‘I THINK deliberately making people laugh for entertainment is the highest art form. Never mind symphonies and ballets: making something funny is the most complex thing the human brain can do.’
David Mitchell, who is about to star in a stage version of the acclaimed BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, is discussing the purpose of comedy and, if you measured his abilities by this metric, he has got to be a blend of maestro and neurosurgeon.
‘Most people enjoy a laugh, but I don’t think many people pause to think about how important it is,’ he adds. ‘We live in a culture that’s very quick to elevate the serious as being more significant than the comic.
‘I would say some of the most insightful and devastating things about American society have been said in episodes of The Simpsons; to say it while making people laugh is incredibly clever and too often under appreciated.’
David’s comedy triumphs range from That Mitchell And Webb Look, his pitch-perfect TV sketch show with Robert Mitchell (could they ever have imagined back then that their ‘are we the baddies?’ Nazi sketch would turn into an enduringly relevant meme?) to the queasily brilliant Peep Show as well as Upstart Crow and panel show Would I Lie To You? And that’s not to mention appearances in countless other shows that call for lightning wit and shockingly high levels of intelligence.
In case you haven’t seen it, the Ben Elton-scripted Upstart Crowis the clever sitcom in which David plays an often hapless William Shakespeare. ‘It seems to have the perfect blend of humanity, humour and an ability to make people feel as if they’ve got the joke a few seconds before anyone else. It’s certainly funnier than the funny Shakespeare bits,’ says David.
‘This play contains healthy portions of both King Lear and Twelfth Night and lots of other Shakespearean references and, in Ben’s own inimitable style, reflections on our own flawed time and on the weird injustices of Shakespeare’s time, as well. It’s a real Jacobean, 21st-century comedy mash-up.’ The cast includes Gemma Whelan, Mark Heap, Rob Rouse, Helen Monks and Steve Speirs though sadly no Liza Tarbuck, who plays his wife in the TV version.
This project is taking David right out of his comfort zone. Like most performers, he gets a bit nervous before shows, but jokes that he might well be ‘inconsolable’ before his West End debut. ‘Whenever you perform in public, it’s frightening,’ he says. ‘But also it’s exciting. I’ve never wanted to go skiing or bungee jumping but that’s the sort of fear on some level that I’m into. That’s what I’m focusing on now: to try to ride that wave of adrenaline and use it to energise the performance rather than try to turn it off.’
After this run you’ll see more of David in Back, the comedy drama/sitcom written by and starring Robert Webb. Although he loves this sort of work, he desperately misses doing sketch comedy and would relish a return to it.
‘I am very proud of the shows we did and I would love to do it again one day. In general, quite rightly, people commission sketch comedy from younger comedians. What commissioners seem to want from us now is more narrative comedy, and I love doing that and I’m not complaining. But I didn’t want to stop doing that sketch show. It feels churlish to complain, but we didn’t stop after four series because we didn’t want to do any more. If the BBC said, “Come do another series of That Mitchell And Webb Look,” our answer would be “yes”. It would not be, “Let’s talk about it.” It would be, “Yes.” I loved doing that show.’
So come on, Beeb programmers, what are you waiting for? Or, as Mr Shakespeare might put it, ‘Tis high time’.
■ Upstart Crow is at the Gielgud Theatre, London, February 7 to April 25, upstartcrowthecomedy.com