Sketch Primer 3 – Mitchell and Webb

Well, it’s taken me a long time to actually get around to writing this primer. I think part of the problem is that Mitchell and Webb are sort of at the height of their popularity right now. It’s easy to talk about Mr. Show and The Fast Show because it’s possible to put them in context. They have an arc that was completed, they disappeared, they survive as hazy memories. Mitchell and Webb are, to borrow a phrase from the delightful American sporting highlight program, The Center for Sports, now. They are the biggest comedy force in England, and easily have the best sketch show on the landscape. The same could have been said for a number of shows, but it’s hard to place them in context until after they’ve been gone for a few years. Mr. Show, for example, was the best sketch show in America for awhile, but if I was writing a Sketch Primer in 1995, I wouldn’t have been able to say that. I wouldn’t have been able to bemoan the tragic cancellation and what it said about our country’s view on comedy. Without time, there is no context.

That said, I will tell you right now that you should stop reading if you don’t want to hear why I think Mitchell and Webb have the best sketch show since Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If you would rather do some shopping or play Civilization than read a several hundred word handjob about a show you likely haven’t even seen yet, please do. Because I’m not going to say very much bad about them. Go ahead, I’ll wait…………..

David Mitchell and Robert Webb are primarily known for being the stars of the incredible Peep Show. If that was all they did, they would be my favorite people in the world. After all, creating one of the single funniest and innovative TV shows of the last 15 years is usually enough to fill one’s resume. And Peep Show is all of those things. They also happen to be the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” guys in England, except their commercials are, you know, actually funny. But they have dabbled in sketch as well. And when I say “dabbled,” I mean they may have created the single best sketch show since, dare I say it, the Flying Circus itself.

Well, no, that’s not quite right either. You see, Mitchell and Webb did 2 of the best sketch shows: “The Mitchell and Webb Situation” and “That Mitchell and Webb Look,” which came from the popular Radio sketch show, “That Mitchell and Webb Sound.”* The differences between the two are actually striking. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the Situation is tough to find on YouTube. So most of the clips will be from the Look. Trust me, it won’t matter.

*It’s sort of crazy that they did a successful radio sketch show in this day and age. Nothing like that has happened in the US since, what, Sid Caesar? I will say that audio-only is a very good and very under-utilized medium for sketch. Monty Python released a number of very successful records in their day. It’s easy to do, it’s fast to do, and you don’t have to worry about exotic locales or bizarre props. You can leave the imagery to the listener. As a fan of those Python records, let me say that I see why radio was so popular, and I really, honestly, truly believe that in this day of Podcasts and 800 XM channels, someone will make a good radio show again in this country. It’s only a matter of time.

You may have realized by now that I am a bit of a Mitchell and Webb fanboy. This is true. But maybe I can explain exactly what makes Mitchell and Webb so good.

It’s a testament to how good Mitchell and Webb are that it actually took me about 15 minutes to pick which sketch to use first. I decided to go with one of the classics. This sketch comes from the very first episode of the Look, and it’s a two-part runner. The first part ends after David Mitchell asks Robert Webb, “Hans? Are we the baddies?” I picked this because it illustrates a few key points. First, good acting makes good sketch on television. On stage, maybe it’s sometimes more important to have a sense of timing and an ability to corpse and improv and make changes on the fly. But when you’re making a show, or a filmed sketch of any kind, it really makes a difference to have good actors. And David Mitchell and Robert Webb are very good. Everything sketch they do is made better by how good they are at playing their roles. There’s an air about them that they really believe the words that they’re saying. I love Mr. Show, and I think David Cross is a very good actor, but when it comes to acting, David and Rob are the best.They do every sketch like it’s a short play. And it really shows.

Something a lot of people don’t realize is that sketches on TV don’t always need to end. Well, they have to end eventually, but what I mean is that they don’t need a button.* The only time a filmed sketch really needs a button is when it’s the last sketch of the show or before a commercial. If you have the liberty of immediately cutting to a new sketch, you can get away with a soft ending. Mitchell and Webb, being on the BBC, make good use of this. One of the ways they do it is by using a lot of runners, as well as a few recurring sketches. Runners allow them to do second and third beats without having to set up a new sketch, while recurring sketches allow them to do it in first beats as well. The Situation is composed almost entirely of runners. These techniques allow Mitchell and Webb to spend as much time as possible in the middle of the sketch, where most of the laughter is going to come from. Set-ups, as a rule, are not funny. Anything that can be done to minimize them is a good thing.

