Intelligence’s David Schwimmer and Nick Mohammed interview: Race, sexuality, 9/11 – make fun of anything just make it funny

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David Schwimmer is back in his first sitcom since that mildly successful Friends closed its doors on Central Perk 15 years ago, starring in Sky One’s Intelligence. And if you’re among those who find Ross Geller problematic in 2020, wait until you meet Jerry Bernstein.

The six-part series follows Jerry, a pretty abysmal, brash, alpha American spy who comes over form the US to take charge of Cheltenham’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). There he teams up with dopey and lovable computer analyst Joseph Harries (Nick Mohammed) – the antithesis of Jerry – to conquer cyber terrorism. At its heart, Intelligence is a workplace comedy – think The Office meets Homeland, if you can.

Jerry’s racist, sexist, homophobic and an unbearable narcissist – accusations which have recently thrown at the paleontologist which made him a household name. Similarly, Jerry’s point of view is the butt of the joke, just with the volume turned up to Donald Trump levels of horror.

But that’s what sets the two apart. As millennials have called out Friends, among many sitcoms of its generation, for its ‘toxicity’, it’s been a common row from comics that Snowflakes and PC culture are ruining comedy.

Written by Nick Mohammed, who also stars as Joseph– Jerry’s biggest fan – Intelligence proves comedy can still dare go to everywhere it’s ever been before – even 9/11 isn’t off the table. PC culture isn’t killing comedy, bad comics are killing comedy.

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‘If it’s a good joke and there’s a justification for it and the context is right you can make fun of anything,’ Nick stressed to ‘Humour is used in so many ways to deal and in Intelligence, we deal with some pretty heavy subject matter and we do go there but we go there because it’s true.

Intelligence proves nothing is off the table in comedy (Picture: Sky)

‘GCHQ do deal with this stuff – that might be someone watching something horrifying going on in the world on the next desk it might be Elaine’s birthday drinks and they’re planning a party. Those human things still exist and it’s a shame in the world we live in you have to deal with this stuff.

‘In terms of the writing though and walking that fine line I think it’s right that if the joke is good and it’s not gratuitously offensive; a lot of the slightly edgier stuff, the dark stuff came from character as well. We were really careful, we really interrogated those lines and even shot alternatives so we could make that decision in the edit, but there was a lot of discussion in production.’

‘I think we’re both very sensitive to various forms of discrimination and it’s really a matter of taste,’ agreed David. ‘We do want to present a character who is misogynist, sexist, racist, homophobic, narcissistic, power-hungry, insensitive – we want to portray this guy but always do it in a way that is really, first of all always funny but the reason it’s funny is because we never worry about the person who is the butt of the joke – the laugh is always on me.

David stars as racist narcissist Jerry Bernstein (Picture: Sky)

‘You’re never concerned about the injured party, they’re never injured. If he’s making a racist joke you’re never worried about that person you’re more laughing at that guy for being so ignorant, so out of touch.

‘The fact is we’re more interested in life and life right now it’s messy and complicated to avoid those more topical things as a society, whether it’s gender-based in terms of race or sexuality or any of those things, we want to tackle those things on this show to have that edge.’

On paper, Jerry is irredeemable – as racist homophobes generally are. He’s absurdly offensive towards his team, his lack of social awareness and wildly offensive political stance are pretty unforgivable.

But according to David, there’s a bigger picture.

With Jerry, nothing is off the table (Picture: Sky)

‘For me, it’s really important to find the emotional truth inside him and learning what the emotional truth of what’s going on inside him and always looking for what the journey is and what the overall story is. I’m also a firm believer the greatest comedy and comedy character are coming from a place of pain.

‘I think we can tell for both of these men they’re both deeply wounded even if mine is more raw and coming to the surface than Nick’s, but his character is too coming from a place when we meet more of his family and learn more about him he’s got this wonderful youthful joy about him, but underneath him there’s something going on.’

David’s been famously cautious in selecting roles since Friends. After starring as one sixth of the most powerful ensemble there’s been in television, arguably he can afford to be, sure. But with Intelligence, it’s clear his patience for a part like Jerry to land on his lap – or his email inbox (literally) paid off.

It’s brave, it’s smart and unapologetically funny because, even with 9/11 jokes, there’s no need to apologise.

Intelligence airs tonight at 9pm on Sky One and is available to stream on NOW TV.

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