14 Oct 2007: Profile: Peter Serafinowicz has his own BBC show, launched straight from YouTube on to primetime TV, but can his surreal humour now survive the mainstream? By Amy Raphael.
It is the norm these days for new comedy to make its debut on BBC3: even strong sitcoms such as Gavin & Stacey had to do their time on the digital channel before being promoted to BBC2. So it is no mean feat that The Peter Serafinowicz Show was actually launched on BBC2 earlier this month. And, what’s more, he is now being widely touted as Britain’s coming comedy star, a highly inventive writer and performer.
Serafinowicz, a 6ft 5in Liverpudlian rarely prone to self-doubt, admitted before the launnch of the series: ‘It makes me quite nervous and also makes me think the show had better be good enough. We want to have as broad an audience as possible, but at the same time make something seriously weird.’
Until very recently, 35-year-old Serafinowicz was the most well-connected man in comedy, but well-connected without ever having become particularly well-known. He had small roles in Smack the Pony, Black Books, I’m Alan Partridge, Little Britain (the pilot) and The IT Crowd. He played Simon Pegg’s ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend in Spaced and then popped up again as Pegg’s useless flatmate in Shaun of the Dead. The latter film spawned a quiz team; Pegg, co-star Nick Frost, director Edgar Wright and Serafinowicz used to compete every Thursday at a pub in Highgate, in north London.
While those around him became famous, Serafinowicz was stuck with cult status. He had a solid background in radio – his debut, The Knowledge, a spoof documentary about the music industry, was broadcast on Radio 1 in 1993; he later performed on Radio 4’s Weekending and Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner – that led eventually to television work.
With Robert Popper, Serafinowicz co-created, co-wrote and acted in Look Around You on BBC2. A clever pastiche of Tomorrow’s World and 70s school programmes, the 2002 series was nominated for a Bafta and, a few years later, was recommissioned.
Look Around You showcased not only Serafinowicz’s sharp, strange comedy mind, but also his inherent geekiness: it worked in part because of its obsessive attention to detail. Graham Linehan, creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd as well as being Serafinowicz’s brother-in-law (Linehan is married to Serafinowicz’s sister), thinks that the first series of Look Around You is seriously underrated: ‘If more people had seen it, I’m sure it would now be a classic. Perhaps some were put off because each show only lasted for 10 minutes. In my mind, however, it’s as good as The Day Today.’
Finally, however, Serafinowicz’s geekiness paid off. In February last year, he went to Los Angeles with his actress girlfriend Sarah Alexander. While she was doing a pilot called Teachers, he auditioned for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s follow-up to The West Wing. ‘I heard they were casting for the role of a cast member/writer for this show that was supposed to be like Saturday Night Live.’
His younger brother – and best friend – James flew over from London to help out. ‘On the TV in LA from January onwards everything is Oscars, Oscars, Oscars. So we decided on that. James had a semi-professional video camera and I’m a bit of a whiz on my Mac, so we put a showreel together very cheaply.’
The result was O! News, a send-up of the celebrity-fixated E! Entertainment channel. Serafinowicz played the permatanned anchor, Kennedy St King, as well as a long list of actors talking surreal nonsense. It was so low budget that its backdrop was a piece of black card and when Serafinowicz was playing Al Pacino, Sarah Alexander drew the actor’s goatee on with a make-up pencil. But its ad-hoc nature simply added to its charm and its tone was perfect: at one point, George Michael laments his fame, saying: ‘It’s got so bad I’ve got to meet my boyfriend on a space station.’
Serafinowicz didn’t get the part in Studio 60, so instead he posted O! News on YouTube. ‘The reaction was phenomenal. More than 100,000 people watched the video in the first two days it was up there.’ The BBC decided to be brave and offered Serafinowicz his own show on the basis of O! News, although, in truth, his time was always going to come – it was just a matter of when and with which vehicle.
Like most comedians of his generation, Serafinowicz talks of Monty Python as an influence, but his first real inspiration was Peter Sellers. Growing up in Liverpool, he used to listen to his father’s tapes of The Goon Show and dream of being a comedian or an impressionist. When he first moved to London, Serafinowicz made the decision to adopt a received pronunciation accent when he appeared on comedies such as Weekending.
‘I would listen to Peter Sellers doing Hercules Grytpype-Thynne alongside Spike Milligan’s Moriarty, which were like the archetypal posh voices, and I’d copy them,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t aware of just how posh that sounded, because all southern voices were posh to my scummy Liverpool ears.’
