Comedy has come a long way from farting in someone’s general direction. Sure, it dabbled in things risqué and ribald on occasion – Carry On bravely, well, carried on across 31 movies, and Mr. Humphries’ ebullient freedom in Are You Being Served? is a thing of caricatured beauty. But for many years British comedy was content to raise a knowing eyebrow and waggle its naughty bits (thank you, The Full Monty) without ever crossing the line between suggestion and outright, in-your-face crudity. There has been nothing that caters to a British generation exposed to the savoury delights of American Pie, or even a Superbad for that matter. That was, of course, before The Inbetweeners.
We meet in Bondi before a large picture window, where The Inbetweeners themselves – Will (Simon Bird), Jay (James Buckley), Simon (Joe Thomas) and Neil (Blake Harrison) – have an inspiring view of sand, surf, and countless shrivelled old men jangling past in fluorescent Speedos. It’s a handy metaphor for the evolution of comedy, and the question of whether the group sees themselves as part of a noble tradition or instead as a product of their times is something they have all given thought to.
“It’s probably both, is the real answer,” says Thomas, certainly the most vocal of the four. It is at first disarming to chat with people who have seemingly attained whole new personalities from the fictional characters I am familiar with. Of them all, however, Thomas is certainly the one most similar to his onscreen counterpart; that is, relatively normal. “Sometimes you’ll get a comedy which sort of changes everything, like The Office, which was hugely imitated after it came out. But even then, that’s a lot like Alan Partridge.”
“And even that is influenced by John Cleese in Fawlty Towers,” Bird says. “I think there’s definitely a through-line, but I’m not exactly sure where we stand in it all.”
“I’m not sure if we’re a part of that evolution,” Buckley suggests, who, although arguably the most thoughtful of the group, is also the one most likely to be talked over.
“Devolution?” Bird suggests.
“What’s great about comedy,” Buckley continues, “is that there are people like us who are trying to break the mould. Try and get as much poo on film as possible.”
He’s not kidding, either. The fecal content of The Inbetweeners 2, their second feature film, is only eclipsed by a spate of projectile vomiting that would make F.W. Darlington proud. Part of the movie’s appeal – beyond the genuinely committed performances from the cast – is the quick realisation that this story has the potential to go absolutely anywhere. The sky (or sewer) is the limit.
“I mean, there’s only one rule in comedy,” Thomas suggests. “Is it going to be funny? That’s why it’s unpredictable. You don’t know where it’s going to go.”
“I think The Inbetweeners is more influenced by American comedy,” Bird says. “The Judd Apatow stuff, Superbad, Meet The Parents. That’s the stuff our directors, Iain [Morris] and Damon [Beesley], talked about a lot. I think that’s the reason it’s been so successful in Britain. It’s the first British version of those sorts of films. Weirdly, there really hasn’t been a British sitcom about teenagers before.”
“I think despite the grosser elements in our film – which are really quite high – there is another important element, which is to do with inadequacy in young men.” As Thomas says this, the other three all nod in unison. “Teenagers and students. When you’re just not up to the task of fitting in, when everyone else around you seems cooler somehow. Feeling that you’re not quite there, that you’re a little bit behind where you should be in life. That is as important to the show as the poo.”
It is a strange time to be talking about comedy, with news of the passing of Robin Williams less than a week old. Since then, the media has been preoccupied with what is now rather tastelessly being referred to as ‘grief porn’, and the notion that most comedians are funny in an attempt to hide their suffering. Bird shakes his head.
“I don’t buy into that, really,” he says. “To take an example of one of the writers, Damon – I was going to say Iain, but then I thought, well, Iain actually is a bit of a tragic writer, isn’t he? – but Damon is quite an uncomplicated guy. He’s just a nice, happy, funny man. I think there are just some sad people who are funny. I certainly don’t think being depressed makes you funny, just as I don’t think being funny makes you depressed.”
“I find it a bit of a shame that it’s thought of as some dark secret that he had depression,” Thomas agrees. “It actually made me a bit sad to see some of the coverage, with all this, ‘[Williams’] demons have tormented him all his life!’ I don’t know about that. I don’t know why we can’t just mourn someone’s death. But that being said, there often is darkness to good comedy. That’s one of the reasons why comedy exists – it’s a way of finding a laugh in a sad situation. But you don’t need the darkness is order to be funny. One of the roles it can play is that it lightens you after seeing something sad, but it can also just be playful and silly and surreal. There’s often a bit of a game to comedy, with banter that you’re trying to use as a way to kind of beat the other person.”
“I think it’s just a coincidence,” Buckley says. “This myth that [comedians] use up all their funny, all their joy while they’re working, and when they get home again all they have is the sad. If you have depression, you have depression. It happens to people from all walks of life. If you suffer from a mental illness, it doesn’t matter if you’re famous or a comedian, it should be treated the same.”
Once a certain level of familiarity (or notoriety) is reached, the pressure to always be ‘on’ must become a rather constant, unwelcome companion to a comedian. One of the hallmarks of Williams’ career, of course, was the exuberance of his improvisational skills, and in a rapid-paced film like The Inbetweeners II it is amusing to imagine the hijinks and gaffs that never made it into the final cut. This, however, is not entirely the case.
“There’s definitely more improv in this film than there has been in our previous outings.” It’s the first time I’ve heard Harrison talk, and I still haven’t quite shaken the affable ditzyness of his irritable-bowel-suffering character Neil. “But ultimately, it’s written by Iain and Damon, who are just great comedic writers and who go through so many drafts making sure that every joke lands and that they’re perfect for us. There’s very little need for improvisation, because it’s all there on the page. I think it would almost be quite rude if we thought we could come up with something on the spur of the moment that is better than something they’ve been working on for over a year.”
“Whenever people meet us they’re kind of disappointed that we don’t have any jokes,” Thomas laughs. “Iain and Damon write these great jokes for us. We don’t have these one-liners to constantly drop when we’re on our own. I mean, our characters are not impressive, so trying to live up to them is probably not that hard. They’re not heroic, they’re just kind of standard people.”
“Though we can pull off being awkward,” Bird is quick to assure. “Oh, we’re quite good at that.”
The Inbetweeners 2 (dir. Iain Morris and Damon Beesley) is in cinemas Thursday August 21.