Blightyvision: “That Mitchell and Webb Look”

Starring David Mitchell, Robert Webb, and James Bachman
Written by David Mitchell and Robert Webb
Directed by David Kerr and Ben Fuller

I’ve come to the conclusion that the 21st century measure of the merit of a sketch comedy team is how readily you can find their individual skits on YouTube.  Workday video finds on Facebook seem to be how people discover shows now, especially British shows — though, as the number of American two-man acts is fairly low, that’s almost a given.

“That Mitchell and Webb Look” is one that makes the rounds somewhat less than, say, “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” but still holds its own in the turnover of funny video finds shared between friends.  It’s certainly not an old show by any stretch of the imagination — it kicked off in 2006 — but for some reason gives off the spirit of something about an era earlier.

The minds behind it, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, are best known for their work on “Peep Show,” the longest-running sitcom in Channel 4 history, clocking in at seven series.  “That Mitchell and Webb Look” clocks in at four series, but packs a lot of content into those episodes.  Early in the first series they establish the majority of the recurring characters, some with traceable plot lines as time goes on.

Mitchell and Webb’s humor seems to spring in a large part from evoking a mild feeling of discomfort and confusion — as though they’re the only ones who know what’s going on and they’ve no intention of explaining anything to you.  But over time they develop a set of what you could almost consider “rules” — you still aren’t entirely sure what’s been put in front of you, but you still know what to expect, and the expectations (or subversion thereof) are what’s funny.  One of their fan-favorite series of skits, “Numberwang,” presents a game show where everyone acts as though there are very straightforward rules that everyone knows — and the hilarity comes from the fact that you know you’ll never get it.

As the series goes forward, they really play up the “discomfort” angle.  A lot of their one-shot skits involve a character putting other people in awkward or embarrassing situations under the guise of doing something relevant, only to reveal later that they’re just a passing-by sadist.  More than that, a late-series line of very dark skits called “The Quiz Broadcast” follows a last-ditch game show made to entertain a dying post-apocalyptic underground society after a horrific event simply called … er … The Event.  While we never learn what The Event is, the “story” as such actually has an ending in the final episode.  A bit of a downer ending, at that.

(In fact, the show proper has a downer ending, which they actually do muse publicly on doing a la “Blackadder Goes Forth” in a previous episode.  It really is a proper tearjerker that leaves you resenting the laugh track about midway through the sketch, well written and surprisingly well acted.)

This isn’t to say the show is solely dark and/or surreal humor.  Not at all.  There are several skits per episode that help to offset that, including the recurring character of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, a homeless man with his own (self-hummed) theme tune and a brain full of conspiracy theories.  Sadly, he seems to drop off the radar for about a series, but comes back later on.  Perhaps fans were getting restless for more of his adventures.

I have several family members who prefer their comedy to be entirely upbeat, and I’d never show them “That Mitchell and Webb Look.”  However, it does really rope you in well before it starts to go in that direction, so that if you’re anything like me, you’re very much hooked by the time they’ve started implying horrific off screen deaths for their characters as they’re about to plunge into the heart of the sun while in the middle of … what else? … a game show.

The first two series of “That Mitchell and Webb Look” are available to watch online, via either NetFlix or Hulu.  The rest is up to you to find Via Perfectly Legal Means.

3 Responses

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  1. Written by David Underwood
    on 2011-04-14 at 13:12

    M&W are one of my all-time favourite double acts. All four series are available on Netflix in Canada.

    • Written by Kara Dennison
      on 2011-04-15 at 15:36

      I’m curious as to whether American NetFlix/Hulu will follow suit.

  2. Written by Trisha Lynn
    on 2011-04-14 at 16:30

    M&W remind me of F&L a bit. Their styles are very similar, down to Webb being the more manic one, a la Laurie. Also, REMAIN INDOORS.

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