‘Having a pop at trans people is just punching down’

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Nick Mohammed tries to live by something he learned from the actor and magician Andy Nyman – one of his “Golden Rules of Acting”. It’s very straightforward. “Don’t be a twat,” he says. “Just don’t.”

And, to be fair, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks Nick Mohammed is one. He’s a peppy, sunny, interested and earnest presence –it’s easy to see how he slotted into the similarly breezy Ted Lasso teamsheet as kitman Nate – and, today, he has a lot to say. You’ll get maybe three or four times the volume of chat you’d get speaking to anyone else. In the extraordinarily brightly lit library of the Soho Hotel on this Tuesday morning, he speaks incredibly quickly, occasionally slowing down very briefly to slightly re-orientate the thrust of where his sentence is headed before taking off again.

There’s a lot to say about Douglas Is Cancelled. It’s a four-part comedy/drama/thriller/state-of-the-Twitterverse think piece from Steven Moffat, who aims to mix the frisson of recent scandals involving Huw Edwards and Prince Andrew with the kind of rat-a-tat propulsion and insider snark you’d get from Aaron Sorkin. It doesn’t always hit that mark, but if you’re someone who worries about what they’d do if they made an ill-advised joke at a wedding and became social media’s public enemy number one, there’s much to interest you. 

Mohammed is very “arm’s length” with social media himself. “I only ever use it to, you know, plug shows and stuff like that,” he says. “I’ve never engaged with geopolitical discussion or anything like that, because I think you play with fire and I’ve seen too many people, for better or worse, just get burned.”

Mohammed, left, with Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale, Hugh Bonneville, Karen Gillan and Alex Kingston in ‘Douglas Is Cancelled’ (Photo: ITV)

He’s 43, married, and has a young family, and “I’m just hoping that by the time my kids are teenagers it’s sort of imploded. It’s one thing being able to engage with it when you’re in your forties, and you don’t quite understand it, and it’s fine to not have an active presence on it. But if you feel that you need to because it’s part of the fabric of your peer group, that’s a very different thing.”

In Douglas Is Cancelled, Hugh Bonneville’s apparently cuddly news anchor Douglas is apparently witnessed making a sexist joke while a few bevs deep at a family do, and his world starts falling apart around him. His already fractious marriage to Alex Kingston’s constantly furious newspaper editor Sheila cracks, his mardy, right-on daughter gets – if possible – even more mardy with him, and he starts suspecting his co-presenter Madeline, played by Karen Gillan, wants to make things worse.

Mohammed arrives as gag-writer-for-hire Morgan, who is drafted in to write a joke that Douglas could plausibly deploy as the apparently sexist joke that Douglas can’t remember making and of which no footage exists. Morgan isn’t the kind of character Mohammed generally gets to do – the note I made while watching was “truly horrible little creep” – and with his casual sexism and know-it-all air he is, Mohammed says, a fair portrait of some comedy types you meet on the circuit. 

Nick Mohammed, left, with Jason Sudeikis in 'Ted Lasso' (Photo: Apple TV+)
Nick Mohammed, left, with Jason Sudeikis in ‘Ted Lasso’ (Photo: Apple TV+)

“Even now, it is quite a closed shop. The world of the London circuit or even the club circuit doing live comedy, it’s quite a niche set of people who sort of choose to do that for a living. And we know that it’s male dominated, and it can be very insular and I feel like it can often be the perfect conditions for a character like Morgan to breed.”

Comedy can be a place that welcomes everyone with open arms and a tight 10 minutes, he says. But it’s still behind the times. “It is a naturally competitive and difficult environment anyway, because of the nature of the thing that it is. But it can be made a million times more difficult because of the behaviour of certain individuals.”

There are, of course, a whole tranche of comedians whose whole thing is saying the unsayable, usually with some quasi-philosophical reasoning of: actually, not saying the unsayable is cowardice. And at any rate, a cancellation on the CV is usually grist to their mill. Mohammed doesn’t have much time for that. “The idea that you can’t do anything anymore, it is nuts,” he says. “It is absolutely crazy.”

They are, Mohammed points out, usually comedians of a certain age. “Just write funnier stuff,” he says. “Stop complaining that suddenly your stuff’s not as good as it used to be.”

'Douglas Is Cancelled' is a comedy drama about the free speech debate (Photo: ITV/PA)
‘Douglas Is Cancelled’ is a comedy drama about the free speech debate (Photo: ITV/PA)

He takes one example of a well-known British stand-up who deals in “taboo” comedy. “Having a pop at the trans community is having a pop at the trans community. It is just punching down and, like, there is no world where that is clever… it is just what it is. And he is better than that. He could write far more original stuff than that, but it’s just really easy.”

The people laughing at those jokes probably aren’t, he thinks, laughing for the reasons that the comedians think they are. “Often you’re preaching to the converted – you’re not trying to convince anyone, already your audience are on your side. So it’s never really sat well with me.”

His own characters – particularly the intensely silly magician Mr Swallow, whom he took on tour last year – are a lot more gently daft. That might have something to do with his resolutely normal and very happy childhood in Cookridge, a suburb north of Leeds, where his parents still live. 

He was good at school, and got good A-levels, and went to Durham University to study geophysics. He’d been obsessed with magic since he was very small, and gradually added more and more comedy into his magic shows in Durham before heading to Cambridge. There he got into the Footlights while briefly working on a geophysics PhD. 

Where comedy could be something of a bear pit at times, the magic community was always welcoming. Mohammed got into the Northern Magic Circle at around 12 years old, and he remembers his first magic convention.

Mohammed with Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt in 'Ted Lasso' (Photo: AppleTV+/AP)
Mohammed with Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt in ‘Ted Lasso’ (Photo: AppleTV+/AP)

“There were like 300 people there – I’d be the only person of colour. No one gave a shit. It was brilliant. ‘Hey, what, you’re into magic? Great!’ Like, that was all that mattered. You could be anyone and anything.” 

After leaving Cambridge, he worked at Morgan Stanley, somewhere between the workaday dullness of the IT department and the slightly more Industry-style glamour of the trading floor. At his interview he assured them he’d not be making a go of comedy. “And I was gigging every night, pretty much. I would go in secretly with wigs and props in my rucksack and stuff like that, but I loved it.”

Over the past decade he’s been one of British comedy’s go-to sidemen, popping up in the likes of Stath Lets Flats, Cuckoo, Fresh Meat and Sally4Ever. But when Ted Lasso went stratospheric in 2020 – Mohammed played Richmond FC’s kitman-turned-tactical-genius-turned-evil-bastard-turned-kitman-again Nate opposite Jason Sudeikis – everything changed. He and the rest of the Ted Lasso gang’s cosy, warm story became a balm during the pandemic, and in 2021 it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

“It has been the most overwhelmingly positive thing ever, and it’s weird to say life-changing because it feels like an odd thing to say, but I think it’s true.”

As for staying grounded, that anti-twat advice from Nyman is always helpful. “Don’t make people feel like shit, because why would you? You wouldn’t want to feel like shit, so why would you?”

He pauses. “It’s really easy, isn’t it? It’s really easy. Really straightforward stuff.”

‘Douglas Is Cancelled’ is on ITV1 tonight at 9pm

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