Charlie Brooker: ‘There’s a certain release in laughing into the abyss’ | Television & radio

I have been uncharacteristically optimistic this year,” Charlie Brooker says cheerfully from his west London living room, a prop sign from Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch episode behind him. “Partly because I’ve always been a pessimist and feared the worst. Suddenly, I don’t have to worry about the worst happening, because it’s happening. I think being a neurotic, worrisome person has slightly prepared me for it. After swine flu, I wouldn’t touch a door handle for about a year.”

There are other reasons for his unusual levels of cheer. Considering that a global pandemic has resided for years in Brooker’s buzzing mental database of potential catastrophes, he has not had a bad 2020. In May, he hosted the BBC’s Antiviral Wipe, the first network comedy show to be made about (and under) lockdown. In July, Broke and Bones, the new production company launched by Brooker and his long-time creative partner Annabel Jones, announced a Netflix deal that extends far beyond its breakthrough hit Black Mirror. The pair are opening their account with Death to 2020, a one-off (obviously) about the rotten year that was. As Leslie Jones, one of several A-list guests, says in the trailer: “I’d say it was a trainwreck and a shitshow but that would be unfair to trains and shit.”

Brooker is keen to emphasise what Death to 2020 is not. It is not, for example, a souped-up version of his beloved year-in-review Annual Wipe shows, in which he screamed impotently at his television every Christmas for 10 years. And it is definitely not, as some US fans have assumed, a Black Mirror-adjacent dystopian drama (unless you consider 2020 itself to be a dystopian drama, in which case fair enough).

“We’re not known for doing comedy in the US,” Jones says from a different west London living room. “I think people think we’re very …”

“Depressed,” Brooker continues. “Glum. Angry. In Britain, people who knew I’d written Black Mirror would come to it expecting something darkly comic. In the States, people think it’s written by the Unabomber.”

Brooker and Jones, who have worked together since Newswipe in 2009, enjoy making each other laugh and hope Death to 2020 will have the same effect on viewers.

“It’s sillier than a ’Wipe show,” Brooker says. “It’s part record of the year, part spoof documentary and part character comedy.”

Brooker has long been fascinated by how the real world is processed and distorted through the screen, from the brutal surrealism of his TVGoHome website 20 years ago to his caustic Guardian Guide TV reviews to his 2008 Big Brother-meets-zombies drama Dead Set. This time, the spoofable visuals come from the style of documentary favoured by Netflix itself: the kind, he says, that “open with a drone shot of a forest and a bleak note on a piano and then lots of talking heads and terrible things happening”.

Death to 2020 was written and rewritten with a team of writers over four months, then shot in 10 days in late November, in London and Los Angeles. Brooker and Jones stayed up late every night, editing footage and monitoring the LA shoots, “like a vision mixer in hell. Not that hell has a vision mixer,” Brooker adds. “Why would it need one?”

Brooker does not appear on screen, partly because he is not a familiar face outside the UK and partly because “I look awful in 4K”. But ’Wipe favourite Diane “Philomena Cunk” Morgan pops up as Gemma Nerrick, “one of the five most average people in the world”. There is also Tracey Ullman as the Queen, Lisa Kudrow as a “gaslighting spokesperson” in the vein of Trump acolyte Kellyanne Conway, and a roster of ridiculous talking heads including Samuel L Jackson, Kumail Nanjiani, Samson Kayo and Hugh Grant. It was Grant who unwittingly leaked news of the project in an interview last month. “I’d like to think he was just a bit excited,” Brooker says. “He’s so fucking good, he can do what he likes. He can upload the script the day before if he wants.” A beat for clarification. “No, he can’t.”

Dead funny … Annabel Jones and Charlie Brooker. Photograph: Matt Holyoak

Unlike the “localised” ’Wipes, Death to 2020 is designed for a global audience, which means lots of time devoted to Covid-19, Black Lives Matter and the US election, but a sad trombone for the UK’s more niche, homegrown shitshows. “Something like Barnard Castle doesn’t go in because you’d have to explain it to someone in Adelaide,” Brooker says.

