This is a review of Back Story, the new memoir by the neurotic British actor, comedian, Twitter personality, and Observer columnist David Mitchell. But first, let me tell you about myself.
I was an especially unpopular child who, for reasons I still haven’t deciphered, had the entirety of my fourth grade class in attendance for a Halloween party ostensibly hosted by myself and chaperoned by my parents.
This was the first in a series of annual Halloween parties that would end after sixth grade, and all of them were, for me, awful.
I attempted to shuttle the attendees, who didn’t like me, from room to room for one activity or another.
“We’re playing Chubby Bunny now!” “Let’s go, let’s go! Everyone line up for the costume contest!” “I’m going to turn on the movie whether you guys are in here or not!” The last directive was both a request and a lie.
Upon reflection, I’m not surprised these kids didn’t want anything to do with me, or that they came only because my parents were but two people and couldn’t keep an eye on, say, Martin and Holly, who kissed in the doghouse, or on whoever it was who pushed Eric into the pool.
In the sixth grade I watched Predator with two of my classmates while everyone else did whatever they wanted.
But that first year I watched, I think with my mother there to console me, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This film, my father assured me, would be a hit with the kids. It wasn’t. And I was the only one in the following weeks endlessly repeating “Ni! Ni!” and “Bring out your dead.”
In this way David Mitchell and I are alike.
We both begin a work of writing with an unnecessarily long trek through our childhoods, and we both still have a massive appreciation for Monty Python. Additionally, like him, I think dream catchers and spirit animals and astrology are as idiotic as fretting for seven years about a smashed mirror. Mitchell writes, “That’s my problem with new-age stuff. In common with many irrational views it harks back to a sense of something ancient while rejecting anything provably historical. It’s like the miserable concept of Original Sin. There seems to be an obsession with the idea that there were ancient humans, uncorrupted by their capricious intellects, who lived in the ‘right way.’”
And, like Mitchell, I like to shift tangentially and unapologetically without segue.
Britain has its share of comedians, and this is the order in which I rank them, from funniest to least funniest (whatever that could mean): Chris Morris, Sean Lock, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci (and by extension Peter Capaldi), Julia Davis, Frankie Boyle, Billy Connolly, Rob Brydon, Peter Serafinowicz, Ricky Gervais, Dawn French, Johnny Vegas… and Eddie Izzard. That feels pretty complete. Plus, I’ve got a bog of a soft spot for Outnumbered so either Andy Hamilton or Ramona Marquez could get added. Or both could.
Bill Bailey’s a fun uncle, I suppose. Stephen Fry would be high up on that list, but he isn’t actively funny anymore. He’s an Einstein, a headmaster, a trailblazer, and he’s great, and I think I love him, but I don’t think I can fairly term him a current comedian. He’s like John Cleese but younger. Actually, to me, John Cleese is more actively a comedian than Stephen Fry.
We’re not discussing Russell Brand. Rowan Atkinson, despite his time with Black Adder, Not the Nine O’Clock News, etc., is no longer Rowan Atkinson and is genetically Mr. Bean. Apologies Rowan. That must be strange. I’d like to hang out with Angus Deayton. I would do drugs I’ve never been willing to do before with Angus Deayton, just to be able to hang out with Angus Deayton.
And then there’s David Mitchell who refers to comedians—as well as characters, scenes, and small instances in his career, from Peep Show to That Mitchell & Webb Look to Would I Lie To You?—much the way I just did: as though you’re intimately familiar. When discussing his meeting future Peep Show co-star, Olivia Colman, he writes, “On Peep Show, I married her. I think I made a good choice. Shame we got divorced.” I’ve seen Peep Show, I know the actor he’s referring to, I know what he means when he says they got divorced. But anyone who hasn’t seen the show, or that episode, will be set adrift in the sea of a conversation Mitchell’s having with himself. Though, this begs the question: Why would anyone who wasn’t familiar with Mitchell and his work read Back Story?
But, as I said, I am familiar with his work. Even Mitchell’s mostly vapid panel show Would I Lie To You? is really fun, if only to hear his logic-based rants, which are always met with both laughter and applause. As they should be. They’re funny. He’s funny. Here’s a great specimen. The premise of Would I Lie to You? is that one team, led by Mitchell, is set against another, led by Lee Mack, another English comedian. The goal is to correctly guess whether someone on the opposing team is lying. In one episode, Jimmy Carr (also an English comedian) and Lee Mack rib Mitchell for his alleged “poshness” wherein Carr mentions something about pheasants and Mitchell begins yelling and gesticulating fiercely. “What are you talking about!? Pheasants!? Dogs!? Fox[es]!? What sort of menagerie do you imagine I would be imagining!? I’m in my castle with ten different sorts of vaguely posh animals all fighting each other then I kill a servant and have sex with a wall!”
Maybe the only time I’ve seen Mitchell be anything less than engaging or hilarious was in Magicians, a flick that co-stars his longtime collaborator Robert Webb. Two best friends and illusionists encounter some personal struggles and end up competing in a magic competition and by the film’s end everyone and everything’s fine and I didn’t chuckle once.
