Back Story by David Mitchell
(Harper Collins, 2012, 336 pages)
I’m a huge fan of the English comedy Peep Show, a sitcom where David Mitchell plays the uptight and hilariously self-conscious loan manager Mark Corrigan. Mitchell is also the co-star of a very funny sketch comedy series with his partner Robert Webb. These shows, along with his frequent quiz show appearances and his series of short internet monologues entitled David Mitchell’s Soapbox, have made Mitchell a popular TV personality. In this memoir, he talks about navigating the unglamorous realities of fame – like being recognized while trying to buy underwear.
In the introduction, Mitchell explains that a few years previous he had begun taking daily walks around London to help his bad back. The route of these walks structures the book as Mitchell points out the architectural, commercial, and residential oddities of the city. As he comments on his surroundings, they prompt reflections on his life, including his days as an TV-loving child terrified of being “weird,” his time at Cambridge reading history and serving as the president of the Footlights comedy troop, his years of struggling to breakthrough in TV, and his success as a comedy writer and actor.
I really enjoyed this book, particularly Mitchell’s description of his Cambridge experience. He explains that he largely ignored his studies in order to perform with and eventually lead the legendary Footlights troop. The fact that Mitchell was able to spend three years training for a career in comedy under the auspices of one of the most prestigious universities in the world shows how the English university system affords its students the kind of flexibility that only the best Division I athletes enjoy in the U.S. Mitchell’s reflections on his career are as smart and funny as his performances themselves. In addition to plenty of entertaining rants and one-liners, he also crafts some excellent prose. As an example, after describing the Footlights’ highly structured and sometimes tedious writing process, he reflects, “Brilliance will strike you, if it ever does, as a complete surprise sailing out of the clear blue sky of competence” (181).