Interview: David Mitchell, comedian, on his memoirs and work with Robert Webb

Comedian David Mitchell
Comedian David Mitchell
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DAVID Mitchell has a bad back. To ease the discomfort, he walks, one hour every day. The funnyman, best known for the Channel 4 series Peep Show and as one half of Mitchell and Webb, has been stepping out for medical purposes since 2007.

It’s around one such walk that the 38-year-old builds his memoir, suitably entitled Back Story. See what he did there?

Mitchell arrives in the Capital on Saturday to promote the book at a signing session at Blackwell’s bookshop, South Bridge, followed by an appearance at the Assembly Rooms on George Street.

He’s looking forward to his return; after all, this is where he and Robert Webb first unleashed their comedy on an unsuspecting world, although he’s first to admit, they were not an overnight success.

“When Rob and I were trying to break through as comedians, the Fringe was incredibly important to us as it was the only way of making your wares known to the wider community,” he explains.

“Putting shows on in London didn’t work so well. Edinburgh was the only place where the people with commissioning power would randomly go and see a show by unknowns... but we did have some ropey years in Edinburgh.

“For a couple of years we got terrible reviews with the Cambridge Footlights, then came years when we got okay reviews and very small houses. In 1999 we had a good year. We got good reviews and we sold out. Then we came back in 2000 and had a less good year...” he laughs. “We were never in the running for a Perrier Award but every year we made more contacts and people came to see our shows and talked about developing them after the festival.”

It was here, then, that Mitchell and Webb first discovered the natural chemistry that has made them regulars on TV screens for a decade now.

“Our chemistry wasn’t obvious when we first met, but it was certainly apparent when we did our first show together.

“Although we wrote our first two-man show together, we never quite got around to learning the script, so we found ourselves on stage desperately trying to remember lines, plot, characters and what hat or jacket we were supposed to be wearing.

“It was sort of chaos but the audience responded very well and laughed a lot. It was the worst possible lesson to learn because, basically, it went down very well even though we hadn’t worked hard enough at it.

“I think from then on we felt that it was the way we performed together that made us greater than the sum of our parts.”

While Webb features in Back Story, the memoir is very much about Mitchell’s take on life, a reflection on his attitudes that finds him pondering everything from space travel to the etiquette of a gents’ toilet.

“My first thought was to write a book that was slightly biographical but that I could say other things,” he explains.

“Instead of telling the story of my life, I’d just tell the story of one day. Then I thought, ‘You get a lot of self- help guides and misery memoirs. People like them.’ As I have a bad back and have to walk an hour every day, I thought, ‘Instead of hooking it on one day, hook it all on one walk.’

“It’s also a great way of allowing me to dot around my life and miss out the boring bits.”

Consequently, Mitchell proves to be a candid storyteller, more so than he intended. “I went into writing it thinking I’d be a lot more private about my life and personal feelings than I ended up being. Oddly, when I got into the flow of expressing myself I felt it would be wrong for the book not to be a bit more candid.”

As a result, Mitchell often comes across as a bemused onlooker.

“I think that’s how most people feel,” he offers. “That’s the weird irony of being normal, you feel you are in an excluded minority and the tiny minority of people who don’t feel like that are, oddly, the weirdos.”

He explains, “So much comedy is about feeling you are left out; that you are not part of things and that everyone is laughing at you. That sort of comedy wouldn’t resonate with as many people as it does if they didn’t feel the same way too.”

Which brings us back to Mitchell and Webb, who celebrate two anniversaries in 2013.

“Next autumn is the 20th anniversary of when Rob and I first met and the tenth anniversary of the first series of Peep Show,” says Mitchell, admitting to feeling “very old”.

“So it’s quite a good excuse for a party.”

David Mitchell: Back Story, A Memoir, is published in hardback by HarperCollins, £20

Book Signing, Blackwell’s South Bridge, Saturday, 3.30pm, free

In Conversation, Assembly Rooms, George Street, Saturday, 7.30pm, £8 (redeemable against book on night), 0131- 225 3436