Serafinowicz was so taken with Sellers that the influence of the late comedian overlapped from his work into his private life. ‘I read that he’d go out in London with a hat on and an overcoat and pretend to be a movie idol. I don’t know if I consciously copied that, but I certainly did subconsciously, especially on drunken nights.’
Coming from anyone else, such anecdotes might sound desperate, but somehow the image of Serafinowicz pretending to be Sellers pretending to be a movie star is hilarious, especially if one remembers Serafinowicz’s towering height.
The new show is a perfect showcase for those just realising who this very tall man is: at its core is a series of accurate impressions, all of which are presented in surreal situations. Not everything works, but the good bits are very good: Michael-6, The Robot Talk Show Host is a daft, irreverent deconstruction of loathsome daytime chatshows led by the likes of Jeremy Kyle; the Michael Caine masterclass in acting is spot-on.
Serafinowicz is, it seems, torn between the allure of new technology and the romance he feels for the traditional format of television. He is also one of the first comedians to benefit directly from the immediacy of the internet.
‘Even in 2002, when we were making Look Around You, it would take months, even years, to turn your ideas into something people could sit down and watch. Now you can have an idea for a sketch, film and edit yourself and post it on to the internet the next day, where thousands of people will instantly tell you whether they think it’s funny.’
He clearly believes that television has a limited shelf life. ‘This show is like a love letter to television, before it all disappears,’ he says. ‘How will old programmes survive when everyone will be able to download anything they want? There’s no mystique about being on television any more. You see these people go on Jeremy Kyle and carry on their miserable lives as if the cameras weren’t there. Which is why we came up with Michael-6 – the people in our sketch just ignore him.’
There is something almost cosy about the way Serafinowicz works: brother James is producer and co-writer on the new show – he previously worked on the notorious Brass Eye paedophilia special, Big Train and The Mark Steel Lectures – while Peter showed early sketches to his Hot Fuzz friends as well as Sarah Alexander.
‘It’s no good everyone patting you on the back and telling you how hilarious you are,’ says Serafinowicz. ‘You want to find out what bits they hated, what jokes they didn’t get, so you can go back and tweak them.’
After spending so much time in the shadows – ‘I’ve been bursting to do this kind of show for a long time’ – Serafinowicz now has a chance of claiming the limelight. According to those who know him, there is little risk of his new celebrity leading to either arrogance or complacency.
‘I still find it very hard to describe exactly why he’s so funny,’ says Linehan. ‘I remember hearing him on the radio years ago talking about the world’s longest elevator in a sketch; I phoned him up afterwards and we became friends. His jokes have a different flavour; he has a funny scent.’
Linehan hopes that Serafinowicz has a chance to continue developing and exploring possibilities. ‘Whatever Peter does is interesting. He’s very experimental and comes at everything from an odd angle, which may explain why he has yet to achieve real mainstream success. I always say to him that when he sells out, he’s going to be huge, but he has no interest in selling out.’
In fact, just now, Peter Serafinowicz is only interested in how the new show is received. ‘I don’t want there to be anything cruel or sneering about my comedy. Just silliness. Most of it is just plain daft, completely stupid.’
The Serafinowicz lowdown
Born: 20 July 1972 in a ‘rough part of Gateacre’ in Liverpool. He attended Our Lady of the Assumption RC Primary School and then St Francis Xavier’s College. His brother James, 27, is also in the business. Peter lives in west London with actress Sarah Alexander (Smack the Pony) and their six-month-old son.
Best of times: Appearing as the voice of Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. ‘Seeing rushes, actors walking in front of a green screen and George Lucas in the recording booth with me – terrifying!’
Worst of times: Spending much of his 20s doing voiceovers while trying to find a way to make it on his own terms.
What he says: ‘If I’m doing impressions, I need to be as malleable as possible. I’ve got distinctive facial features: big, bulgy, droopy eyes, big nose… there’s a limit to what I do. I don’t want to impersonate people I don’t even look like, so I try to do people who have at least got similar features to me, like Paul McCartney or Al Pacino.’
What others say: ‘I genuinely find everything Peter does, both on and off camera, very, very funny. He’s been behaving like this – doing stupid impressions, having daft ideas – ever since we were kids.’
James Serafinowicz, brother, producer and co-writer on the new show