As is well known: the only thing funnier than a good joke is a dry explanation of a good joke.
In its 12-year run from 2003 to 2015, Peep Show became an instant cult-classic, and attracted widespread critical acclaim. It won numerous awards across a variety of disciplines. The Guardian called it the best show of the decade. Ricky Gervais called it the best British sitcom since Father Ted. Peep Show is achingly funny. But why?
Fundamentally, Peep Show makes us laugh by making us uncomfortable. It’s excruciating honesty about the absence of the spectacular in most of our lives is a refreshing departure from its American counterparts. Where Monica and Chandler succeed, Mark and Jez fail, and fail often. In Marks own words: “My entire life has been one continual adjustment to loss”.
By the end of 9 series, Mark and Jez are still living in the same flat – the only real development in their lives being Mark’s son from a failed marriage to a woman he desperately lusted after until an almost aborted wedding. There is no comforting narrative ark towards a happily ever after. In its absence, a darkly comic sense of trepidation and anxiety. This feeling is compounded by Mark’s constant sense of torment between what society wants him to do, and want he wants to do. The result is that he never really achieves anything. He does Business Management instead of Ancient History at the University of Dartmouth. When the London office of JLB Credit is closed, he leads a reluctant rebellion until he receives a job offer from head office. He gives up the academic rigour he craves during his short stint as a history tour guide to satisfy his audience. Despite having done all the things he thought he should, Mark is not successful. Similarly, Jez never becomes a successful musician, is never able to hold down a job, never resolves his relationship with his parents, and never develops a successful romantic relationship. Despite his relative social ease, Jez’s life is also a failure.
Their constant failure to achieve their goals is painful but back-breakingly funny. The best example of this is in “Mark’s Women”. Jez does a personality quiz with “The New Wellness Centre” to “fuck with them” but is quickly broken down by the interviewers probing. It is one of the only times when he openly addresses the chasm between his delusional expectations and his reality (“I thought I knew what I was doing with my life, but it turns out I haven’t got a fucking clue”). He wants to laugh at the process as if he’s above it but can’t. It is, in my opinion, the funniest scene in the whole series. When asked about what sociological themes he wanted people to take away from Peep Show, writer Sam Bain replied: “the stubborn persistence of human suffering”. He is right, and the result is uncomfortably brilliant. To this end, Peep Show is a satire of its genre. It replaces the saccharine and unrealistic ‘permajoy’ of its counterparts with a dark sense of failure.
Peep Show was also trailblazing in its use of point-of-view camera angles and internal monologue. The two combined are amazingly effective tools in its post-modern meta perspective that allows us to be front row to Mark and Jez’s total self-absorption and cognitive dissonance. We feel voyeuristic and intrusive; almost guilty for the epistemic privilege that we have from being party to their thoughts. This is especially painful in the interactions between Mark and Sophie in the run up to their wedding; we hear Mark’s doubts and watch Sophie’s somewhat blissful ignorance. It’s excruciating.
Above all else however, Peep Show is funny because of its refusal to order its characters into a moral hierarchy. This is the key way that it makes us feel awkward. Every character has major flaws that makes no one truly likeable. We can’t take comfort in the moral authority of anyone. This is what sets it apart. Other shows of its ilk broadly fit the same pattern of an affable and friendly fool and a clever but conceited egotist. Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, The IT Crowd, The Inbetweeners; the pattern follows through. Superficially Mark and Jez fit the pattern, but their dynamic is far more complex. Jez is not simply a fool, and Mark is not simply an egotist. They are both fools and both egotists. They are both terrible and deluded in their own right. This is a reflection of real life. We are all a bit bad and bit good.
If you haven’t already, watch it.