Arts & Culture News

David Mitchell Should Never, Ever Work on American TV

Join me in obsessing about British actor, comedian, writer, commentator and all-around adorable young curmudgeon David Mitchell. He's worth obsessing over, if you're in need of a new source of laughs, because he's as funny as Ricky Gervais. Maybe funnier. And he's all over YouTube, thanks to the BBC channel and fan uploads of his appearances on British TV panel shows QI, Mock the Week and others, and his own brilliant comedy series Peep Show and That Mitchell & Webb Look, on which he co-stars with his Cambridge classmate Robert Webb. Mitchell also writes columns for The Guardian and Observer newspapers, and he does an online commentary series called David Mitchell's SoapBox. (Video evidence follows.)

This is an immensely smart and talented fellow. So let's hope he never finds himself lured to Hollywood for any reason.

Look what American stardom has done to Gervais. It wasn't long after his flawless British TV version of The Office that he was garnering Emmys for HBO's Extras. He tried to set himself apart from the Aitchwood machinery by spewing insulting quips as he hosted this year's Golden Globes. But who's the joke on? Gervais stars in craptabular films like Ghost Town and The Invention of Lying. His most recent movie role was as the voice of a dog in this summer's Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D. A dog.

That, m'lord, is the best evidence for why David Mitchell should stay where he is, firmly rooted in Jolly Olde, where one TV columnist called him a "national treasure" and The Radio Times (their version of TV Guide, go figure) named him "The Best Comedy Panel Show Guest" in the world, saying "he's incredibly, disgustingly witty."

American TV would ruin David Mitchell because they wouldn't know what to do with him. A bit doughy, with British teeth, floppy hair and a quick mind, he would end up miscast and misused by the type of gormless sitcom producers sent up so brilliantly in HBO's Episodes. There are reasons why American networks have tried and failed to replicate John Cleese's masterpiece of TV comedy Fawlty Towers (one dreadful effort starred Bea Arthur, another tried Harvey Korman). There is no American remake of Absolutely Fabulous. (Oh, they tried, but dropped it.) MTV has bought remake rights to the BBC's The Inbetweeners, but if they do to it what they did last year to Skins, it's a goner. Our scripted shows have to be nicer, with more hugging and learning. In other words, they're piffle-ized.

Here's a look at what David Mitchell does on panel shows across the Pond. This clip is from the brainy QI, hosted by the wry and urbane actor-writer Stephen Fry. They're talking about "Pascal's Wager." Mitchell offers a third option for the question about the afterlife (note: NSFW language):

Among the many aspects of Mitchell's glass-half-full persona that have kept me clicking on more YouTube links is his slack attitude toward wardrobe. In almost every appearance on a panel or chat show, he wears the same burgundy shirt. The same one he's wearing in this brief edition of his SoapBox on how it's OK to judge bad spellers:

On an interview with the British talk show host Sir Michael Parkinson, David Mitchell was asked where he would go if he could go back in time to do one thing. He'd time-travel back to the building of Stonehenge, he said, to ask them "why they were bothering." On the long-running BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs, he included recordings by Herb Alpert, Elgar and Kermit the Frog on his list of the 10 songs he'd take along if he were a castaway. Erudite and whimsical - love that.

There's a new generation of British comedians who work constantly over there and who should never be ground through the mill of "pilot season" over here. Besides Mitchell and Webb, there's Rob Brydon, so brilliant in the BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacy and playing himself in the recent film The Trip with Steve Coogan. Brydon does stand-up, hosts the panel show Would I Lie to You? and appears frequently on QI. Others in this group are Dara O'Briain, Jimmy Carr, Alan Davies and Eddie Izzard, who's sort of the cross-dressing intellectual cousin to Gervais.

All of these guys are huge stars in Great Britain and, except for Izzard, largely unknown over here. They stay home and we get Russell Brand. Thanks a heap.

David Mitchell recently signed a deal with HarperCollins to write a volume of memoirs and a novel, due out in the next two years. All that writing surely will keep him from venturing too far out of London, so maybe he's safe from the poisoning effects of American TV stardom. Not that he couldn't be tempted. Timeout London asked him if he had any ambitions in that direction. "I have no real desire to succeed in the US," he said. "I'm not going to turn down a part in a Hollywood film but I don't want to try to break L.A. If you really mean it, you have to be willing to live there and I'm not. Maybe that will change. I doubt it. I really wanted to be a British comedian on British TV. I saw Blackadder, Monty Python, those sorts of shows, and that was the kind of thing I wanted to do. As much as I laughed at Steve Martin, I didn't aspire towards that. Essentially, I'm running low on ambition. I love doing what I do and would fight tooth and nail to be allowed to continue but I don't think there are unconquered areas that I must conquer."

Well, we'll see how long that lasts. Meanwhile, I leave you with one of That Mitchell & Webb Look's best bits, "Office Grammar Nazi":

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner