“Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality”: the Absurd within Peep Show
In the future, when historians inevitably take to memes to uncover the nuanced cultural histories behind seismic events that peppered the early twenty-first century, what they will happen upon are an excessive number of no-context Peep Show quotes.
All hastily made by people with a less than rudimentary understanding of the Adobe creative suite, undoubtedly. The classic “Hitler promised not to invade Czechoslovakia Jeremy, welcome to the real world” will be this millennia’s Rosetta stone; “Oh my god, this has got to be a dream, nothing this bad could ever happen in reality”, this generations’ answer to Nietzschean questions of moral relativism.
Okay, maybe I’m overstating things slightly. After all, Peep Show is just a TV show. I know that. Really, I do. I generally agree with the sentiment that to explain a joke is to kill it. Just because everything can be analysed doesn’t mean everything should be analysed. To do so would entail an attention to detail bordering on the insane. It would make it impossible to enjoy any form of entertainment at face value again.
This is a nightmare that often plagues students of the humanities. It is one that literature, history, and philosophy students all desperately need to untangle themselves from pronto, for fear of us all being branded an irreparable dullard by those who studied STEM. i.e. those with a more stable sense of self.
However, in the case of Peep Show, the rules seem different. Somehow, the superbly written and deftly acted sitcom that ended six years ago, has taken on a life of its own. One outside the realm of late-night Channel 4 viewing that other situation comedies such Garth Morenghi’s Darkplace and Spaced, never managed to re-emerge from. The truth is, Peep Show has become more than a TV show. It has become shorthand for those who smoked too much weed and had too much time on their hands at university.
I will never forget the day that, sitting in the beer garden at the (happily underpriced considering the locale) Lord Nelson in Southwark, I began to quote “You get a van Jez…”, only for my proverbial mating call to be answered with the immortal “we could be men with ven” by the person sitting opposite me. Needless to say, this began a friendship group that has lasted ever since.
We have the internet to thank for that. Although the show won numerous awards during its twelve-year tenure, it is not the number of BAFTAs that decide the longevity of a sitcom. No, it is the people that get to decide that. Gen-Z has spoken, albeit through the medium of memes. We have collectively decided that Peep Show is to become the defining icon of British dark comedy in the early twenty-first century.
It truly is the Fawlty Towers of the mid-noughties. You might be thinking to yourself at this point, why Gen Z; surely the show’s timeline would indicate a more millennial following? It is true that the show is massively popular amongst millennials. However, the focus of my energies in this article is not on the show per se, but rather what the ‘memeing’ generation has done to the show.
There is a tendency amongst a certain type of young person today to quote the show with almost unnerving accuracy and to recapitulate the show on seemingly every social platform. This is almost exclusively a Gen Z phenomenon. Peep Show ended in 2015. Since then, it has only become arguably more popular. It has become a part of our vernacular. The quotes, the characters, the dingy flat in Croydon, have only become more familiar to us as viewers and, importantly, as users of social media.
Since Peep Show’s conclusion, it is the discourse surrounding Peep Show that has dominated Reddit, rather than Peep Show itself. Online, there is always a fastigium of excitement whenever the annual April Fools’ “Peep Show reunion special” hoax rears its weary head. However, it’s fair to say that what people are most excited about is the memeing potential for a reboot, rather than the prospect of a reboot itself.
Peep Show has piqued the imagination of a certain kind of person within a certain kind of generation, that’s for sure. Other sitcoms are hugely popular but Peep Show has surpassed them all in terms of sheer quotability. Peep Show is the Oscar Wilde of the televisual age.
Where Black Books and The IT Crowd can be compared to the likes of Walter Pater and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Peep Show has a durability that can only really be likened to the delights of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Perhaps one day Stephen Fry will appear on The Graham Norton Show, casually remarking upon the likelihood of anyone ever having “been this unhappy while drinking champagne”.
Perhaps one day we’ll be commissioning documentaries about the making of ‘Seasonal Beatings’. Perhaps one day both Robert Webb and David Mitchell will be able to live off the proceeds of the three-hour-long-without-an-interval West End production of ‘Quantocking II’.
I am keen to get to the crux of this fascination. After all, it has been a part of my life since I was a young teenager. I used to watch Peep Show on Youtube – back in the day when you could find the full episodes on Youtube – whilst dressing for school. It was one of the first British sitcoms I was really obsessed with, and I would say that the show has affected my perspective and speech patterns, perhaps to an unhealthy extent. I know I’m not alone – even if my obsession is, I’ll admit, more niche than I’m willing to admit.
I want to cast some light upon our collective preoccupation with a show that the Channel 4 execs never expected to get beyond the usual two series stopgap.
In my research for writing this article, I found plenty of critics waxing lyrical as to the genius of the show’s first-person perspective. They argue that it is that and that alone that secures its place as one of the defining sitcoms of the noughties. This may be true, but I still don’t think there has been enough acknowledgement of the sheer mundanity of Peep Show.
