Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz
Look Around Them To Find U.S. Success
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.
want to teach you what they know. Or don't know.
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
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.
"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 We originally made a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."
experiment with music...
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?'"
"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."
could have been the end.
"We didn't really like him," jokes Popper.
"No, we didn't really like him," agrees
For a serious instant, Popper shrugs his
shoulders, "But you always need someone like that around
who goes, ehhmmm…"
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."
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."
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
and Popper drop in at the UCB theater just before
Comic-Con to celebrate their DVD release... hosted
by fan Patton Oswalt.
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
Still, that second season has given them
fodder for thoughts of the future, and their recent work
still has to make it stateside.
thinking about their future...
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
"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