Our interviewees ask each other one question. Pass the Mustard!
Featuring: Graham Linehan, Michael Palin, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong, Alan Moore, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, John Lloyd, Robin Ince, Matt Berry, Rich Fulcher and Galton & Simpson
Graham Linehan asks Michael Palin
Graham What makes the perfect sketch?
Michael A good beginning, middle and end! (laughs)
A sketch is really like a short story. It's got to engage you very early on, you've got to like where you are and the people you're with and they've got to carry you through and deliver you somewhere at the end where you never expected to be.
I think that's rather a complicated way of saying it. It's essentially about grabbing your audience and beguiling them, and making them want to come with you on the journey wherever you're taking them.
Richard Herring asks John Lloyd
Richard When you were working with Douglas Adams on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was it obvious what a success it would be?
John No, there were no expectations of that. I'd heard the first four episodes and thought, "This is really good, maybe our friends will like it". But the most we could hope for was getting a decent review in a paper and the chance to do another series. If we were very lucky, maybe they'd give us a go on something else – we had bottom drawers full of ideas. But the idea of it becoming this ridiculous, global, everlasting phenomenon – no!
We didn't even think in terms of 'success'. I remember later on, in my mid-30s, when I was recovering from a broken heart, after becoming a very successful producer and winning an awful lot of awards, it occurred to me that a good programme and a successful one are not the same thing. That's something that's at the heart of BBC culture, so I'm amazed I hadn't really noticed it.
Stewart Lee asks Rich Fulcher
Stewart How did you come up with Psychic Pool Boy?
Rich My renowned character of Psychic Pool Boy originated at the Alkobar hotel pool in Adelaide, Australia, in the late 90s. Several UK comics were staying there for a Comedy Fest, including Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, Boothby Graffoe, Michael Smiley and Omid Djalili.
Oftentimes, nudity prevailed in the pool area. But my claim to fame was to answer any question requiring psychic abilities whilst underwater.
For example, someone may ask the question (usually not in the pool): 'Will I ever become rich and famous?'
To which Psychic Pool Boy would project himself from underwater and screech the answer in a primordial dinosaur-esque voice: 'No, you won't'.
As soon as he was finished, PPB would disappear again into the murky depths of the pool. The result: hours of playtime fun and me losing my voice.
Graham Linehan asks Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong
Graham Is there a pressure to make each series of Peep Show more extreme than the last?
Sam I knew he'd ask that!
Jesse No, I don't think there's pressure to be more extreme, not at all. On the whole, we follow our noses. You shift your own boundaries in terms of acceptability and taste.
The first series had fairly extreme things happening. I mean, it ends with Jeremy being masturbated by a woman who thinks he's got a terminal disease! And to me, after that, eating a dog is like going to the Dolly Mixtures.
Sam Yeah, I agree. I think Graham said he wasn't sure about the second episode of Series Five, where there's a lot of reference to sucking off a teenage boy in a band, and I think we felt a bit unsure about that ourselves.
Jesse In retrospect. And mainly because we did a casting change at the last minute for that character.
Sam He was a lot younger than he was meant to be. It was originally going to be the actor who played Sophie's brother in the previous series.
Jesse I mean, he was a brilliant actor, but in retrospect might have been too young. That's an example of where I've felt like we've maybe gone over the edge, but I don't feel we feel pressure to go there. Back when we were planning this episode, we thought it would be funny if Super Hans says 'would you suck us off?'. And then, later on, we thought that it would be funny if it actually happened.
I guess, having someone eat a dog, it's not exactly darker or edgier, but in comic terms, it's more cartoony, bigger, and that is a dial that, arguably, has got turned up a little bit in later series.
Sam We like some of that stuff a lot.
Jesse Yeah, when all the comic tools are there to play with. But we're eager to make sure it always feels within the bounds of possibility.
Sam There's nothing worse than forced farce, when it's illogical. We try and have a moratorium on that. We always try and make at least some logical steps in that direction. You've got to earn it, really, those moments.
Jesse The only one when we've not got that was when we did the Indecent Proposal episode with Johnson. I remember us laughing so much about the idea and thought that 'indecent proposal' was a funny phrase, and the film is quite risible, and we thought, yeah, we can do that.
Sam That's is a good example of where, with the first beat of the story, you begin in heightened reality. Whereas the dog-eating is the very last beat of that story, so you work your way up from ordinary reality. You could run over a dog, you could put it in the bin, you might burn it, yeah, you might possibly do that, maybe you would. You go through the steps, the moments. You need to do that.