If it is the sitcom’s first-person perspective that captures the viewers’ attention, allowing them a glimpse into the characters’ inner turmoil, it is the quotidian nature of that turmoil that keeps viewers’ attention. Bain and Armstrong manage to keep us just invested enough, even through Mark’s marriage, his inevitable divorce, and even into Jeremy’s “gay phase”.
Peep Show taps into a sense of the conventional and the unremarkable that marks all of our lives. It doesn’t matter what Mark and Jeremy do – the lengths they go to break out of the boredom that typifies their existence – they cannot escape their own dingy flat in Croydon. (and anyone who knows Croydon will know that this is why they chose to set it there).
The thing is Mark and Jeremy’s existence taps into something that we all feel, no matter how varied and dynamic we want our lives to appear on social media; that our lives are essentially cyclical, and sometimes, no matter what we do to distract ourselves, they feel that way too. To quote Mark, “I guess the only good thing is that my life is so boring it feels like it might go on forever”.
I realise that not everybody is as obsessed with Peep Show as me. I realise that Peep Show isn’t necessarily indicative of the majority of us.
Except, I think perhaps it is. It’s just that most people don’t realise it yet. And it’s here that I officially disappear up my own backside. If you’d rather not hear me disappear up my own backside, I implore you to stop now. Equally, I feel it needs saying because it is the reason we keep finding comfort in Peep Show, and the reason why we still watch it and laugh at it and make memes about it when we’re too hungover to do anything else.
Peep Show epitomizes the heights of the Absurd, as Albert Camus understood it. Just as Sisyphus unremittingly hauls the stone up the hill in the Underworld, Mark and Jeremy exhibit the same attitudes and behaviour time and time again.
In Peep Show, Mark and Jeremy’s actions are shown to be irrational. They get into the same awful relationships, the same awkward social situations, and commit the same errors, unendingly. Camus says that “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”
For me, this quotation conjures the image of Mark walking back to the flat after work only to find Jeremy setting fire to the postbox solely to stop Big Suze from reading the letters he wrote to her in the immediate aftermath of their break-up. The absurdity of that moment, the disconnect between Jeremy’s perceived life (which we as viewers are privy to due to the enforced first-person perspective) and the life he is actually leading, is so strongly reminiscent of Albert Camus’s theory of the Absurd.
Camus says that “the absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation”. What I think Camus means by this is that the absurd is often borne out of the disunity between one’s actions and the (lack of) consequences for them. This is only reinforced by the individuals’ perspective of what they are doing and what they hope to achieve by what they are doing.
Jeremy setting fire to the postbox is the perfect example of this; there is a massive disconnect between what he thinks he’s doing, and what he will actually achieve by doing it. In Jeremy’s head, he is a casanova, who has unleashed a cunning plan upon the postboxes of Croydon. From an outsiders’ perspective, he is a possibly criminally insane man setting fire to a postbox.
Mark’s entire perception of himself is also absurd. He is constantly saying and doing things that he thinks will preserve his image and make life easier. However, through the enforced first-person perspective that Peep Show utilises, we are shown that the remarks he makes and acts he commits actually alienate him from others.
They are, in fact, the major driving force behind his misery. The perfect example of this is ‘Seasonal Beatings’. In this episode, Mark is completely committed to not telling his family that he and Dobby are an item.
This is because he is essentially embarrassed by her. However, from the viewers’ perspective, it is obvious that everything Mark says and does in an attempt to cover up his new relationship (with this really quite lovely, normal woman) is actually what makes him so weird. It is, in fact, more embarrassing than anything Dobby ever said or did throughout the course of their relationship. He comes to his senses, of course; but by then, it’s too late.
Hence, the absurd. This disconnect between the characters’ own perception of themselves and the consequences that result from them, reinforced by the unique style of narration in Peep Show, show that both Mark and Jeremy are trapped in an unending loop of their own skewed perspective.
It is this skewed perspective that we can all relate to, without us even necessarily knowing about it. In this way, we can all relate to Peep Show. At any moment the absurdity of our lives when viewed in context with the futility of the wider universe, could come into focus.
Peep Show is a show about two useless thirty-something men who believe that their words and actions actually have a bearing on the direction their life takes. In reality, their words and actions are pointless, as are their conceptions of themselves as humans. We, the viewers, know this and that is why we laugh. Mark and Jeremy are doomed never to know this, and that is why we laugh.
It is for this reason that we all console ourselves with Peep Show memes. And by all of us, of course, I mean 18-25-year-olds with a Reddit account and an unhealthy weed habit. Camus said that “everyone lives as if no one knew”.
This is very true. In the future, when historians pick apart the intricacies of the “secret ingredient is crime” meme as they debate the nuances of the BLM movement, they will be asking themselves, “why did none of us know?”.
Why did none of us know that our obsession with Peep Show memes was essentially an echo chamber of existential angst. Why did none of us know that we were all staring into the vortex of the absurd and that the vortex was filled with ashtrays, hotboxing, and dry-cleaning rental snakes. Why am I still writing this.