Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz are the madmen behind the amazing BBC comedy 'Look Around You,' available now on DVD.
Credit: BBC Video
It's no secret if you've read my work over the years that I am a rabid fan of British comedy. I think it's one of those things you develop a lifelong taste for when you're young, and in my case, it led to a lifelong hunger for the new.
One of the things that's been fun about being a fan of UK comedy since I was a kid was the way I would hear about things I should see. Word-of-mouth, worn videotapes passed hand-to-hand, years of searching... all par for the course. In recent years, DVD has finally become a real option for American fans, but even then, years can go by between first hearing of something and finally seeing it. Sure, there are uber-famous titles like "The Office" that make the jump quickly, but most titles remain cult items and can take much longer.
Case in point: "Look Around You."
There are few shows I can compare this to, and that's a good thing. The work of Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper, this mock-serious science show is surreal, silly, and desert-dry for every second of each ten-minute episode. It's not for everyone, but it's one of those shows that fans get protective about because it feels like it was made personally for them.
It's finally available in the US, where Adult Swim's been showing it for a little while, and where BBC Home Video has now finally released the show's first season on home video, and just before Comic-Con, I sat down to dinner with Devin (CHUD) Faraci, Jeremy (Ain't It Cool) Smith, Damon (Collider) Houx, and Serafinowicz and Popper to talk about the U.S. DVD debut. It's nearly impossible to separate who asked what, and the audio of the dinner was a hideous mess, almost impossible to transcribe. The conversation may have gotten away from us just a bit.
I think it's better for it.
START TRANSCRIPTION BY DAMON HOUX, who is a general badass for doing this:
We first asked about the various celebrities who show up on the DVD doing guest commentary, specifically Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Their commentary is fascinating because – as Popper says – they start by saying
Robert Popper: “What are we doing here? Why are we here?” We wanted to do something for the American release. We re-did our commentaries as well, we weren’t happy with our British commentaries and then we just suddenly thought of all these people we knew that liked the show that we really liked. Tim and Eric had become really good friends of ours. When we were introduced someone said “you’d like their stuff, they’d like your stuff, you should swap.” And so we got them to do this. Simon (Pegg) and Nick (Frost) are hilarious, we got one with Edgar (Wright), Trey (Parker) and Matt (Stone) – which was amazing – and Jonah and Michael. They said “we’ll do it.” And then said “why are we here?” It’s quite good mix, I think. I read one review that said something like “the extras are awful.” I think the extras are pretty good for a little show. They complained that we just sat there doing admittedly uncanny impressions of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And the only impression I can do with about 65% good is Margaret Thatcher, so I’m quite pleased about that.
Peter Serafinowicz: Also, getting back to when we first did the DVD’s, I think we still have this option on it, where you can watch it without the narration, with just the music and stuff.
Popper: It’s really stupid.
Serafinowicz: It’s freaky.
Popper: It’s horrible.
Is there an I.O.U. sort of thing with the commentaries? Are you going to do some for Tim and Eric?
Popper: A tit-for-tat? If they asked.
I like that everyone on the commentaries – for the most part – recognizes your (Serafinowicz’s) brother.
Popper: They do. He does that look really well, that bored look at school, and that image it keeps repeating so it burns itself in.
All his expressions, it’s just there.
Popper: And it’s so your brother.
Popper: And he also brings in aloof, so there’s that.
Serafinowicz: James (his brother) co-wrote and produced my sketch show. It’s funny to think of him as so grown up now because he still kind of a kid then, wasn’t he? He was like, twenty or whatever.
Popper: He was also crying all the time (does funny voice) “mommy”
You guys recorded a new commentary, how was that?
Popper: It was nice this time, because the last time we did it, I mean it was fine, but this time there was a bit of info we gave. The first time we’d never done it before, so it was “Oh, I like this bit, I like this bit,” and then afterword realized “oh we should have said something.”
Did you guys do all the “Letters from Ceefax” stuff (there’s a text supplement on DVD that is incredibly elaborate)
Serafinowicz: Yeah, we spent far too much time doing that.
But it speaks to the show.
Popper: Yeah. There’s also some guitar music to it, there’s an improvised modern classical piece. It’s a classical guitar but it’s equalized to be modern. It’s bland and horrible, but when you listen to it, it’s kind of marvelous.