Alan Moore asks Stewart Lee
Alan With all those recent groundbreaking routines under your belt, do you find the urge to push things further becomes addictive; even a bit pathological?
Stewart Yes, it does. That's partly why I wanted to backtrack with this show [Vegetable Stew]. I want to get the TV audience up to where I was going with the last live show, Milder Comedian. With that, I reached an end point, and now I've got to find something else.
I was recently talking to comic book writer Mark Miller and he was saying that he didn't like that there's all these comics written for 40-year-old guys by 40-year-old guys, where you have to have been reading comics for 30-odd years to get them. They're caving in under the weight of continuity.
What I particularly admire about Alan Moore is that he doesn't let his erudition and his enjoyment of subverting the form get in the way of delivering the goods. You don't have to know that Promethea is some kind of arcane magical ritual to enjoy it as a Wonder Woman-type adventure comic.
I think there's something for me to learn from that. There's certainly more gags in this show than the last one.
Rich Fulcher asks Graham Linehan
Rich Are there any studio-based sitcoms that would have benefitted from being single-camera sitcoms..?
Graham Yeah, Aaron Sorkin's sitcom Sports Night; that shouldn't have been in front of an audience. Sorkin's dialogue is all very fast paced, it doesn't leave any gaps, it doesn't have punchlines as such, it's just really witty. So when they added a live audience laughter track, it made it very weird.
Rich ...and any single-camera sitcoms that should have been studio-based?
Graham Yeah, there have been a few examples of recent shows that I've liked – I won't name them because I don't want it to sound like a criticism. Shows that were really crazy and kind of out-there, that don't have as many jokes as they maybe should have, and an audience would have encouraged them to add a few more, possibly.
Stewart Lee asks Robin Ince
Stewart The comedian PJ used to be called Robin Banks, as if he were a money thief. Why don't you change your name to Robin Mince, as if you were a mince thief?
Robin That is something that Stewart has been pushing on me for a long time. He bought an abattoir and he's very, very keen on me being the face of some of his abattoir based products. So as far as I can see, as usual with Stewart Lee and his entire career, it's all about his utter narcissism. So that's why I'm not changing my name to Robin Mince, because I don't want to sell his, frankly, low quality mince products.
Matt Berry asks Alan Moore
Matt Who do you think Jack the Ripper really was?
AlanAs we said in From Hell's second appendix, Dance of the Gull Catchers, we'll never know who the entity called 'Jack the Ripper' actually was. When we were doing the book, Eddie Campbell said it was probably "the lunatic nearest the asylum door when it was left open". I'd say that's the most likely explanation. Something chaotic and unknowable.
He was a creature created out of those times. Even the name is a construct: it came from the letters signed "yours truly, Jack the Ripper", which were almost certainly actually written by a journalist called Best.
And you can see how a century of Ripperologists have kind of added to this accreted myth until it's about Freemasons, royalty, a Jewish conspiracy, Red Indians, whatever we choose to attach to it. It's got very little to do with whoever it was that killed those women in Whitechapel all those years ago.
I genuinely do believe that Jack the Ripper is best considered as a superposition in the quantum sense. He's not William Gull or Montague Druitt or George Chapman, or any of the other suggested murderers. He's somehow all of them until we focus upon one position. People fixate upon one individual, just as a physicist focusing on a superposition will collapse that down to whatever particle he ends up observing.
For example, a guy called John Morrison become convinced that the murders were the work of an escaped lunatic called Jimmy Kelly. With some money that I think he got from Mickey Rourke, who had just filmed A Prayer for the Dying at the Leytonstone Cemetery, he had a gravestone put up for Mary Kelly's previously unmarked gravesite, referring to her as the 'prima donna of Spitalfields', which is odd phraseology. It was later taken down and I heard from Iain Sinclair that Morrison now keeps the fragments of the stone cross under his bed.
In our local paper there was a report about a man called Mallard who believed that Jack the Ripper was a member of his family from the Doddridge Church area of Northampton. His somewhat slender grounds for this theory were that a father in the family had committed suicide and one of the sons then moved down to London and was working in a slaughterhouse in the Whitechapel area during the time of the murders.
Not the most convincing theory, but I was quite taken with this story because my mother's maiden name was Mallard and her family lived around the Doddridge Church area. So in answer to Matt's question, I'd say that after all of my researches, it turns out that Jack the Ripper was probably my granddad. It's funny how these things work out, but what can you do?
Rich Fulcher asks Stewart Lee
Rich What do you say to someone you meet in person whom you've previously skewered on stage?