But let me abruptly shift, much like Mitchell does, to something completely different.
My interest with English culture likely began with watching and re-watching John Goodman’s 1991 vehicle, King Ralph. The spotted dick bit, the morbid electrocution event, the unlikeliest of fellows becoming King of England. While not a “good” movie, it was informative for a ten-year-old who’d been hearing all these things about some island far, far away that, in ways, created the version of the country I was born and lived in.
Mitchell’s conceit in Back Story is to tell you his life story while the two of you take a walk around his neighborhood. This, of course, isn’t the case. But I get it. I write when walking. I write notes and paragraphs, bits and things.
One of my favorite things about Mitchell is his insistence on logic and accuracy. In an examination of innuendo in his “David Mitchell’s Soapbox” rant series appropriately titled “Innuendo,” Mitchell offers this thought:
Now that we live in a world where there’[re]… reality TV shows in which people copulate on air, what is the earthly use of innuendo? Conversely, imagine how difficult innuendo must have been in the Victorian era when any reference to sexual matters was unthinkable. I’m told there’s a pub in London which used to be a brothel in the 1890s and you can tell this because behind the bar are discreet but explicit carvings of Victorian gentlemen having sex with ladies. This, presumably, being what the management had to resort to in order to convey to potential clients the nature of the services being offered. It was no good just saying, “This establishment sir, it’s a place where you can meet a lady, sir.” “Well, so is every place, except my club and any work place. But that still leaves lots of places.” “Yes sir, but when I say meet a lady I mean you can make to love to her.” “Ah, well, I’m afraid my days of quoting poetry and uttering sweet blandishments are rather behind me.” “No sir, I mean you can go to bed with her.” “But I’m not in the least tired, and I have an excellent bed of my own.” “Sir, if you give me money you can put your penis in a lady’s vagina.” “Oh, right, well, no thank you. For you see, I am a screaming bender.”
So during much of Back Story Mitchell lengthily explains those things he didn’t have or hasn’t done. That he didn’t engage in romance until later than he would’ve liked, that he’s never tried cocaine, that no one’s ever offered him cocaine. But why does he dwell on what he hasn’t done? Can he sense that his life isn’t worth discussing?
No, he does not sense that his life is not worth discussing. Because in addition to chapters on what didn’t happen, Mitchell serves up chapter after chapter (there are thirty-five) on what did happen. And what did happen were mostly dull things. His love of a particular kind of ice cream, meeting Michael Palin, that he sits on a yoga ball instead of a chair (due to a chronic back problem) but isn’t opposed to sitting on a chair at a party or in a restaurant. One of the shticks he pushes on his panel shows and in his “Soapbox” rants is that he’s a normal enough guy (or bloke or chap) who leads a safe, uneventful life. Unfortunately, this is all too true.
Here’s one of Mitchell’s segues: “Speaking of gangbangs, or gangs at the very least, I didn’t join the Cub Scouts.” Sure, there’s a joke in there. And it’s not awful. It’s more vaguely funny than anything. So if I’m not here for jokes I’m here for great stories. So where are the great stories? Well, if I’m not here for laughs or anecdotes I must be here for some deeper existential contemplation or societal considerations. And there are a few. Jingoism, patriotism, religion, mortality. But still I found myself wondering: Why am I reading this book?
As one who despises those Facebook and Instagram posts wherein a photograph is portrayed with the description of either “Just sayin’” or the intensely inadequate “Love this” below a picture of a puppy or a favorite taqueria, I feel a kinship with Mitchell in his frustration with those who, instead of saying, “I appreciate this or that,” instead say, “I’m loving this or that.” “Mistakes” made by a lazy and impetuous internet culture can seem like small things. To me, abbreviations and rote idiomatic inside jokes damage our ability as a culture to effectively critique itself. Or maybe they’re the natural progression of language. But OMG, can’t we do better than “totes” and “bestie”?
I, like Mitchell, find these linguistic detachments borderline offensive. But offensive to whom? As Mitchell often points out, his is a privileged, hierarchical position to complain from. And maybe all this is trivial. But the fight against the idea that the “trivial” is unimportant is Mitchell’s whole deal. He fights for general politeness and some semblance of cultural order by way of humor located in the unremarkable. But, really, for Mitchell—and for myself—we don’t intend to fight. Only to comment, and at least on his part, amuse.
He comes off as generally kind, polite, and honest. But kind, polite, and honest people aren’t funny. Of course there are exceptions, and Mitchell, in his book, is funny at times, but mostly he’s sincere. And I’ll say it: Sincerity is boring.
This year I’ll try and revive those infamous Halloween parties, and I promise, if you attend, I won’t order you to first eat the candy corn, then the peanut M&Ms, then the leftover Peeps. You can eat what you want when you want and if you’d like to come to read, you can read whatever you’d like.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.