*A “button” is sort of like the punchline for a sketch. Theoretically, it’s the best or most satisfying thing that happens in the sketch, and wraps the whole thing up into a nice little bow. They are also really, REALLY hard to write. As rewarding as they are when they hit, when they miss, they reek of phoniness. A lot of sketch writers spend a lot of time worrying about the ending because they’ve been conditioned to believe they need to write a beginning, middle, and end. Monty Python, as usual, shot poison darts into the concept of buttons, then burned the carcass. They basically wrote a middle, middle, and middle, then ended it with a non sequitur, an aside, or a punchline, which was then undercut by painting the fourth wall, or usually, a link. Sketches with bad endings leave a bad taste, and sketches with mediocre endings leave an even worse taste. The audience is let down, and you won’t get them back until the middle of the next sketch. Use links, fast transitions, anything you can to keep them laughing. As the old saying goes, “It’s easier to keep them laughing than get them laughing.” Don’t worry about endings.

They do have a few recurring sketches, and none is more popular than the maths quiz that simply everyone! That’s right, it’s time for Numberwang!

The key to a good recurring sketch is that it must be different enough each time to keep it interesting, but each one must be similar enough that the audience doesn’t feel betrayed. Numberwang is a top competitor for the most popular Mitchell and Webb sketch, likely facing competition from “The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar,” a sketch about a homeless guy who thinks he’s a secret agent.* Numberwang was in every episode of the first series, and each sketch was similar in that Julie and Simon are always the contestants, they always come from similar places and give silly answers to the intro questions, the board is rotated for Wangernumb and there’s something weird on the other side, and Simon always wins. In one episode, David Mitchell hosted the German version (Ein? Das Ist Numberwang!), while another was Wordwang (Oh, I’m sorry Simon, but Ireland is not a vegetable). I picked this one because David Mitchell’s reaction as the newscaster on the other side of the board is priceless. So after Season 1, where could they go? Well, they turned Numberwang into an international phenomenon, with board games, documentaries, and even full length films (the Numberwang Code, a spoof of the Da Vinci Code). They also have Ted and Peter, the Snooker commentators, serve as both a runner and a recurring sketch in Series 1. But Mitchell and Webb tend to do few recurring sketches and characters, opting instead for many premise sketches and situation sketches.

*Believe me, this description does not do it justice at all. It’s so much more than this I feel embarrassed to describe it so. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to break down every single Mitchell and Webb sketch, I doubt anyone wants to read a 42,000 word blog post. However, you can read my thoughts on Sir Digby, as well as every other sketch, in my upcoming book “Matt Kantrowitz’ Mitchell and Webb Masturbation Aid, Volume 1.”

Mitchell and Webb do a lot of satire and parody as well as zany sketches. I personally like a little bit of an edge in sketches, so I like a lot of their parody stuff. This is from Series 2. The sketch is a sort of pseudo-recurring sketch, as they use the writing team intro to set up other parodies as well.

Even those of you who do not like Cricket have to admit it’s a good parody of a heartwarming underdog movie. There are enough deep references for it to be both superficially funny and funny to those who like cricket and British sports. The cry of “They’re bringing urns and sandwiches on to the pitch! They think it’s tea! It is now!” is a reference to England’s World Cup victory in 1966. It’s a solid parody. But it’s not my favorite parody:

The reason this parody is so effective is twofold. First, David Mitchell does a brilliant job playing the overexcited SkySports presenter. The writing is crisp and carries you up a ladder of rapidly increasing fervor until byt the end it’s turned into a Lord of the Flies-style frenzy. Secondly, if they simply took out the snarky comments and last few seconds, it could be a sports commercial. They were very faithful to the source, which is important when writing a good parody. There’s something else though. Many parodies, even the good ones (and especially SNL commercial parodies*), stop after showing the viewer how ridiculous the format is. Mitchell and Webb, however, use parody as a way to point out how ridiculous the underlying premise is. The commercials are insane and hilarious, but look beyond that. Look at why they’re so ridiculous. Look at how seriously people do take this stuff, and look at how silly that entire system is. For a minute and a half of sketch, that’s a lot to do. But that’s exactly what a good sketch is: short and loaded with humor and layers. That’s one of the things that makes Mitchell and Webb so great.

