An Oral History of 'Peep Show,' the UK Sitcom That Defined a Generation
As the long-running, legendary sitcom winds down we got together with the stars and creators to look back at its history and legacy.
When the first series of Peep Show came out on DVD in 2004, it was pre-Netflix—pre-YouTube, even. It was during the period in which DVDs were a bit like a car CD selection in the 90s; you'd have a relatively limited amount and they would be on a very heavy rotation (shouts to David Gray's White Ladder for making my daily school run even more miserable).
Chances are, if you were a comedy fan in 2004, the theme music of Peep Show's first series can still be heard looping somewhere in the depths of your mind, branded onto your brain by multiple nights of falling asleep with it on (again), only to be awoken by "Pip Pop Plop" looping for eternity on the DVD menu screen.
Despite the fact the characters were a good ten to 15 years older than my friends and me, it felt like the first TV show that was properly ours. One that embraced sex, drugs, cynicism, and the perpetual hopelessness ingrained in so many British male psyches. The show gave way to a sort of secret language between us, in which conversations were constructed entirely of Peep Show dialogue.
I remember one friend being booted out of a house party for writing "Floss Is Boss" on the wall in shaving cream. Years later, I came downstairs to a flatmate seething after my friend Cath had written "Crack is really moreish" all over his prized Libertines poster.
However, after 12 years and eight series, The El Dude Brothers are about to hang up their cardigan and camo jacket. Tonight, the first episode in the ninth and final series airs on Channel 4 in the UK. A couple of weeks ago we chatted with the creators and cast about the show, which is the longest-running sitcom in Channel 4's history.
On first days on the set:
Jim Howick (Gerard Matthew): My first day on the job was pretty strange. I was lap danced upon all day. We had a lunch break, and then... back to it.
Isy Suttie (Dobby): It was the stationary cupboard scene [a moment of inadvertent intimacy in a stationary cupboard that leads to Mark ejaculating in his pants while rubbing up against Dobby]. That was really, really awkward. I didn't really know anyone, as it was one of the first scenes I had to shoot [when joining the cast—in series five]. It was a real cupboard, so it was really hot and we were all crammed in there and there was a lot of discussion about how to shoot it and show both of our faces at the same time. I don't know why nobody ever questioned why there was a mirror in the stationary cupboard.
On favorite moments and episodes:
Jesse Armstrong (Writer/Creator): I don't watch them back, so I'm not sure. I have seen a few clip reels that people made for the wrap show...
Robert Webb (Jeremy Usbourne): That was incredibly melancholy. They made a lovely reel, a 15-minute video with a couple of scenes from all the series, from the beginning up until the end, so you're just watching yourself age 12 years in 15 minutes. As for favorites, I've said the dog eating moment [when Jez accidentally murders his partner's dog after running it over while drunk and stoned in a Land Rover and fails to dispose of the body and then ends up cooking it and eating it in front of said partner] so often that I want to kill myself, so... I remember the scene when they were lost on the Quantocks being really tough to shoot because it was a night shoot and everyone was really cold and tired and we were up against it and it was getting lighter and lighter. That sticks in the mind not because it was awful but because it was so good that we got it finished; I remember the euphoria that came with it. We had a few days off before we did another night shoot, blowing up Dan's barn, and that was miserable. Although now I'm just talking about the misery.
Sam Bain (Writer/Creator): There's a line I particularly like from the pilot, the first episode, where they're in the bathroom and Mark says to Jeremy: "Nothing you want is ever, ever going to happen," which I think just sort of defined their friendship.
Webb: There's a similar line that runs through my head when I check my phone, which is a Mark line: "Everybody I know doesn't want to talk to me."
Howick: My favorite episode is probably the Rainbow Rhythms one: Mark and Sophie dodge an orgy, go for a walk, Mark suddenly serenades Sophie with an unbelievably awkward rendition of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkerley Square" and they kiss. Glorious!
On comedy taboos and going too far:
Webb: The episode where I wear blackface is the first thing that comes to mind, but the whole comedy of that scene is that [Jez] is very, very worried about this, and it's Nancy's [his then-girlfriend] craziness and blithe... she's just a bit fucking stupid. She's a self-conscious taboo breaker, so she's very aware of the taboo, whereas Jez is coming at it from a more sensible angle, that is, "Let's not do this taboo." With any kind of jokes in sensitive areas, you have to ask yourself, "What is this joke doing? Whose side is this joke on? How is it going to be misinterpreted and will they have a point if they misinterpret it?" Those are the kind of things you have to ask.
David Mitchell (Mark Corrigan): I don't think there is anything you can't do a joke about, but there are some jokes that aren't on the side of the angels, and what you're doing there is saying something deeply unpleasant. But I don't think there's ever been a joke like that in Peep Show. It's not the subject matter; it's the take. I think it's slightly easier to get away with edgier stuff in a sitcom because it's characters doing it, but we're going through a bad patch in terms of people being very judgmental about jokes. I've been noticing on recent episodes of Have I Got News for You, some things that are just pretty reasonable jokes with a bit of edge to them, and you can hear the studio audience gasping. I think, five years ago, the audience would have just laughed, but now it's really, "Oh, how rude."