Serafinowicz: (Starts humming it) Yeah, that is good. I remember now. Robert’s an amazing guitarist. As you can hear on the show.
Popper: I bought my guitar (mimes bringing one up) what do you want to hear?
This show seems a part of a wave to a return of absurdist comedy. What were guys into at the time that was influencing you?
Serafinowicz: Well, we both grew up loving Monty Python - of course - which you may have heard of.
Popper: It’s very obscure.
Serafinowicz: And Spike Milligan as well, and then I guess for me a big influence on the first season was Police Squad.
Popper: The pace and the one liners.
It’s that straight-facedness. What I love about Look Around You is that it’s never winking or tipping its hand.
Popper: There are a couple of mini-winks.
But there is such an integrity to the style. I love the washed out look, the commitment to the look.
Popper: We had a brilliant director as well (Tim Kirkby), he was brilliant with effects, and just a really good eye.
Well, you do have some stuff that’s on the nose, like the “AC//DC – Heavy Metal” bit.
Popper: You caught that, not everyone catches that.
Serafinowicz: There are jokes like “Germs come from Germany.” Were we thought “We can’t use that joke,” but then were like “we should use that joke!”
Popper: But as for influences, there’s The Day Today and Chris Morris were hugely influential. Electronic music,
Serafinowicz: Board of Canada.
Popper: We listened to that all the time. And music like that.
Watching it, did you guys ever think about shooting it 4x3 (as per old televisions, versus the show’s anamorphic aspect ratio)
Popper: We did talk about it at the time, I think we thought that was going one too far. We knew we were making a weird show, and obviously it’s fucking weird – excuse my language – so let’s try and make it as easy to watch, it always starts the same way, so let’s just make it a teeny bit more palatable so people don’t go “why is it like this?”
Well, one of the great things about the show is the commitment to the joke, which has so much to do with the aesthetic in ten minute bursts. I don’t know where you’d go in America to get financing for that, to pull it off as you do.
Popper: I don’t think you’d be able to make it anymore, it’s very rare that they’d have those ten minutes slots, and it so much harder to do weird stuff on BBC2, to do weird, odd, arty things.
Serafinowicz: It only really happened once, and they only ever showed it twice in total. Yeah, yeah.
But it became very influential, Tim and Eric are heavily influenced by it, and Wonder Showzen. Was it fans passing tapes?
Serafinowicz: Yeah, Video tapes.
Popper: Yeah, when we made the first show “Calcium” it wasn’t for TV, it was for fun. We never thought it would be a TV show, it was just “let’s make something amusing.” We gave people tapes and we had a big screening with a lot of people we looked up to, and gave people we looked up to tapes, so it was kind of like that.
The original pilot is 22 minutes, was there a conscious decision to make it nine minutes?
Popper: No, the BBC eventually said to us they had ten minute slots, and we thought “well, how can we do it?” and they said “we’ll give you six episodes,” and we said ten, and then “eight.” And then we said “okay.” It was a struggle to get it off.
I would love to see this shown to a science class.
Popper: They’ve done that. We get loads of emails and YouTube comments like “my science teacher showed us this. He’s fucking cool.” “I’m a science teacher and…”
But actually fooling a class. Imagine fooling people all through schooling.
Popper: I mean, we would like to make these until we die, really.
Serafinowicz: We did a three minute film for tonight where we used existing footage, and it was really really fun to do, and we’ve been talking about doing more of them.
Popper: Did you see “Birds of Britain” our little viral thing for series two? It’s the same sort of thing, same sensibility.
Is there a chance of a tie-in book?
Popper: Well, at the time… you mean actually doing a science book?
By E. W. Whitmarsh
Serafinowicz: Yeah, we’d love to but…
Popper: We’re not on TV anymore. At the time we probably wanted to, but they said “let’s wait for the second series,” and then they wanted people in that. I think we would have a great freaky textbook.
One of the things I love about season one is that you guys get jokes out of camera angles. Season two is obviously similar but different, do you have a preference?
Popper: Yeah, season one, I think because it was so pure. I like Season two, I like the last episode, the Live episode with Prince Charles, and there’s some stuff in season two I love so much.
Serafinowicz: There’s some stuff that just annoys me, I wish we had been a bit freer
Popper: Or if we had done every episode as if it were live, so it’d give the impression something could go wrong which worked so well in the last episode. I think also when you watch season one, you feel like you’ve never seen anything like it before, while season two, which is still original, you might have seen something like that before.
