I have always loved Peep Show – the story of two lovable uber-losers Mark and Jeremy (Jezz) living in a flatshare in Croydon, struggling to make their way in the world today. The humor is almost entirely built on their pathetic, small-minded pettiness, often combined with their very English sense of embarrassment. It’s done knowingly, of course. I always wanted to cheer these affable sadsacks, even as you wince along with them.
For example, Mark accidentally kills a person’s dog – but can’t ppossibly admit to that. He tries to dispose of the body by burning it, but fails. He tries to dispose of the burnt remnants in a paper bag, then gets dragged onto the owner of the dog’s barge where he is ‘forced’ to lie that in the bag there is a BBQ. He must then eat the dog and pretend it’s delicious. The owners eat the dog. It’s hilarious, how far these two will go to keep up a charade.
But also pretty horrible?
Another example that had me laughing uproariously was Mark’s wedding to Sophie, when he hides out in the church upper pews in a half-hearted but desperate bid to not get married, without having to face everyone and admit he doesn’t want to get married. It’s utterly cowardly, but exquisite when Jeremy has to pee in his pants because they’ve been hiding so long. Then he stands up, announces that the whole thing was a big jape, and proceeds to get married. Sophie is crying as they say their vows. So is he. The absolute cowardice of them all is so funny…
Mark and Jeremy, clueless as ever. Image: Channel 4
I never watched Peep Show with anyone else. I never really talked to anyone about it. When it was on TV, I was watching from Japan. I certainly never watched with a lady, until Su came along. I tried once or twice to get her into it, but she always resisted – turned off by what losers these two were.
“That’s the point,” I tried to explain. “That’s why it’s funny.”
She was having none of it.
Roll forward to a few days ago, and we started afresh on season 1. The first few episodes, almost immediately, Su started to laugh. I couldn’t believe it! Somehow, maybe after 4 years of living in the uk, being exposed to this Little Britain kind of social cowardice as a point of humor for us Brits, she got it?
Well, the laugh train continued as the boys had misadventures and tried their best to score points off each other, as Mark got called ‘Clean Shirt’ by the bully kids, as Mark tried and failed to get a date with Sophie, and told her “I can’t talk now, I’m in the cupboard,” while standing in the cupboard, and so on.
Then, things took a little bit of a nasty turn. Sophie got given a promotion above Mark, and he started showing a different side of himself. He called Sophie a ‘Bitch’, a word I really hate, several times. Yes, he said it to himself, but he said it with feeling. He assumed he should get the job over her, and said as much to her directly. They then played badminton together, and he kept smashing the birdie into her face. Hmm. Then he finally went mad and pissed in the desk drawer of his female boss, because she didn’t give him the job. Last of all, when Sophie tells him their ‘relationship’ is over after he messed things up with Jeremy on a weekend away, he immediately threw a cup on the floor and smashed it.
Now – I know I found all this stuff funny once. I suppose it’s funny because Mark is so pathetic and weak that these acts of violence come across only as laughable, with no real threat there. But any violence is violence. Sophie is depicted as not too bothered by his behaviour, but does that make it OK?
Well, obviously not. When we laugh at these ‘antics’ by Mark, we’re just saying they’re funny. No one is saying they’re OK. It’s just more pathetic behaviour. But pathetic violence lies on a spectrum with real violence. Keep going a few steps further, and Mark might be punching Sophie. The violence gets ‘real’, no longer restricted to the ‘microagressions’ of earlier.
So what to make of this. I asked a few female coworkers. As I listed the above microaggressions, they laughed at each one. Shuttlecock. Pissing. Broken mug. Clearly, these actions are funny. Everyone knows Mark is pathetic. He’s like a toddler acting out, and Sophie is in loco parentis, giving him a stern look. She’s never actually afraid of him.
So, what? Hmm. We laugh because he’s like a baby. It’s a comedy show. When Mark stalks and prank phone calls Sophie, trying to bring her down a peg or two, it’s funny because she is not afraid. Rather she strides out with an air gun and shoots him in the head. So is all this funny just because it’s so ineffectual? His male rage is toxic, but only ever redounds badly on him.
In that sense, is this a parable against male rage?
It’s true, Mark ends up suspended and going to counselling after his desk-pissing incident. When he pinches Sophie’s bum, she tells him clearly that that is not OK. His stalking is rewarded with an air pellet in the forehead. At the end of series 1 he is utterly dejected, broken, and feeble. A shadow of the shadow of a man he was before.
So? I’m really not sure. Maybe it’s fine? Maybe it’s actually doing good feminist work, depicting Mark as a loser in this way, only able to express his inner rage in the most basic, childlike ways, who ultimately gets punished?
What do you think?