Recent events have given Death to 2020 a somewhat happier ending than it might otherwise have had. The year’s only two bits of emphatically good news arrived just days before the show began shooting. Having predicted Donald Trump’s win in 2016, Brooker was more hopeful this time but had “an interesting 72 hours, I would say” before Joe Biden’s victory became clear. A few days later, the first Covid-19 vaccine was announced, which Brooker appreciated on a narrative level. “I’m immediately delighted as a human being and then quietly pleased as a programme-maker. Thanks, fate!”

“I hear that’s why the scientists rushed it through,” Jones deadpans.

“Yes, I was on the phone to them all the time,” Brooker laughs.

We talk about how fictional dystopias are too pessimistic in some respects and too optimistic in others. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, for example, assumed that the US government would have a competent, science-led response to a killer virus, while the climax of the original Watchmen comic book was based on the idea that a global calamity would unite mortal enemies. Neither of those propositions turned out to be accurate. Still, there are upsides.

“Societies don’t collapse as quickly as they do in films,” Brooker says. “The experience has been more one of constant, low-level angst than fighting your neighbour for a bottle of water. I suppose the reason films need societies to collapse is the same reason why they need a roomful of heroes sorting it all out before the credits roll. The reality is a bit more like The Thick of It.”

“I suppose the way China has responded is more like a film,” Jones muses. “That totalitarian state feels more cinematic than what we’ve had in Europe.”

Brooker raises an eyebrow: “Are we arguing about which country had the most cinematic response to the pandemic? That’s not a bad debate, actually.” It is the strangeness of everyday rituals that unsettles him. “I get the dystopian vertigo of it every time I pick up the kids from school: enter this way, exit that way, keep two metres apart, wear a mask …” As if on cue, one of Brooker’s sons wanders into the call, having been sent home from school. “Someone in my spelling group had corona!” he chirps. “Spell ‘self-isolation’,” Brooker shoots back.

Black Mirror, Brooker and Jones’s other contribution to the canon of pop-culture nightmares, is currently on hiatus, but not because of the pandemic. It is just that, having produced three series and a fiendishly complicated interactive special in four years, they were ready for “a breather”, says Jones.

I’ve got a text! … Tracey Ullman as the Queen. Photograph: Keith Bernstein

If not for the virus, they would have been making a history of the world presented by Philomena Cunk. Brooker ducks a question about future projects by pretending that Zoom has frozen but then twice references A Touch of Cloth, his deliriously silly cop-show parody for Sky from a few years ago, as the kind of pure comedy that he misses.

I get the impression that Brooker has grown a bit weary of his reputation as TV’s prophet of doom now that “it’s just like Black Mirror” has become a cliche. “A lot of satire is optimistic about the human condition,” he insists. “It’s pointing out where things have gone wrong, so you have to believe that things could go right.”

He doesn’t much like the label of satirist, either. “I quite like gallows humour but I do also like stupid wordplay and surreal, goofy gags. Even in the ’Wipe shows, the amount of satirical comment pales into insignificance next to all the bum jokes or mocking someone’s hair. I think I’ve got an inability to be too serious for too long.” He laughs: “It probably boils down to that. I’m probably deeply shallow.”

Does he think giving people an opportunity to laugh at this year of terrible things is important?

“I don’t think we’re laughing at them,” he counters. “Maybe alongside them. Or despite them. Dr Strangelove came along when it looked like the world might be wiped out overnight. There’s a certain release in laughing into the abyss, and also a release in remembering you can still be silly even as everything’s collapsing around you. Actually, it’s important to do that.”

He observes that comedy writers often translate well to horror, whether it is Jordan Peele or Inside No 9’s Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. “A lot of comedy is basically a dystopia: the worst thing constantly happens to people but you’re allowed to laugh about it.”

You could say that the combination of global crisis and bum jokes is the essence of what Brooker and Jones do, but he doesn’t think they’re unusual in feeling an urge to laugh in the face of disaster. “People have been doing that anyway,” says Brooker. “Everyone’s got their wry observations and moments of absurdity. That’s just human.”

Death to 2020 is available on Netflix from Sunday 27 December

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