Serafinowicz: In season two I really liked the filmed bits. Whenever we went outside we shot on film, for some reason I’m always happy with those.
Like Monty Python.
Popper: Exactly, and we used the same yellow text.
(Drew) For us, when it came to British comedy, we had to work for it, we had to track it down. But it’s interesting because I think the guys who are making American comedy are just as versed in each other as anyone working today. But you guys seem to be working in your own pond, and with Chris Morris there is a sense of overlap…
(Dellamorte) So who are the dicks?
Popper: All of them.
But there is a sense that you all work on each other’s shows in small ways or big ways.
Popper: It’s nice. It’s England.
Serafinowicz: It sort of is, it’s that all comedy gets made in the middle of London. Whereas here everyone is spread out in Los Angeles and New York, and more.
There is an evolutionary sense to comedy, did you see Look Around You creep into other projects. Do you ever think “there’s some of our DNA in this?”
Serafinowicz: Yeah (laughs to self) yeah, yeah.
Popper: Especially commercials.
Serafinowicz: You’d get annoyed when people would just rip off our things for a Pizza Hut campaign. And we’d just think “We’ve never made a penny out of this.” We called it our expensive hobby. But also it’s flattering as well.
Popper: And they make great pizzas at Pizza Hut. (Laughs)
It’s interesting that you say this show couldn’t happen again, but is the internet changing that? You guys are so active on line, and there’s so much comedy now on line…
Popper: Well, we’d love to…
Serafinowicz: This whole thing is with online comedy is you can only do so much with a budget of zero, and everyone can have final cut, and everyone has a good camera… I mean my iPhone shoots 720p, but still even with all that there’s a ceiling on the comedy you can do, there’s still…
How much do you want to give away for free?
Popper: There is that. And that’s the practical side of it. You can kind of getting away with making a pilot for free, but then making a series…
Serafinowicz: That was like eight to ten minute episodes but it took us fucking months to write it and rewrite it and rewrite it, and that’s the same with anything. Who’s going to pay for that?
Popper: You guys are!
Monetizing the internet is the question.
Serafinowicz: I’m wondering how you get a big brand to sponsor a show on the internet. Maybe the model is how television worked in the fifties. You do it in a more post modern way, in some cases you don’t even have to mention the brand, or by association. I don’t know how it would work
(Jeremy) Like the Dana Carvey Show, they named their show “The Mountain Dew Dana Carvey show” but then they lampooned their sponsor. Back then they were very sensitive about it, that just wasn’t done, but today they might actually be down with it.
(Drew) It’s like music today you have a certain sized based audience, and you know they’ll buy enough of your stuff to keep you going.
(Devin) Well, it ties into that article you (Serafinowicz) wrote, about how you don’t care how your stuff gets out there, virally or whatever, and you’re okay with it.
Serafinowicz: Yeah, I am, but still I have to feed my kids. So, I don’t know if you’re familiar with my character Brian Butterfield from my sketch show, me and my brother James were trying to do this chat. We’re looking to do it on the internet with sponsors, that’s what we’re looking to do. But at the end of the day someone has to pay for it. Someone forwarded me Al Pacino doing a coffee advert saying “Al Pacino’s sold out.” And I thought, you know people just have to fucking earn money.
A lot of those guys have been doing stuff overseas for years.
Serafinowicz: People need money to make good stuff. They just do.
(Drew) It’s a business
(Jeremy) You need the space, the psychic space to sit and create, and not worry about your next meal.
Serafinowicz: How the internet, I don’t know the correct term for it, but reason why The Beatles will never happen again, we’re not one huge audience, we’re a lot of small audiences. Maybe with Look Around You, we’ve been talking about a Look Around You movie, and if we can convince people we have a large enough audience, people will be interested.
(Drew) But with shows like yours they inspire loyalty.
(Dellamorte) I think for us, when you saw Monty Python or some of these other shows there’s an element of “I get it.”
Popper: When you speak to Americans who like it, they really like it. People who like it, love it, that’s fine, but Americans…. Do you think it’s that thing where “It’s British and I get it and it really speaks to me?”
It’s that you had to find it, it wasn’t something just mass produced and forced on you by marketing.
Popper: Is it because you have so little of that stuff?
(Jeremy) I think it’s also because Look Around You appeals to – I hate to sound elitist – but people who may be a little more well read. Like Mystery Science Theater, it appeals to people who have a large frame of reference.