Stewart That's never really happened to me. I mean… I don't tend to move in the same circles. Some of the comedians I've done jokes about, I'd maybe see them. Since I wrote my Russell Howard routine, I've bumped into him. And Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle... I don't think they'd mind because they sort of know it's true. I said about Jimmy Carr: 'if you write a joke that Jim Davidson can steal, perhaps it's time to think about changing your material' – and I would say that to him.
Although, when I met Jerry Springer, he sat me down and told me I had misrepresented his programme and that what I was doing was the same as being an apologist for the Holocaust. I mean, it can't get worse than that, can it? To be told you're the same as a Holocaust denier?
Alan Moore asks Robin Ince
Alan Given that humour is usually about subverting rational expectations, isn't being a rationalist comedian a bit like being a black republican?
Robin Ah, no, because the very fact that so many people are irrational means that bombarding them with rationalism subverts their irrationality! Did that make sense?
Stewart Lee asks Graham Linehan
Stewart I hate Twitter. It just seems to be loads of people updating the precise whereabouts of me and my son on a daily basis, on buses, in the park etc. Do you think you'd like it less if you had a more recognisable face?
Graham It's the modern world, I'm afraid, and those updates are still happening even if Stewart isn't around to read them. I get them from time to time and they're usually good-natured enough. Whenever they aren't, I just use the 'block' button and that's the end of that. One guy wrote: "Just saw @Glinner stuffing his face in a restaurant", which, y'know, wasn't very nice, even if I was stuffing my face (laughs) so I blocked him, I don't hear from him anymore.
I guess if I had a famous face, it might get annoying, but I find that most people are very kind on Twitter, and very careful not to offend, and often incredibly helpful. I always tell this story: one day I was on a real Field Music jag... just spent the day tweeting their songs and videos while I was working. A few days later, Michael McKean, who played David St Hubbins in Spinal Tap, sent me a tweet saying "Thanks for the Field Music tip. Those guys are the berries!". Incredible feeling... one of my heroes, and I had no idea that he was even following me! I certainly wouldn't give that up because of the occasional "Just saw @Glinner in Waterstones" message.
Stewart Lee asks Michael Palin
Stewart Whose idea was Python's Confuse A Cat sketch, which was for me the best one?
Michael As I remember it, that sketch was written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who were a two-man writing team within the group (as were Terry Jones and I; Eric Idle wrote on his own and Terry Gilliam of course animated on his own).
Matt Berry asks Graham Linehan
Matt In light of all these dramatisations of the lives of TV comedians (Steptoe & Son, Hattie Jacques, etc.), are you looking forward to someone playing you in the inevitable 'Father Ted Story'?
Graham Well, with those dramatisations they usually have to emphasise a personality problem; Peter Sellers beat up his kids, the bloke from Steptoe met strange men in parks, and so forth. Mine would be that I'm a biscuit alcoholic. The other day I caught myself hiding biscuits around the house, so that could be my dramatic scene.
But usually I hate those programmes. I find "the darkness behind the laughter" such a cliché, because, y'know, in every life there's some sadness or secrets, it's kind of tasteless. The only one I liked was Morecombe and Wise. I thought that was beautifully done and just shows that they were very happy and normal and nothing too traumatic happened, apart from having a bad first show (laughs).
Sam Bain asks Stewart Lee
Sam What are the pros and cons of working with a comedy partner?
Do you ever miss working with Richard Herring?
Stewart The pros of working with Richard were that he was ambitious and had a work ethic; I don't think I would have turned over anything like the amount of stuff we did if I'd been on my own. He was really driven. During the mid-90s I was doing a lot of solo stand-up, but it was the stuff I did with him, especially the radio stuff earlier on, that seeded the ground for an audience 15 years later.
These days, I mostly prefer perform-ing on my own because I like to live or die by my own stuff and don't like the guilt of letting someone else down.
But I do like collaborations where the other person brings something that isn't what I have to offer. I've done a lot with Johnny Vegas where he's used me as a kind of Boswell figure to transcribe and organise his spontaneous ideas. And I really liked working with Richard Thomas [on Jerry Springer the Opera] because he's able to hear in his head eight lines of arranged classical music.
With Rich, even when not writing together, we'd sometimes arrive at the same sort of thing, tonally and content-wise. So there's no point to us being together. There used to be, because his humour required someone to stand next to him making a disapproving face, saying 'this isn't alright'. But now he uses the audience for that.
