(NOTE: this is a critical piece I wrote for uni for a short screenplay, which you can read by clicking here)
To what extent does Jesse Armstrong’s writing show us that humour can be utilised to reveal facets about what it is to be Human.
Jesse Armstrong has co-created and written the television sitcoms ‘Peep Show’, ‘Fresh Meat’, and then has also co-written the sitcom ‘The Thick Of It’, as well as the films ‘In The Loop’ and ‘Four Lions’. Armstrong writes ‘Peep Show’ (2003-present), his most famous work, alongside Sam Bain, who het met on a creative writing course at Manchester University. This critical piece will refer mainly to ‘Peep Show’.
With a writer such as Jesse Armstrong, who is so prolific and successful in creating comedy, and therefore entertainment, his commercial and critical success raises an intriguing question over what exactly it is that is so enticing about entertainment, or what entertainment is in the first place. On this topic, the critic Richard Dyer stated that:
‘Entertainment offers the image of “something better” to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of the utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realised.’
This statement is partly flawed. Whilst Dyer can claim that some forms of Entertainment “offer the image of “something better” to escape into” with some legitimacy, this is certainly not the case with regards to all forms of entertainment. Jesse Armstrong’s writing is indicative of the exact opposite to this utopia that Dyer writes about. For example, ‘Peep Show’ depicts people that lead lives that are (quite possibly) a lot worse than the far more “ordinary” lives of the viewers watching. Critchley noted that one theory of humour is “we laugh from feelings of superiority over other people”, and this definition perfectly fits the comedy Armstrong engenders, considering the character of Mark and Jez from ‘Peep Show’ as examples. Armstrong’s humour serves a function in reminding us of what we do not want to be. This is largely due to Armstrong writing characters that are, more often than not, ‘losers’, people that often fail (with comical consequences) and people that are often stuck in an undesirable situation in their lives, such as Mark and Jez from ‘Peep Show’. These two characters in particular (Armstrong’s most famous) never attain their dreams and they never become ‘successful’. Instead, Mark and Jez have spent the entire series (so far) stuck in the same flat never achieving anything much at all, whilst making a lot of immoral decisions along the way. This is quite similar to the character arcs from the television sitcom ‘Seinfeld’, where they end up where they had started, almost as if a reset button had been pressed. In this respect, Armstrong’s ‘Peep Show’ could be considered to be a truly post-Seinfeld, very self-aware sitcom, in the context of modern sitcoms.
An example of popular culture, and therefore a piece of entertainment (as it can, at its very basest, hold an audiences interest and attention) such as the film ‘Billy Elliot’ (and indeed its adaptation to theatre), is perfectly and admirably capable of giving an audience an entertainment ‘product’ that involves a degree of lightness. It is something to laugh at and it is something that makes you feel good. But entertainment can still have those qualities without showing you a utopia, just as ‘Peep Show’ does. Instead of, as Dyer puts it, entertainment being “something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide’, Armstrong’s writing shows us something that we desperately don’t want our day-to-day lives to provide, be it the exploits of the inept students in ‘Fresh Meat’, the inept adults in ‘Peep Show’ or the inept terrorists in ‘Four Lions’.
Armstrong not only writes great comedy dialogue, but he’s also very adept at slapstick comedy. One standout example of this would be in ‘Four Lions’, when Fez blows himself (and some sheep) sky high after trying to hop a fence with shopping bags filled with explosives. His friends later collect the remnants of his body in a black bin liner. In my own creative piece, I wanted to emulate not only Armstrong’s emphasis on strong dialogue, but also his penchant for slapstick and physical comedy, which I demonstrated by having Mike chase after the rock he sent tumbling towards the couple on the hill. The aim was to emulate (and in a way, celebrate) my favourite facets of what Armstrong, who is in my mind a writer who has produced some of the finest British comedy this century, can do with his writing.
