That Mitchell and Webb Look Get Serious

That Mitchell and Webb LookIt came as a great gift that when I went to check out some old episodes of That Mitchell and Webb Look on Netflix, I found that a new season (series?) was available. Like the glutton I am, I sat down and watched all six episodes. What a delight these guys are. The show compares so well to American comedy. The primary reason I don’t watch Saturday Night Live, for example, is that the skits rarely go anywhere. A skit will have a (hopefully) funny idea, riff on it, and then end abruptly. In comparison, That Mitchell and Webb Look generally have skits that do go somewhere and provide a payoff.[1]

A good example of their writing is found in one of their skits from the first episode of Season 4. It is a film set and an actress is giving an emotional performance. The actor playing opposite her is supposed to respond with the words, “I don’t know what you want any more.” But instead of matching her level of emotion, he mumbles the line. The director calls cut and then they riff on it a bit. The director tries to get the actor to emote (or even just speak the line properly), but all the actor can do is mumble the line in a different way. If this were an SNL skit, that’s where it would end. Here, the director continues to work with the actor. Finally, the director gives up and decides to cut the line. The actor is upset. “Mike!” he says. “I’m doing my best! I really am! It’s just…” Followed immediately by the mumbled, “I don’t know what you want any more.” The skit is hysterical and fulfilling.

Mitchell and Webb are good about retiring skits before they get old. In some cases, I’m glad to see them go. Numberwang—the unfathomably complex numbers game—never really worked for me fully. Maybe this is because I don’t have enough experience with British television. Two skits I do miss disappeared rather suddenly: The Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar—a drunken and most likely psychotic homeless man and his sidekick Ginger—and Ted and Peter—the alcoholic commentators on televised snooker matches, a pool game I had never heard of before. Of course, they have all been replaced with, if anything, better skits like The Quiz Broadcast—a post-appocolypic quiz show that takes place after some unspeakable “event.”[2]

What really caught my attention in Season 4, however, was a bit they started in Episode 5 that was paid off in Episode 6. In the middle of Episode 5, Mitchell was telling Webb about having finally seen all the Black Adder shows. He says that he thinks they screwed up the ending of Black Adder Goes Forth. For those who don’t know it, this show takes place in the trenches of World War I, and it ends very poignantly with all the men going over the top and being shot to pieces. So the joke is that Mitchell thinks this is just a joke that bombed. Amusing. Then they get to talking about how they need to end their show with “something tacked-on and mawkish.” They continue later in the show discussing ways they can end the show in this way. While thinking about it, they go to get some tea. But it’s not ready! It will take 5 minutes! They are devastated—in slow motion just like in Black Adder Goes Forth. Brilliant.

But that’s not the end. They finally decide that the way to end the show is to kill off their cast member, James. There is a montage of things James has been in before with the text, “James Bachmann: 1972-2010.” Then, it cuts to a room with a woodchipper. Two feet stick out of it with the words, “Tragically got put into a woodchipper for narrative reasons.” Brilliant.

But that’s not the end. Okay. It is the end of that episode. But then they end Episode 6 (the season finale) with a funny skit about an old Sherlock Holmes that ends poignantly and uncomfortably and in no way funny.[3] Holmes is in a rest home with dementia. They go a long way with the comedy of a once brilliant man who is now a babbling fool, while Watson tries to cover and preserve Homes’ former image of himself. And then, it stops on a dime. Holmes looks at Watson seriously and says, “I know, John. I do know. I can’t get the fog to clear.” Watson is speechless. Devastated. Then Holmes looks pained and calls out for the nurse. She comes in and checks him. “Oh, dear. It looks like a two pipe problem. Let’s get you cleaned up.” This last bit is not cheap scatological humor. There is no laugh track here. It is deadly serious. Sad. Brilliant.

[1] A Bit of Fry and Laurie is equally good. Or a little better. Or a little worse. But definitely of similar quality.

[2] I believe they started The Quiz Broadcast in Season 3. It was definitely before Season 4, but it definitely comes into its all in Season 4.

[3] Yes. In that sentence “funny” is an adverb. Don’t ever let me hear you use the word “funnily”!

6 thoughts on “That Mitchell and Webb Look Get Serious

  1. they are brilliant, I love peep show even more. The S& H skit was indeed initially funny and then very touching and sad, and they flipped it so very quickly.

  2. @ROYO – Peep Show never clicked for me. That kind of very anxious British comedy is just a bit too much my entire life, I’m afraid.

  3. I know this is an old article, but I still cry all these years later when I think of this closing scene, not only because it reminds me of my dearly departed grandpa who suffered from dementia in a very similar fashion, or because it was the end of That Mitchell and Webb Look. Either way it highlights the brilliance and versatility of these two comic gods.

  4. @Speechless – It is never too late to comment! I agree. It is very sad at the same time that it is extremely touching. The love of Watson and the dignity of Holmes.

    And I still can’t believe there won’t be a fifth season! But I figure it will be like Fry and Laurie: we’ll see them again. Also, have you checked out [url=]David Mitchell’s SoapBox[/url]? And I really liked their movie [i]Magicians[/i], although I seem to be alone in that regard.

  5. I just finished watching this season on youtube and I too think the Holmes with dementia sketch is brilliant. There’s another rather subtle detail which you didn’t mention. This, to the best of my recollection, was the only episode of the show that didn’t have a voice over at the end (often with split frames) to sell other shows. It’s even more telling since this was the last one in the season (and very likely the series) and it’s almost unheard of for the end credits to roll without the usual ‘send-off and promise of things to come’ bit.

    I don’t think this is coincidental. I think you’ll recall that in the penultimate episode, they were lamenting the fact that the "bastards" would never abstain from doing that voice-over bit at the end. Well, they did. And allowed the series to end with unprecedented gravitas. Just like they wanted. If that was intentional and M&W managed to get said "bastards" to play ball, that propels them beyond ‘mere’ brilliance and into the rarified stratum of comedic genius.

    The most difficult sort of comedy (in my opinion) to pull off successfully without looking contrived is self- referential meta-humour. M&W manage to do it with aplomb. I remember mentioning to a friend about how I loved the show but that is was a bit ‘hit and miss’. And then I saw the ‘reality’ skit where Mitchell rattles off "hit, miss, hit, hit, miss…" to satirise even this inevitable Achilles Heel of the sketch show format and make it look like it was intentional. I couldn’t stop laughing. Sheer genius, yet again.

  6. @Deepak – Interesting observation. I originally watched this on Netflix, so there was no voice-over on any of the episodes. I suspect it was planned and they got the okay when negotiating the season. I assume the [i]Black Adder Goes Forth[/i] ending episode was treated the same way.

    I can’t believe they aren’t making any more of the series. Have you seen [url=…]David Mitchell’s SoapBox[/url]. I wrote about it recently after binge watching it, [url=…]Pedant vs Pedant[/url].

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