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Webb: Shall we blame Twitter?
Mitchell: I'm going to blame Twitter. I think the fact that there is a sport of trying to find offense and enjoying an afternoon of, "Oh, they said this terrible thing that's rude about so and so..." I think the fun people have doing that—and it is fun, even if they don't admit it—is potentially killing the joy of humor for millions. We just need to relax a little bit about jokes. We should celebrate the urge to amuse, not be so quick to assume that the person who has done a bit of an edgy joke has a lurking, horrendous prejudice agenda.
Suttie: I can honestly say I never think it's gone too far, either when I was watching it or when I was in it. I've always thought what has been done has been justified, as long as there is a clear reason for a character to be doing something. Jez's morals are really skewed but he's lovable, so he gets away with doing things that other characters wouldn't. The only time I feel that something is too much in a show is if I don't believe that the character would do it. I mean, I can think of times where it's like, "Wow!" Like the time Mark was ill and had been drugged by Jez and the toilet door is broken and he has to go to the toilet in front of everyone. But I can totally believe that would happen to Mark. Or Jeremy pissing in a church and it going through the floor and onto somebody's hat—I just thought that was really funny.
Howick: The writing confronted often the most horrendous situations with a great deal of sincerity. The comedy was so beautifully honest that you were begging for more. I'd love to hear Mark Corrigan's inner monologue as he's about to jump the shark: "I'm about to jump over a shark—an actual shark!"
On who the worst person in Peep Show is:
Howick: I've thought about this a lot. I'd definitely be happier living with Mark. I'm a Mark man. As far as the worst human being, I'm going to say Nancy. She was pretty awful.
Bain: Mark or Jeremy, I think.
Armstrong: I feel really fondly towards them and that they're not that bad, but these guys [Mitchell and Webb] do—they think they're terrible.
Mitchell: I think Mark is worse than Jeremy.
Webb: I think they are both fundamentally bad.
Mitchell: But Jeremy is fundamentally a warm person, whereas I think Mark has a coldness at his core.
Armstrong: I think they both have the capacity to be in a nice relationship with someone if they can meet them...
Webb: So did Hitler, Jesse! Check your privilege!
Suttie: I think Johnson would certainly stab you in the back, but then he's so charming that I can imagine if I met Johnson in real life I would do anything he said, like get involved in his business and he'd nick all my money. I think Johnson, he's the most morally bankrupt. I think people might say Jez because he doesn't have a moral code, but he sort of does—it's just the same one as a 14-year-old boy.
On wrapping the show up:
Mitchell: It was sad. We had a lovely last shoot. The script was great and it's as good a series as any of them, really.
Webb: It was all very slickly produced. We ought to know by now how to play the characters, so it was probably the least awful shoot in terms of nightmare experiences.
Armstrong: Previously, when we did another series people would generally go, "Oh, you're doing another one? You're still doing that?" We may regret it, as it has been so lovely doing the series, but it felt like we had to put an end to it and have a party and say, "We've done this for ages and it's been enjoyed by people," rather than us finding it harder and harder to find the time.
Mitchell: It all went very smoothly.
Bain: Although we had a few complaints about the catering.
Mitchell: The catering wasn't the best. We've had worse catering, but we've definitely had better, so it was mid-to-low table. There once was a caterer who was fired for putting a shoelace in a location manager's pudding on purpose, as a sort of threat. He wasn't happy with the provision that had been made for his catering budget by the location manager and it ended very sadly with the ruining of an apple crumble and custard with a shoelace. I can't imagine the shoelace went in particularly clean, either. He did the catering for series one and two and then that was it.
Suttie: I was quite emotional on the last day. It feels weird for it to be the last series, but I think it's good to go out when it's still good, rather than get to 2050 and have us still pretending to be in our 20s; you have to stop at some point.
Webb: The premise was changing. It was about two young men sharing a flat, and it had become about two middle-aged men sharing a flat. Which is a different level of sadness. I think it was getting too sad.
Bain: You do worry about running out of ideas. I think at one point someone pointed out that we'd given Jeremy chlamydia twice. That's because we'd forgotten that we'd done it before, which—after 12 years—happens.
On the show's legacy:
Howick: I do hope its legacy isn't defined by the format alone. That would be a shame because it's just so funny—laugh-out-loud, slap-the-floor funny. I don't trust anyone who doesn't like it.
Suttie: I've only been part of it since series five, but fuck it, I'll claim to be part of the legacy. It's great. It might be a while until something goes to nine series on Channel 4 again, I think. It does feel like a big achievement. I feel really proud to have been in it and I hope we do go down in the history books.
Howick: I'll be wearing black for the last show. For me it's up there with the best. A modern classic. I'd happily watch it every day like a soap.
The ninth and final series of Peep Show starts at 10 PM tonight on Channel 4.
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