Robert Webb established himself among the edgiest of cutting-edge British comedy luminaries in the 2000s as the star of the envelope-pushing sitcom "Peep Show" (Channel 4, 2003- ) and one-half of the comedy team of Mitchell and Webb. Webb established creative partnership with David Mitchell at Cambridge University and cut his teeth in television as a writer and performer on a succession of Brit sketch shows in the early 2000s. Their tandem act helped sell dual starring roles in "Peep Show," a wickedly mean sitcom about irredeemably hapless roommates modeled after the stars' real-life personas by creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. It led to a raft of nominations and awards and a sequence of projects under their Mitchell and Webb imprint, including their razor-sharp sketchcom show "That Mitchell and Webb Look" (BBC, 2006-2010) and the feature film "Magicians" (2007). As his star rose, Webb garnered some non-tandem-based leads, notably in the West End production of Neil LaBute's play "Fat Pig" and the loopy BBC Dickens homage "The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff" (BBC2, 2011-12). He reteamed with Armstrong and Bain on their new series "Fresh Meat" (Channel 4, 2011- ). With a deft talent for comically skewering social conventions and gleefully stabbing a conservative status quo, Webb made himself a bold new force of ribald iconoclasm in British comedy.
He was born Robert Patrick Webb on Sept. 29, 1972, in Boston, Lincolnshire, U.K., and raised by his mother in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, after his parents divorced when he was five. He developed an irreverent streak as a young fan of edgy, absurdist '80s comedy such as Ben Elton's various "Blackadder" series and "The Young Ones" (BBC, 1982-84). Rob attended Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Horncastle, where he began penning his own works. After his mother died of breast cancer, he wrapped his secondary school days living with his father. He was accepted to study at Cambridge University, where he majored in English and joined up with the university's storied satirical performance troupe, Footlights. He began collaborating on sketches and plays with fellow troupe member David Mitchell and, after graduation, put up a succession of original works at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
They landed work as a writing duo and on-air talent on a succession of TV projects, notable among them the surrealist sketch show "Big Train," (BBC, 1998-2002); "Bruiser" (BBC, 2000), which saw them in a troupe that included Martin Freeman and Olivia Colman (the latter to be a regular in all their ensuing projects); and the six-episode sketch series "The Mitchell and Webb Situation" (PlayUK, 2001). Though little seen, the latter put their names on the map and led, in 2003, to what would be their breakthrough project, "Peep Show." Mitchell and Webb teamed up with writers Jess Armstrong and Sam Bain to spin a new "Odd Couple" concept with the twist that the narrative would be shot through character POVs and embellished by their snarky internal dialogue. Armstrong, Bain, Mitchell and Webb created the characters as hyperbolic caricatures of Mitchell and Webb themselves. Webb played Jeremy, a mercurial, obliviously narcissistic would-be hipster, to Mitchell's Mark, a grossly insecure frump incapable of emotional honesty, and the creators distinguished the characters' cringe-inducing social foibles by expending little effort to mine redeeming qualities out of them. Bowing on Channel 4 in 2003, the show drew small audiences but universal raves both from critics and Britain's comedy community.
Celebrated as the new vanguard of cutting-edge comedy, the partners during their non-"Peep Show" production schedules returned to sketch work with "That Mitchell and Webb Sound" on BBC Radio 4. In 2006 they adapted that as a concurrent series for BBC TV, "That Mitchell and Webb Look." Between the two series, Mitchell and Webb became constants among nominees for major television comedy awards. "Peep Show" took the British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy in 2006 and 2007 and the BAFTA for Best Sitcom in 2008; "That Mitchell and Webb Look" won the BAFTA for Best Comedy Show in 2007. Mitchell and Webb were jointly nominated for the BCA for Best TV Comedy Actor in 2006, and Mitchell won it the next year and its BAFTA counterpart in 2009. In 2007, the duo also took starring roles in the Bain and Armstrong-penned "Magicians." In a "Peep Show" vein, they played a mismatched, onetime stage-illusionist act clumsily trying to piece together a partnership that ended amid cuckoldry and grizzly death. Mitchell and Webb's cred took a hit in 2007 when they agreed to engender PC and Mac types in the U.K. version of Apple's "Get a Mac" ad campaign. Also that year, Webb married comic actor Abigail Burdess, who had been a regular in "That Mitchell and Webb Look." Mitchell served as his best man.
Webb took some work outside the dyad as well. On the BBC3 series "The Smoking Room" (2004-05), he served as the tentpole of an innovative ensemble project about a cross-section of office drones and their inane interactions as they revolve through their corporate tobacco cloister. He also landed a job working for his early idol, Ben Elton, as a cast regular on the ill-received family sitcom "Blessed" (BBC1, 2005). In 2006, Webb reunited with Freeman and Colman in the mockumentary feature "Confetti," about clueless couples plotting outlandish weddings. In 2008, Webb's star even rose over London's West End as he took the lead role in Neil LaBute's black comedy "Fat Pig." In 2011, he lent some star power to Armstrong and Bain's latest project for Channel 4, the campus comedy "Fresh Meat," albeit in a supporting role as a socially incompetent geology professor. Late that year, he took the lead amongst another estimable cast, including Stephen Fry and Catherine Parkinson, in a loopy miniseries parody of the works of Charles Dickens, "The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff" (BBC2, 2011-2012). A mash-up of Dickensian tropes, the show also featured Mitchell in a supporting role.
By Matthew Grimm