Had a chat with the BAFTA winning British comedian/producer/writer/actor Robert Popper a few days ago. Robert is (if you’re not already aware) one of the co-creators (along with Peter Serafinowicz) of the British television comedy series ‘Look Around You’. He wrote the books ‘The Timewasters Letters’, ‘The Return of The Timewaster Letters’ and ‘The Timewasters Diaries’ under the pseudonym of Robin Cooper. He’s produced (Peep Show, etc), been script editor (The Inbetweeners, etc), and written (The Peter Serafinowicz Show, South Park, etc), far too many things to list in entirety to be quite honest, so here is a link to a list. He also makes excellent prank phone calls, acts, and has created (along with Peter) a religion.
Check out his site/blog, truly brilliant.
And now, my interview attempt.
me: So.. at what age did you realize you were very funny?
Robert Popper: Oh wow. Um. Maybe I had an inclination that I could make people laugh a bit when I was about 8. No, 9.
I used to make stupid audio tapes with my best buddy and listen back to them and play them to people and they seemed to like them. I’ve got one of them now. It is embarrassingly bad. But also sort of quite good. But actually terrible.
me: You should put it online! What was on them?
Robert Popper: I would literally die. It has my dad telling me off, and me playing my guitar in the garage. For extra reverb.
And I used to secretly tape my parents when they had friends over, so I have lots of really old and pointlessly dated mundane conversations.
me: What were some of things you watched most growing up?
Robert Popper: Monty Python, used to love all the old Laurel and Hardy films they’d show on TV, Fawlty Towers. But mainly Monty Python. I loved them. They’re the Beatles of comedy, he said in a cliched way…
me: Where did you start out?
Robert Popper: I started at a company called The Comic Strip back in 1994, so yonks ago. The Comic Strip was run by genius writer, director and actor, Peter Richardson, one of the godfathers of British ‘alternative’ comedy.
I worked as a runner, and his assistant and learnt lots about writing, watching him, and writing with him. I was there for a couple of years.
me: How long after that did you and Peter Serafinowicz come up with Look Around You? And how did the two of you meet?
Robert Popper: We met in 1998. I had co-written a mad 45 minute TV thing with Matt Lucas ad David Walliams and the (now head of BBC comedy) Mark Freeland. Peter was in it and we just instantly clicked. Then hung out for a lot cos we made each other laugh lots.
We kept wanting to write something together and started watching lots of weird old rubbish and soon realised we both loved these very specific British school programmes that focused on science.
Then one day we thought we should write a short film for a laugh and both decided that a comedy about the element, Calcium would be fun.
While we were writing, we just thought, let’s go and make this and within 5 weeks of coming up with the idea we’d somehow shot the film.
me: Any school programmes that influenced it in particular?
Robert Popper: Yes the programme ‘Experiment’ was the main one. It had that blue background. Those were the ones we remembered – we rarely got to see them at school, as we often got shown BBC Open University programmes which were different, and have been spoofed a lot (lots of men in flares and big beards etc). The blue background ones were spookier, trippier and quite sinister and similar to what became Look Around You.
‘Experiment’ was made by a guy called Jack Smith. Pete and I tracked down loads of his films. He made lots of educational programmes. They are all hideous and amazing.
me: Was it difficult to pitch originally?
Robert Popper: Well we made the short film in 2000/2001 and it was just that – a short film. We had no intention of making a TV show. We had no idea what people would think of it cos we kept it secret and knew that it was just so, so weird. Anyway, we held a big screening for our friends and all our comedy folk, and we were really nervous because it seemed, everyone in comedy was there. But it went down really well. People laughed loads, and then people said we should try to do a TV show.
Then people started calling us, and we went with production a company, Talkback, who used to make all the best comedy stuff – Alan Partridge, Chris Morris, etc. and the BBC said they had some 10 minute slots – which were rare – and they offered us 6 shows. We said 10. And they agreed on 8!
me: Who composed the music in Look Around You? The music in Reggae is too good.
Robert Popper: Me and Peter did all the music. We are ‘Gelg’.
me: Can I find it anywhere?
Robert Popper: No unfortunately. People have asked us to release the music. Maybe we will at some point.
me: Listened to your stuff on Soundcloud, you’re pretty good at guitar! Very actually.
Robert Popper: Thank you very much. Yeah I love playing and writing stuff. Also the guy I have started doing music with – Justin Spooner – is a great musician.
me: How did you come up with the idea to become Robin Cooper and write The Timewasters Letters? And the Timewasters Diaries, and all those phonecalls?!
Robert Popper: So many questions at once!
Me: Haha, I’m sorry!
Robert Popper: The Letters: Again – like most of the things I do – the letters started as a sort of ‘hobby’. I had no intention to make a book at first. Basically I got sent a garden furniture brochure randomly as junk mail. So I wrote back for fun – using the name Robin Cooper purely so not to use my real name, cos I used my home address. I wrote saying I designed scarecrows made from beef. And they wrote back!
So I wrote back and then I thought ‘this is fun’. Then I thought about who else I could write to and I really liked the idea of hobby groups and amateur and professional associations. They seemed so quintisentially British to me, and I figured, would probably write back. The more I wrote, the more the character developed.
I amassed loads and used to show them to friends until they got passed to a magazine supremo called James Brown here in the UK. He started running them in one of his mags and we built up a big cult following every month. Then people said I should try for a book. It took me 4 years to get it published. Everyone turned it down but I knew it would come out in the end.
me: I think my favorite scarecrow is #3 ‘Liviticus in Distress’.
Robert Popper: Yes I really do love the scarecrow too. He actually genuinely makes me laugh. It’s just the fact that he’s so chubby and stares right back at you with completely blank eyes!
me: And the hook hands.
Robert Popper: Figgis hooks.
me: How did you and Peter come up with Tarvu?
Robert Popper: Peter and I had had this joke for a few years that our god was called Tarvu. No idea where it came from. Then we just kept talking about it and started writing a wikipedia – that was locked so only we could see it – and we’d each add bits and write new sections, basically just to make ourselves laugh. Then when we had amassed loads, we decided to make a little film, and wrote a script and got these people in America to make it for us, using actors who we vetted and instructions on how to shoot it. Then we took the footage and edited it and made it look Tarvuist!
Robert Popper: It is very difficult to learn to talk to an octopus, as octopuses are notoriously bad-tempered. It takes months of intense learning, but through time, can be achieved with no, or little ill-effects. All my wives have proposed by a-manfi’ing.
me: What kind of people would you recommend practice Tarvu? Is it for everyone?
Robert Popper: It is for all humanity.
Robert is currently writing a new sitcom called Friday Night Dinner. •