(Drew) With Look Around You, if you don’t understand where it came from…
(Devin) I think with Look Around You, it’s high comedy and low comedy.
(Dellamorte) But even with a joke like “Germs come from Germany” you’re not selling it.
(Jeremy) Well, some people might think that’s a dumb joke, while other will think “that’s exquisite, that’s just wonderful.” It’s a sensibility, I guess.
Serafinowicz: You know we have shown it to kids, they’ve obviously never seen any of these 70’s things, and they get it instantly because it’s this important voice telling them things that are so obviously wrong, you know. Like this film we just made.
Popper: This movie.
Serafinowicz: This motion picture… By the way, that’s what we’re going to call it, Look Around You The Motion Picture, seriously. I showed my little boy Sam this, and he got like two of the jokes in it cause they’re so stupid. He went “ahhh.”
You guys mix the high and the low, in America it’s one flavor. If you’re watching Two and a Half Men, it’s not working on four levels. You’re watching Charlie Sheen dick jokes for a half hour.
Popper: We write one percent smutty. But in like an innocent smut sort of way.
Serafinowicz: Can I say about Two and a Half Men? My thing is – and I don’t want say anything bad about it – when Charlie Sheen is on screen and not speaking, he looks like he’s thinking about pornography.
Earlier, John Landis came up, and Landis knows something you guys know as well, that there are funny angles, how long to hold a shot can be funny, and with a lot of modern comedies, they aren’t as precious based with composition, and editing as Look Around You. One of my favorite jokes is the lowering the magnet
Popper: I like that too.
Serafinowicz: But a lot of that is the editing, and our editor, Chris Dickens, who’s an Oscar winning editor, though he wasn’t at the time, he edited Slumdog Millionaire. So much of that stuff, framing timing and stuff, is built in the edit, and so much stuff gets created in the edit that didn’t exist before, that get pieced together.
Popper: We didn’t get a lot of money to make it, and when looked at the things that inspired us, they didn’t have a lot of money either, so we thought “great “so we used only three takes and that’s it. If there’s a hair in the gate? Brilliant. Every joke is framed for the information, and that is what’s funny. And sometimes we’d think “well, how would you shoot that?”And it’s about the information, it’s as simple as that. That’s the joke.
Serafinowicz: Another thing we experimented with a bit was using CG very sparingly throughout, because everything was so low-fi. It’s not as easy as it is now, but there were things like when you see the outside of the science lab and you see the big dome, that was actually a ping pong ball. I just love that thing generally. You can manipulate anything now with CGI, and I like when it’s used sparingly. I looked at JurassicPark, and that film used CG in such an artful way. But also in the new Star Trek, I like how used CG in that.
One of my favorite jokes watching Suphagne where the laser goes up, causes the item to disappear and retracts.
Popper: One of my favorite bits from that episode is the person we cast as the head of a match company, Brian Phillips, he turned up in his clothes and said “do I need to go to costume?” and we said “no, you’re perfect.” And he says “In an average year we get through…” and I remember I was dying. And his desk is by the door, and that’s the worst place to have it.
Serafinowicz: And Nira (Park) comes in and gives him a pen.
We were talking earlier about how much we like “Little Mouse.”
Popper: It’s a nice little song, isn’t it?
(Jeremy) It was stuck in my head all day.
(Dellamorte) But you did more songs in Season Two, would have liked to do more or less?
Serafinowicz: I think we would have done much more music, I think.
Popper: We loved that stuff. Originally the song was going to be about something else.
Serafinowicz: Originally it was going to be about an Owl.
Popper: Little Owl.
Serafinowicz: There was going to be a sequel song “me and my big mouse.”
Popper: To do the longer version video we went to the cameraman’s house in Suffolk, us the cameraman and Tim (Kirkby) and we were drunk and I think we had – literally – a ghetto blaster to sync, and we did our own make up, and there were fisherman nearby fishing.
Was Tim the third person in the video?
Popper: Yeah. He couldn’t remember moves, if you watch him you can see it. He’s so funny.
What is the attrition rate for what you’re writing? How much do we not see?
Serafinowicz: Yeah, go looking through that book, how much of it did we actually use?
Popper: Quite a lot we didn’t, yeah.
How much was improved on, and how much was just thrown away?
