O’Connor directed it, so it was nice to hang around him and David and Robert. It’s hard, getting a film to sustain over 90 minutes. The thing we always think about sitcoms is: if you get a tone that works, most other things will follow from that. Most shows fail, and a lot of them don’t have a certain tone. With film, you don’t get much of a chance to finesse your tone.
Sam: There are no pilots for films.
Jesse: Yeah, you get one shot. We like a lot of things about Magicians, but you need a lot of time to make something really good. We feel like it’s a piece of work that we’re not unhappy that we did. We’re glad we did it and it’s a good film in many ways, but we did learn a lot from doing it. God, I sound like a politician! But it was hard: there were bruising reviews for it, and that was quite tough. A lot of that came from being a well-loved TV show – and because it had David and Robert in it, comparisons were naturally made.
Sam: Everybody mentioned Peep Show. The irony was, we got the film made because of Peep Show, but it was never anything like Peep Show. So everyone was disappointed. That’s a very difficult thing to overcome.
Jesse: It’s one of those films which didn’t take off, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to do more. We definitely intend to write more films. Just because one film doesn’t take off, doesn’t mean you can’t do the next one. We’re doing rewrites for American films at the moment.

When Magicians was released last year, there seemed to be a mini-wave of magic-centric flicks, with The Prestige and The Illusionist.

Jesse: Yeah. Sam rang me up after seeing The Prestige and said, “Oh my God, it’s going to look like we nicked a lot of the same plot ideas”. I’ve still never seen it.

How does Peep Show fit into the TV comedy landscape?

Jesse: I think it’s at the very apex of civilization, let alone comedy! There are a lot of good shows around, but there still isn’t a really good mainstream sitcom.
Sam: Gavin & Stacey might be that breakthrough show. It feels like it could do that. It’s not in-your-face like Nighty Night, which ripped your head off and shoved it up your arse. It’s more characters and relationships, which works very well.

Can you see Peep Show mellowing any time soon?

Jesse: We won’t be Gavin & Stacey, no. Hopefully there’ll be some emotional stuff for people to get behind. But I think we’ll always want to have a bit more edge...

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Phill Barron said...

So this is you working hard at Heat, is it?

Jason Arnopp said...

Oh, the bleedin' gratitude!

It was already written up.

Kinda. Cough.

Phill Barron said...

Good article though, they sound like nice guys.

Anonymous said...

What a treat! Cheers m'dear!

Danny Stack said...

Outstanding, sir. Lovely stuff.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview - many thanks!

I love Peepshow, one of the best comedies ever. I was interested to read the comment about luck, all the elements coming together at the right time etc. I agree with that.

Their comments about the Sean Lock vehicle rang true, I saw the series and enjoyed it but it didn't really fly. What it lacked was a great relationship at its centre. The writers of Peep Show were blessed by the genius of Mitchell and Webb, without that I think Peep Show would've sunk too.

Stevyn Colgan said...

You jammie jammie dodger. I may have been abused by Tom Baker but you've met the writers of TV's best sitcom. I'm genuinely envious. Nice little interview.

John Soanes said...

Very interesting interview, good work, and ta for sharing it (and as a Word subscriber, I'll be interested to see its 'parent' article in the future). And good to know that someone else remembers Bedsitcom, I was starting to think I'd imagined the whole thing; given the way shows like The Hills seem to blur 'reality' and fiction, it looks oddly prescient now...