We've performed a lot together live, maybe 200 shows altogether, but I've probably done 2,500 as a stand-up on my own. As with a lot of double acts, ours was predicated on adolescent bickering, and I don't think that works well for middle-aged men, though I think it would work really well with pensioners. Rich probably thinks I'm taking the piss when I say this, but I'd really like to do it again when we're 70. I think it would be hilarious then.
Sam Bain asks Richard Herring
Sam What are the pros and cons of working with a comedy partner?
Do you ever miss working with Stewart Lee?
Richard It's good to bounce ideas off someone else, plus having to meet up with someone means you're more likely to get stuff done and not slack off – though Stu was often very late.
But a lot of time is wasted arguing over stuff, often when neither of you is wrong. Good ideas can get squashed due to bad moods or petty squabbles. I found working alone a bit lonely at first, but whilst it is nice to get out of the house and interact with other people I much prefer working alone now.
I suspect that now we're older Stu and me would be less precious and argumentative and cut each other more slack. I loved the double act and regret that it didn't get the credit it deserved at the time and that it was ended prematurely by Jane Root's disregard for us. And whilst we might get together again at some point in the future, I think we're both happy doing what we're doing and we both prefer the autonomy of solo writing.
Richard Herring asks Robin Ince
Richard When do you sleep?
Robin I think I sleep, but I'm not sure. I try to ask my various inner dialogues to quieten down for a while and see what happens.
Graham Linehan asks Alan Moore
Graham What are the good and bad aspects of having a wizard's beard?
Alan Had I known that I'd be taking up the profession of wizard when I grew my beard I'd have probably thought twice, because it's a bit obvious, isn't it?
Actually, even saying that I grew my beard is probably putting it too strongly. I stopped shaving or going to the barbers as much out of laziness as anything else.
It's been there since I was about 23, and when I became a magician at the age of 40, I genuinely hadn't given the beard a second thought.
So no, there aren't really any advantages. There are quite a lot of disadvantages in that apparently people without beards – a sweeping generalisation – are unable to distinguish between anybody who has long hair and a beard. Apparently we all look the same. I've been compared to, let me see: Jesus, God, Charles Manson, Billy Connolly, Rasputin and, on one memorable occasion, Crystal Tips from the 70s cartoon Crystal Tips and Alistair.
All of this is like me saying that anybody who has short hair and no beard looks the same; that Graham looks like Brad Pitt or Lord Charles the ventriloquist's dummy.
There are also other drawbacks to a beard of this size. You can find you've got a precise log of your last five meals in there, if you're not very careful with the grooming. You do sometimes get things trapped in it. I once, and this is absolutely true, had a live moth caught in my beard for at least 20 minutes. It was camouflaged and it was quite surprising when that flew out of there. Along with a baby cow.
Graham Linehan asks Ray Galton & Alan Simpson
Graham When you're writing a sitcom episode do the story, scenes or jokes come first?
Ray (laughs) The telephone call!
Alan The story, or theme, comes first. Sometimes the story develops once you've started writing. You plot it in your mind first, working out roughly where it's going to go. But then we would write very loosely, so if it took us a different route, we'd go with it.
Ray It's a strange rule we made there. No matter what we were writing, if something happened that took us that way or that way, we'd forget the plot and go follow it. The time factor is very important: the longer you've got, the longer you'll take. If you've got a short deadline, you take the first story that comes along that's workable.
Alan We were always working to deadlines, but radio was about 20 weeks long. So you might start four or five weeks ahead, but you gradually lost time and you were working for weeks and weeks, waiting for the perfect story. Quite often we didn't know how it was going to finish, so we'd spend a load of time trying to manufacture an ending. But in the ones where we had a close plot, like The Blood Donor, we had the ending before we started.
Ray Which was very unusual for us. Only happened about twice.
Alan I remember one time we got stuck whilst doing The Les Dawson Show. We couldn't see where it was going. Then we lifted one scene out, put it before another scene, and it all worked. Like doing a crossword puzzle. Of course, it's better to know where you're going, but sometimes you have to start with just half an idea. Whenever we had a half-idea, I used to write them down. So by halfway through the series we'd have a whole page of half-ideas. Then when we started a new show we'd go over all the half ideas, to see if anything worked. On two or three occasions we put two of the half-ideas together and we'd have a show. Never throw anything away! Even if it's only a suggestion, a smidgen of an idea – write it down. You never know when it might come in useful.
Alan Moore asks Stewart Lee
Alan Would you consider adding "a more sarcastic Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four" to your list of "squashed Morrisey" similes [describing your appearance]?
Stewart That's great! When I come to do that bit on television, I'll try and remember that. I've got some other good ones to add: Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Il's son (laughs).