*I’m thinking specifically about two commercial parodies here: First National Change Bank and Schmitt’s Gay. First National Change Bank, like nearly every SNL commercial parody, is incredibly well done. It’s tight, it gets the tone right, and it’s funny. Same for Schmitt’s Gay. But it’s just a commercial parody. That’s fine, obviously. It’s not always desirable or even possible to make a statement. Maybe FNCB wasn’t meant to have any satire about bank fees and the US Financial System. Maybe that’s not a good topic for satire for SNL and its fans. But there’s no way Schmitt’s Gay couldn’t have been a scathing, hilarious shot at hyper-manly beer companies and the homophobia of their target demographic. Instead, it’s just a simple “what if beer commercials marketed at gay guys the way they do straight guys?” That’s fine, and obviously the sketch works and is funny. But it could have been more. But I guess that’s the cost of becoming the establishment you once took such pride in upsetting, right?

For example, at the end of the “History of Numberwang” Documentary, they make a few broad jokes about Australia and New Zealand. These boil down to “Australians are cork-hatted surfers and New Zealanders are rugby-playing Australia wannabes.” They say the catchphrase “That’s Numberwang!” in their hilariously overdone accents. All well and good, and humorously executed, if a bit broad. But when it comes to America, they have the host of Numberwang, a shiny suited, well-coiffed airhead, change the phrase “That’s Numberwang!” to “Yes, that is a number!” Rather than “All Americans are fat and stupid,” the satire is “American culture takes things from other places and takes all the interesting, and often central, bits out to suit our viewers.” Which one is more true, and therefore, more effective satire?

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGDndcxH-O4&feature=related]

Something Mitchell and Webb do better than most sketch groups is deconstructing the essence of the game of a sketch. If you’re doing a parody of 70s-style sitcoms, like M&W do in “Get Me, Hennimore,” you have to find what makes those so ridiculous. To them, it was the absurd, unrealistic way the protagonists always ended up in no-win situations, which they are blamed for but is obviously not their fault. Once you’ve found that, you can explore it and find some humor in it:

This series comes from Season 3, and I really like it. It’s a good parody purely in terms of execution, but the details of each mix-up are very funny, and dark in a way those old sitcoms weren’t. Of course, I’ve been concentrating on parody and satire, which is just one of the great things Mitchell and Webb do. Each show moves seamlessly from broad premise sketches to parodies to character sketches to runners and blackouts. They are able to mix and match these sketch types, keeping each show fresh.

As for problems, well, there aren’t many. So let me pick a few nits here. I wish they played some of their parodies straighter. They tend to put silly moments in and have characters react to the silliness to the scene. This is likely just a sensibility thing. English sketch almost always lives in the area between the sketch and the world. Monty Python, as usual, started having characters comment on the material (“What a terrible joke!” “But it’s my only line!”). Mitchell and Webb often have people make mistakes or question the material. For me, it’s a bit distracting in some parodies. That said, they don’t do it in all of them, and those are still great sketches. It’s just a quibble. The other nit is that in the documentary-style interludes where they play themselves, they sometimes resort to playing up the “David is smart and stuck-up and Rob is a prettyboy doof” canard. In reality, this isn’t true, and a lot of their best “autobiographical” sketches (Mythchild, Have You Planted the Crack?, etc.) have them just being themselves.

If you haven’t noticed yet, let me spell it out for you. Mitchell and Webb are the best sketch group out there right now. I have them second, behind only Monty Python, in historical terms. THey do everything and they do it well. They do dumb sketches, smart sketches, satire, silliness, weird sketches, basic sketches, and everything in between. If you’re a sketch writer and you want to learn how to do all different kinds of sketch, look no further than Mitchell and Webb. I’ll leave you with two sketches. If you just want to watch great sketch without going into the archives, this is pretty much your only shot. So don’t miss it. Watch Mitchell and Webb. You won’t be disappointed.

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2 Responses to “Sketch Primer 3 – Mitchell and Webb”

  1. i can’t believe no one commented! I am endlessly thankful as a tireless fan of sketch comedy.

    Mitchell and Webb may not be the greatest sketch since Python, but they are strong motherfucking contenders. I’d have to agree that it is hard to get perspective on something so recent…I did not know about this phenomenon before a few weeks ago, but have devoured hours of them whenever possible.
    This has meant listening to their BBC Radio program, That Mitchell and Webb Sound, which has 4 seasons. Many sketches are recycled in some way for air, but it is funny stuff.

    Also look for the sketch show “Bruiser” which had a six episode season that Mitchell and Webb wrote and performed in.

  2. Great analysis. Thanks for writing this.

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