Popper: Well, when filming we only cut one scene, the show remained very faithful to the script.
Serafinowicz: Two scenes.
What was the writing like? Was it just making each other laugh?
Serafinowicz: When they told us we had these ten minute slots, we thought “fuck how can we compress all this?” Because Calcium was as long as we wanted and you could drop in surreal jokes if you wanted to, and we liked that dreamlike quality. And then when we reluctantly moved to this ten minute format we thought “oh this actually good, this allows us to regiment it a bit.” And it made us pack in as many jokes as we could. I mean, we had the template for the show already.
Popper: And we realized when we watched these old shows, the specific ones, it came together. “How do you feel about Calcium,” and we started laughing. And then we started writing it, and watching these, and we heard that voice, and that’s how it came together, a year of talking about it and just watching these old boring shows. We’d watch stuff Jack Smith sent to us, he’s our hero.
How often do you think about bits that could be for Look Around You now?
Popper: In real life? Quite a lot.
Serafinowicz: I really want to do this film, because we have a number of ideas we want to do in this whole world. I love to do a film that start for the first five minutes this, and then turns into a weird Star Wars type adventure.
I thought you’d do some mockumentary.
Popper: I don’t know.
Serafinowicz: I thought there’d be robots in it.
Would it be like 1962?
Popper: It’d be the seventies, but it’d jump around in time.
I love films that are set in their future that have now passed, “The year is 1996!”
Serafinowicz: A friend recommended Silent Running, which I’d never seen. The trailer looks like “aw yeah, that’s what we want to do.” We wanted to do, like a time machine that goes to.
Popper: like 1837 or 1850
Serafinowicz: And he ends up in Queen Victoria’s bedroom and she calls in the guards, and there’s a machine in there, and he thinks “What do I do?” so he sets it to Thirteen billion, and then he goes to Earth,
Popper: And it’s a distant plain.
Serafinowicz: And in the sky are these huge black monoliths that are trained to kill anything. “The Sentinels.”And the narrator would say “It’s the sentinels.”
Popper: And then he presses the time travel button again
Serafinowicz: Yeah, that’s right, he ends up back in his house in the same time.
Popper: He’s gone a bit mad and he’s talking to his wife “no, I was in a time machine!”
Serafinowicz: And she says “What time machine?” And the narrator says “You didn’t go in a time machine.” So the narrator has also turned on him. Anyway, that’s what I’d like the film to be like.
Popper: It’d be that flavor.
We then descend into Zardoz talk, as us journalists try to describe the brilliance of Zardoz. Then into science fiction films like Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and then about their reaction to comic books, where they particularly liked Chris Ware’s work, and a collection called Framely Examiner, but then we moved into wrapping up, and I asked
Do you have any Darth Maul Paraphernalia?
Serafinowicz: The only one I bought on eBay. A talking Darth Maul doll. I got that because I thought “well maybe when son grows up he’ll be in to Star Wars, and I did the voice of Darth Maul,” but we got it, and it’s not my voice. It’s weird, it’s like a generic speech synthesizer that says “At last we will reveal ourselves to Jedi. At last we will have revenge.” It’s so weird it’s like a computer is impersonating me.
Twitter just came up, and you do a lot of Twitter exercises, where you ask people for words, and it’s so fascinating to watch it in action.
Serafinowicz: Thanks man. If I start one of those, depending on what time of day it is, in the first ten minutes I’ll get a thousand words, so they’ll be something there. And the key is to just do one, even if it isn’t very good, because they always get better. It’s like a challenge. Recently I started doing stand-up, and I archive all the jokes I’ve been doing.
Robert, you only show up for the “Little Mouse” segment, and Peter, you spread out your appearances with Edgar Wright, do you like not appearing?
Serafinowicz: Well it’s another nod to Police Squad, you just see me from my chin down. The other Police Squad nod is when we do “in the next program we will look at” whatever.
This led to us geeking out over Police Squad, and generally chatting.
Did I mention at the start of this that Damon Houx is a total freakin' badass for trying to transcribe that madness? Because he is.
After dinner, we went next door to watch Patton Oswalt interview Serafinowicz and Popper onstage at the UCB Theater, and they premiered a new short film. This... is that short film:
As a man whose last name is McWeeny, I find the work of Lee Titt an absolute delight.
"Look Around You: Series One" is available now from BBC Home Video, and is awesome. Seriously.
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