Funnily enough, my friend Simon Oaks, who's in a band called Peach, has always said I looked like Reed Richards, because the sides of my head went grey when I was about 20.
Sam Bain asks Alan Moore
Sam When you signed my copy of The Killing Joke back in 1988 you told me it would be your last ever superhero comic. Why wasn't it?
Alan Well at that time I was about leave DC Comics for good, I'd said that I wouldn't work for the other big publisher, Marvel, and I was just about to move onto a whole range of projects that didn't involve superheroes – Big Numbers, Lost Girls, A Small Killing, From Hell and my novel Voice of the Fire.
All of these took an incredible amount of time to produce and because the market was superhero obsessed, they did not bring in a large huge amount of money.
Big Numbers did very well for a comic book about fractal maths and shopping, but the artist ran screaming into the night. From Hell, which took 10 years to complete, had got a readership, in its serial form, of about 17,000. Lost Girls took 16 years to complete and most of that time I was paying for Melinda to do the work because we had two or three publishers collapse under us.
Then round about 1993 I had an offer to work for Image Comics, which had been set up in opposition to Marvel and DC and seemed, at the time, quite a rebellious venture. So for them, I thought I could do some superheroes that weren't going along with all of the rather dreary post-Watchmen stuff.
I decided that what I actually liked about superheroes was the sheer invention and fun that they represented to me when I was seven. So I indulged in the 1963 series, which was meant as a reminder of what comic's values had once been. And I started working on Supreme, which I had quite a bit of fun with. And certainly the money was very welcome, in that it helped us support the other ongoing projects.
Then their publishers, Awesome Comics, went under. By this time I'd been working with quite a raft of artists who I felt responsible for. So I moved a new line of titles – the ABC line – to Wildstorm, run by Jim Lee, who'd been one of the Image publishers and who I had a certain amount of respect for.
The ABC line could be seen as superhero comics, but I was trying to run the tape of the superhero line backwards to an earlier point and then imagine how it could have played forward differently.
Tom Strong is based on pre-superhero pulp characters such as Doc Savage, even Tarzan. Promethea also has roots in the fantasy adventures from pulp magazines and comic strips.
I realised that most of the superheroes had had their origins in the fantastical literature of the late 19th/early 20th Century. Hulk, if you ran him back far enough, was Jekyll and Hyde. All of the invisible characters in comics probably went back to HG Wells' The Invisible Man and you could probably trace a lot of the superfast characters back to Wells' little known tale The New Accelerator.
Probably one of the earliest examples of someone convening a group of superheroes, if you want to call it that, was Jason and the Argonauts. The story of the Golden Fleece was apparently a kind of Bronze Age ad campaign for a new trade route that had lots of fleeces on offer; they cobbled a tale together to publicise the route, involving lots of mythological heroes like Hercules.
Anyway, I'd signed a contract with Wildstorm, and then they were bought out by DC Comics, who had previously tried to buy out Awesome Comics on the understanding that they'd get me as part of the deal. Which meant that I was now working for DC again with a raft of largely superhero titles.
Since then, I've probably moved even further away from superheroes. I tend to think that they're become compensatory fantasies for a kind of cowardice. The people who produce these comics are creating stories of incredibly brave men and women who are always on the side of the oppressed and never shirk from their duty, and yet at the same time they're knowingly working in an industry that has always oppressed the people working for it
The genre was incredibly influential on my childhood, with the qualities of imagination and creativity and sheer fun that it represented. But my position on superheroes at the moment is pretty remote, but that's not to say that I might not at some point in the future find them a suitable thing to play around with again, to try and find some unexplored, unbroken ground.
So in answer to Sam's question, at that time, in 1988, I was very much intent on putting as much distance between me and superheroes as possible.
Actually, I think I actually remember Sam at that comics signing – I assume he was the one with a camera mounted on his head and a microphone broadcasting his self-conscious inner thoughts to all the people in Gosh Comics' basement.
Now that I've linked him up with this early purchase of The Killing Joke I'm going to have to carefully watch Peep Show to see if they're working up to a denouement where Mark and Jeremy realise that they're essentially psychological reflections of each other; that there's just one bad day separating Mark from Jeremy and they're locked into an ultimately fatal relationship that will end with a violent confrontation in a hall of mirrors. If so, they'll be hearing from my lawyers. Who do not exist.
Sam Bain asks Graham Linehan
Sam Are you free for lunch next Friday?
Graham (laughs) Actually I don't think I am, unfortunately.