My creative piece, ‘Hill’, is closely modelled on Armstrong’s ‘Peep Show’. One of the most notable and unique aspects to ‘Peep Show’ is how the audience is given access (via a voice over and a point of view (POV) camera angle) to the two main protagonist’s inner voices. In ‘Peep Show’, Armstrong’s writing gloriously exaggerates the ordinary and mundane through the expressed attitudes of both Mark and Jez. These attitudes, as immoral (and very funny) as they might be, are expressed through the inner voice, and this represents a fantastic opportunity for humour. It represents a chance to make viewers relate to characters on a deeper level, bringing out into the open the sort of thoughts the audience themselves might think in real life, but never dare to vocalise. ‘Peep Show’ exploits that, making the central characters of Jez (terminally lazy) and Mark (eloquent cynic) relatable, but also morally questionable. I wanted to explore these facets with my own piece, ‘Hill’. So because of this, the main character, Mike, shows off his greatest weakness, his jealousy, and his fear of being left out, “Is Hugo allowed to call her Suze because he’s closer to her than me?” (Hill, p. 3), often. While this reveals Mike’s character to the audience in explicit fashion, it is also a good opportunity for humour. Armstrong himself described how a lot of the comedy could be from having one character trying their best to conceal their motives, despite the audience knowing exactly what it is that they want. It is because of this (and because a film or television script needs to have someone wanting something, with this desire being the engine that drives the piece) that Mike’s first piece of dialogue, an inner thought, is ‘I love you Susan’ (Hill, p. 1):
“The best sitcom characters are probably just a little self-conscious. Deep enough to feel pain and humiliation, but shallow enough that there are no hidden depths. You can pretty much read across the faces of Basil Fawlty, George Costanza, Del Boy or even Hannah Horvath exactly what they’re thinking. If they lie, conceal how they’re feeling and we can see it, so much the better, so much the funnier. But you know pretty much their every impulse.”
This is why the inner voice is such an effective comedy tool, because it makes it difficult for the audience to not understand the on-screen character’s ‘hidden depths’ Because of the inner voice, the audience for ‘Peep Show’ (and my own piece) will almost always know ‘if [the characters] lie [or] conceal how they’re feeling’. Using the inner voice in a television sitcom is such an exciting tool for comedy, because it airs the legitimate madness of human beings, and reveals the very real truth that we often say what we are not truly thinking. It represents chances to air the appalling things we think, which may be often completely forgettable, and are thoughts that we rarely share with other people.
Simon Critchley wrote ‘…humour is produced by a disjunction between the way things are and the way they are represented in the joke’ (SC, p.1). If we apply Critchley’s statement to Armstrong’s work, we can see that Critchley writes with great validity. The true heart of Armstrong’s comedy in this is the mismatch between what is being said and what is being thought by the peevish, disgruntled and cowardly protagonist, which is exactly what I have emulated in my own creative piece. For example, when Hugo questions Mike about coming round to Suze’s on the weekend and Mike’s inner voice says: “The thing about court that terrifies me is all that public speaking you have to do. If I could kill Hugo now and not do any subsequent public speaking, I would.” (Hill, p. 2.) but he actually says out loud: “Oh, didn’t you know? There’s no bigger Time-Lord fan than me. You’d be hard-struck to find anyone who could pick out their Jon Pertwee’s from their Peter Capaldi’s better than yours truly.” (Hill, p. 2).
Whilst some writers might state that information should be withheld from the reader to keep things mysterious, Armstrong instead exposes the information and allows us to choose whether to laugh or cringe, and this is what I really admired about Armstrong’s writing, and wanted to emulate myself. Putting everything out in the open, and to let people judge that instead, was a very attractive proposition. Writing this piece, I drew on thoughts I myself had thought, and thoughts my friends had experienced and subsequently shared with me. Many of my thoughts, especially when it came to social occasions, were often relatively peculiar and irrational when mulled over a week later, employing the use of hindsight. For example, writing in 2015, an election year, I found myself feeling an overwhelmingly strong resentment towards anyone who said they agreed with any of UKIP’s policies. Despite what one might think of UKIP, it was wrong of me to think this, because rational people should always be tolerant of other’s views, no matter how disagreeable they may seem. So I wanted to take this, the anger directed towards something people do not realise angers you, and lay it bare in my creative piece.
I strongly believe that having these illogical in-the-moment thoughts is part of what it is to be a Human. We all have trigger words, be it ‘Oxbridge’, ‘Nine AM’ or, in Mike’s case, “Suze” (Hill, p.3), and it is that quiet rage inside of us, the fiery temperament, that when exposed in hindsight, is fantastically funny. A good example of this wholly unscientific lashings-out is when Mike’s inner voice says: ‘Fuck you and your thieving ways Hugo. She’s my English Type 4 diesel-electric locomotive and you’re Bruce Reynolds.’ (Hill, p. 1). And this is why the inner voice, a very recognisable (and also the most distinctive) aspect to Armstrong’s most popular work, is so crucial in understanding why Armstrong’s work is pure entertainment. It is because ‘Peep Show’ is more than a comedy with lightness to it; it is because Armstrong is highlighting a part of being human. What someone is thinking. As Armstrong himself said in an interview:
“Getting under the surface of real-life humans’ poker faces humans is hard in a sitcom, even a drama. TV and film have tried lots of ways of displaying the fascinating stuff of the internal life. That is why Tony Soprano went to a room where he could talk about all the stuff he would never talk about, why Reggie Perrin had his graphic explosions of visual tourettes, why the documentary crew roamed Wernham Hogg.”
