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Interview Today's Date:

Comic-Con 2010:
Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz
Look Around Them To Find U.S. Success

They want to teach you what they know. Or don't know.
For most of Comic-Con 2010, San Diego offers up overcast skies and a little nip in the air. "This is like default British weather!" giggles Peter Serafinowicz, a talented comedian and with Robert Popper, the co-creator of the BBC series Look Around You.

Yes, Serafinowicz giggles. He snickers kindly and fights back guffaws. This man does not laugh; he larfs, a deep-chested rumble that reveals his utter delight in the work he does, like a small child who cannot believe that adults are letting him do this. A physically imposing child, to be sure, and one who didn't bother getting dressed or combing his hair; still in pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, Serafinowicz is just too eager to play - and thus snapping a picture seems rude, an intrusion on these two even though this is a press event.

Next to him, Popper looks the patient older brother. He, too, is clearly having a good time; he's just a little bit more reserved, or maybe a bit more awake. It's not too terribly early in the morning, but it is for Comic-Con, and the two have come down to a conference room in the Marriott to face small groups of reporters and bloggers to promote the recent U.S. release of the first season of Look Around You on DVD.

To call Look Around You a parody of educational films of the seventies is to sell it short. Dry and patient, it lures viewers in by appearing to be something familiar, but soon veers into its own bizarre logic.

An experiment with music...
"When we write, we always do think of the viewers," explains Popper. "Like if I'm sitting home watching on TV, would I be able to get this? We originally made a 20-minute short film called "Look Around You: Calcium", just for fun all about calcium. The world's first comedy about calcium as a talking point. That was just for fun, not really for a TV show. And then people were interested and gave us a TV show in those ten minute slots." "And we thought, okay, that is really way out there. The show's going to be weird. What can we do to make it easier without compromising? Let's impose a structure. It always begins the same, there's always two experiments. Each week there's kind of repetition, which makes it easier. You can say, oh, I see, this is what they do."

Serafinowicz pipes in, "it's still really weird, but it's got quite a conventional structure." Then he pauses a moment, and that little kid's smile creeps across his face. "But it is fucking weird."

Perhaps so, and though it had an experimental ten minute slot on the BBC, it does fit perfectly with its U.S. home on Adult Swim. So well, in fact, it seems hard to believe they ever had doubts.

But Popper rolls his eyes at the memory. "We did a big screening (of Calcium). We thought people might just go 'what is it?'"

It could have been the end.
"Right," picks up Serafinowicz. "At that point, only like five people had seen it. Like my girlfriend, the editor had seen it, some other random person we showed in the edit suite, who didn't really like it."

"We didn't really like him," jokes Popper.

"No, we didn't really like him," agrees Serafinowicz.

For a serious instant, Popper shrugs his shoulders, "But you always need someone like that around who goes, ehhmmm…"

Serafinowicz nods and continues, "but then we had this screening at this cinema in London, and we invited all the people from TV and all comedians that we knew. I'd just finished on the second season of Spaced, and we'd done a night shoot, but Simon (Pegg), Edgar (Wright) and Nick (Frost) came, and Nira Park, the producer. Ricky Gervais came, when he was totally unknown. This was before The Office."

Popper interrupts with a chuckle, "and then he said to me afterward, and this is not just saying it to boast, but it's funny, that if The Office could be half as good or as successful…" He breaks off laughing. "He said that to me. He'd just made his fifteen-minute pilot. And of course, it was brilliant."

"Sacha Baron Cohen was there," offers Serafinowicz.

"We invited these people on purpose, so we knew we'd have to make it good," Popper finishes.

Serafinowicz continues the memory. "We were terrified. I mean, we think this is funny, but we'd been locked in a room just doing this thing…what are people going to think? You know in the show we have that five second countdown at the start. In the first one, we had a whole minute. People just started laughing at the countdown."

"And then we showed this thing, twenty minutes long, the driest show ever. People were laughing out loud the whole time."

Serafinowicz and Popper drop in at the UCB theater just before Comic-Con to celebrate their DVD release... hosted by fan Patton Oswalt.
Of course, it isn't just that "who's who" of British comedy that became fans. The DVD reveals that Popper and Serafinowicz are respected by peers on both sides of the pond. In addition to Wright, Frost and Pegg (all of who make cameos in the series), the DVD has newly recorded commentaries from Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), Jonah Hill and Michael Cera (Superbad) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park).

While Heidecker and Wareheim are purposely awkward, it does seem that Hill and Cera are out of place and they know it. They're there just to pump up the name recognition. But if you really want to learn something about what makes comedians laugh, and hear smart deconstruction of why this show works so well, listen to Parker and Stone. Parker sounds genuinely envious, and his insights almost make the gags funnier.

And that's just Season One. The U.S. still has to see the second season on DVD, in which the show changed formats to longer half-hour episodes.

Popper explains, "We wanted to do a second series that would be ten minutes, like we'd do that until we die. But those ten minute slots, they were new, and that was only for new things to do once. Then someone else could do something in that slot. It was for weirder stuff."

Though Serafinowicz finds that a little contradictory. "I guess the bottom line is that it was too weird."

They're thinking about their future...
Still, that second season has given them fodder for thoughts of the future, and their recent work still has to make it stateside.

When asked what's going on for them now - besides an impending change of clothes for a later Comic-Con panel - Popper explains, "we're doing a thing that we started online for Radio 4 called 'Radio Spirit World: The Other Side'; we made this thirty minute online thingy, a fake broadcast from the only radio station broadcasting from the afterlife to Earth. It's really spooky. So we're going to do that, which we'd like to move into a TV thing." "We're also thinking about a Look Around You motion picture. We might start in the lab and then move outside into different dimensions. It would be about life." Getting a very serious expression on his face, Serafinowicz expands, "Or space, or something all encompassing."

"But with a story," Popper quickly adds.

Here Serafinowicz gets an excited tone, "I suppose it would be like Look Around You meets Time Bandits, Star Wars and you know," his roll falters, "I don't know, Markets of Britain." He larfs uproariously. "We found this thing that we'd written about somebody building a time machine. That's something we do a lot on the show, like we'll say ghosts exist and give you a lot of facts about ghosts."

"So we show you how to build a time machine," he continues. "I'd love to do a Look Around You film that started in the lab then went out on some incredible adventure with spaceships and UFOs and …pencils. We did write something once that pencils in it as characters. Something super duper surreal but amazing."

He reaches for further examples. "Like the character of Cobbles, the man with the horrible skin disease. That's the sort of thing I want to bring back in the film. That still makes me laugh."

Solemnly, Popper mutters, "the poor man…"

Serafinowicz grins. "Poor man, but he can fly, so it sort of balances out."

"What we like to do is have everything sort of link up, everything has a purpose," Serafinowicz explains. "The world has to have its own logic. If things like that did happen, like maybe at one point it starts off with the narrator. Then the narrator becomes one of the characters, and then it turns out he's not who he says he is, and …I don't know. But I'd like to do it not using CG so much, but using models, Douglas Trumbull's models, things that look real."

The thought clearly enthralls Serafinowicz, and the conversation becomes just fans kibitzing. "I was watching recently the original Superman movie. The effects in that are just astonishing. You just believe it so much more than CG." Sensing he has become too serious, Serafinowicz waves it away. "Anyway, blah blah blah."

And yet when these two blah blah blah, it's hilarious. Pick up the DVD (which also includes the strangely catchy music video "Little Mouse") and keep your fingers crossed for a film. In the meantime, just look around you.


Derek McCaw

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