David Schwimmer on spy sitcom 'Intelligence' and 'leveling the playing field' in Hollywood

"I was really excited to play a guy like this because I thought there was a wonderful kind of challenge in it," the Emmy-nominated actor said of his "Intelligence" character.
David Schwimmer stars in "Intelligence," available on NBC's "Peacock" streaming service.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; AP; Sky

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By Daniel Arkin

The new workplace comedy "Intelligence" gives David Schwimmer his first starring sitcom role since "Friends" went off the air 16 years ago, but his new character has little in common with the one that made him a cross-generational household name.

Ross Geller was a neurotic, sad-eyed paleontologist; Jerry Bernstein, the NSA agent he plays on "Intelligence," is a vainglorious, chauvinistic blowhard who (baselessly) believes he predicted the 9/11 attacks. When he is shipped off to England to join forces with the cybercrimes unit of the security agency GCHQ, chaos ensues.

"Intelligence," created and written by the British comedian Nick Mohammed (who costars as Joseph, a hapless computer analyst), premiered on Sky One in the United Kingdom this year, and it makes its U.S. debut July 15 on Peacock. (Peacock is a product of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

In a recent joint Zoom conversation — Schwimmer from New York City, Mohammed from London — the collaborators talked about finding humor in an "ignorant" character. Schwimmer, 53, who has been outspoken about the lack of diversity on "Friends," also discussed ways Hollywood can make structural changes.

Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Jerry is brash, jingoistic, casually racist. What were the satirical targets you had in mind as you were developing the character, and did you channel any of your own political feelings into this show?

MOHAMMED: To a degree, yes. You only need to look at what's going on in the world and the examples in both our countries of the senior levels of authority.

Personally, I never really intended this show to be a satire, per se. I wanted to do a workplace sitcom about cybercrime, and of course by its nature there would be satirical elements to it because we're showcasing real institutions: GCHQ, the NSA and so on.

It was never meant for the show to have direct analogues, but I can see why a lot of it does suddenly feel quite relevant now. I think what we're generally poking fun at is people in power who seem to stumble upwards for no real reason — possibly owing to some kind of generational privilege — and wield authority over other people.

We also wanted to play with the culture clash between Britain and America. It's funny watching our two countries try and deal with things together.

SCHWIMMER: I was really excited to play a guy like this because I thought there was a wonderful kind of challenge in it, in that he's not the most likable on paper. The challenge was to take someone like this — an alpha male who is in power, who is arrogant, pompous, narcissistic, casually racist, sexist, homophobic and very patriotic, primarily because he's never been outside the country and speaks no other language — and make him funny.

The key I think we finally found, which hopefully has paid off, is that the joke is always on my character, so any racist or sexist behavior is coming from a place of such ignorance. You never really believe anyone who's on the other end of that joke or behavior is ever really hurt or damaged or threatened by it. That's the key to all of it.

That's only part of why I was so excited to do this show. The other half, frankly, was just to work with Nick, who I think is a major talent, both as an actor and writer.

The show is an interesting hybrid of British and American comedic sensibilities. How did you go about fusing those two styles?

MOHAMMED: A lot of American comedy is enjoyed over here, and likewise so many British shows are enjoyed in the States. There were never conscious conversations as "Oh, we've got to make sure we're addressing two different types of funny."

There's quite a high gag rate, but there's physical comedy in there and more nuanced, naturalistic stuff. It's an amalgamation of those things.

We wanted to make sure the language made sense on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was neve, "Well, this is going to play well in America or this is going to play well in Britain." We just wanted to write what we felt was funniest.

SCHWIMMER: We never really worried about whether this was British comedy or American comedy. We just thought: It's funny, it's character-driven, everyone can relate to the power dynamics. When you take the great combination of Nick's really sharp dialogue with all the physical comedy — and of course, the whole thing is against the backdrop of the highest stakes possible: national security, cyberterrorism and cybercrime — you've got a formula for a really fun, original show.

David, I know you've spoken up over the years about issues of diversity, inclusion and representation on "Friends." How do you think a network sitcom like "Friends" should be conceived in 2020?

SCHWIMMER: That's a really tricky question, and you know, I'm no authority. I think the key is really leveling the playing field so more writers and more creators of color have more opportunities — and also are paid the same as their white counterparts. Let's not forget, it's got to be balanced with gender, as well.

There's a lot of work to do in the industry — TV, film and theater. It's more about providing opportunities across the board than, necessarily, the kind of show that's being produced.

In a different interview, Nick was rightfully talking about something that he was flagging in the U.K., about opportunity for different voices. The emphasis being not on diverse stories, necessarily, but on hiring people of all colors and genders to write comedies, spy shows, horror films, whatever.

MOHAMMED: I was just saying, too often there's an expectation that if you are Black, Asian, part of a minority or ethnic group, that the subject you're going to want to write about is specifically about that — whereas actually, you want to see a lot of awesome talent write about anything all the white people get to write about. [Laughs.] It just feels a little bit off balance.

There needs to be a huge amount done in terms of representation off screen — in terms of film crews, TV crews — as well as on screen. But hopefully, times are changing. It does feel we are going through a period of reform, and a lot of people are talking about it, which is great.