Armstrong explores the human condition through the inner voice, and what he decides to show is two very normal people, who find everyday life as seemingly insufferable, problematic and confusing as the rest of us might. Armstrong’s entertainment is not inviting us into a utopia, as Dyer would suggest, but instead a far more fascinating (and amusing) dystopia, which, perhaps worryingly, feels very real.
My piece, ‘Hill’, is set in a beer garden because, just like Armstrong’s ‘Peep Show’ or ‘Fresh Meat’, everything needed to be grounded in something familiar, something that felt real. “For me it’s a post-The Office sitcom. It’s got that realism I’d associate with The Office and the Royle Family. That idea, that the show would be funnier if it feels quite real, is at the heart of it.” The situations ‘Peep Show’ often deals with are making a fool of yourself in social situations, and this relatable sense of realism is something Armstrong was very much trying to achieve with Peep Show and so I have done the same with my piece ‘Hill’, staging it in a beer garden after work. This piece needed to feel like it could happen. Furthermore, setting the piece in a social situation is a perfect place to bring out the immoral thoughts and the awkward moments that come through these kind of social occasions, such as after-work drinks, which is what happens in my piece. Similarly, just like Armstrong’s work, I have established a light-hearted borderline farcical tone for my own piece. My aim to engender this lightness in tone is a response to not only Armstrong’s writing, but also the context in which I have been writing in. The critic Richard Dyer said “…some explanation of why entertainment works. It is not just leftovers from history, it is not just what show business, or “they” force on the rest of us, it is not simply the expression of eternal needs – it responds to real needs created by society.” (RD, p.26) Armstrong’s writing responds to the real need, and craving, for lightness and for humour.
Armstrong’s statement about being a ‘post-Office sitcom’ is key in contextualising Armstrong’s work as a comedy writer. Following the Office, a demand for the self-knowing, self-conscious comedy character had clearly been marked out, and into this void stepped ‘Peep Show’ and its self-conscious main character, Mark Corrigan. Another way in which ‘Peep Show’ could be seen as a post-Office sitcom, with much legitimacy, would be in its attempts to make itself appear realistic, just like The Office did. Furthermore, as referenced earlier in this essay, Armstrong’s work could also be recognised as a post-Seinfeld sitcom, in how the characters do not really ever go anywhere at all, stuck in a form of stasis.
Because my own creative piece, ‘Hill’, is only so long, it is difficult for it to truly achieve the exploration of the human condition that Jesse Armstrong has been able to enjoy with ‘Peep Show’. Of course, Armstrong is first and foremost a comedy writer, but he uses humour in the setting that feels so real in order to unearth something far more profound about what it is to be human. ‘Peep Show’s’ main characters of Mark and Jez are fully fleshed out people, they are jealous, they are immoral and they are fantastically funny. They are like humans. The inner voice is a tragically underused narrative tool on television, and Armstrong utilises it in such a manner that lays bare the far less discussed sides to being human. These sides being the mundane every-day, legitimately mad thoughts and situations we find ourselves in. Armstrong finds so much humour in ‘Peep Show’ from such ordinary, seemingly mundane situations. This is what I strove to tap into with my own piece. ‘Hill’ is set in a very ordinary setting, with very ordinary people, but behind my main character Mike, there is a seething rage and jealousy that makes him seem so peevish and cowardly. But, for me, it is these distasteful qualities that make him so relatable and human.
- Armstrong, Jesse, ‘Jesse Armstrong on his first novel and writing fiction after ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Peep Show’’ in The Independent 06 April 2015 <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/jesse-armstrong-on-his-first-novel-and-writing-fiction-after-the-thick-of-it-and-peep-show-10158425.html> [last accessed 12 May 2015].
- Critchley, Simon, On humour (New York, London : Routledge, 2002), p.2.
- Dyer, Richard, Only Entertainment (Routledge, 1992), p.20. All subsequent quotations are from this edition, and are given in parenthesis after the quote (RD).
- Musson, Alex, ‘Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong’ in Mustard (interviews took place in 2008 and 2014, exact date not determined) <http://www.mustardweb.org/peepshow/> [last accessed 12 May 2015].
 Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment (Routledge, 1992), p.20. All subsequent quotations are from this edition, and are given in parenthesis after the quote (RD).
 Simon Critchley, On humour (New York, London : Routledge, 2002), p.2. All subsequent quotations are from this edition, and are given in parenthesis after the quote (SC).
 Jesse Armstrong, ‘Jesse Armstrong on his first novel and writing fiction after ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Peep Show’’ in The Independent 06 April 2015 <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/jesse-armstrong-on-his-first-novel-and-writing-fiction-after-the-thick-of-it-and-peep-show-10158425.html> [last accessed 12 May 2015]