A love letter to TV
Peter Serafinowicz on his new sketch show
It was while he was bored in Los Angeles, hanging around between auditions and a role in a sitcom that never aired, that the actor shot a comedy sketch for his own amusement. Then he banged it on YouTube where it so impressed Beeb bosses that they decided to put his name in lights. And with a name as long as Serafinowicz, that’s quite a lot of bulbs.
The fairytale passage to primetime was surely help by his previous form. He’s appeared in everything from Shaun Of The Dead to Black Books, not to mention the cult success of spoof science show Look Around You, and the voice of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.
But, over a coffee in a family deli near his West London home, he insists it was the YouTube clip which swung it – cutting through months of meetings and pilots to get the commission.
‘It’s probably the biggest reaction I’ve had to anything. It had something like 100,000 hits in three days,’ he said. ‘And where it would take months and months to turn your ideas into something people could watch, now you can put something together instantly.'
The clip was a spoof Hollywood entertainment show, O! News, reporting on a bold new look for the Oscars statuette. It was inspired in part by the wall-to-wall TV coverage leading up to the awards in LA – and partly down to sheer boredom.
‘My girlfriend, Sarah Alexander, was out there doing a pilot called Teachers, that was very loosely based on the British version, and I went with her.
‘I also heard they were casting for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, for the role of a cast member/writer for this show that was supposed to be like Saturday Night Live. I’m a huge fan of Saturday Night Live and a huge fan of Studio 60 creator Aaron Sorkin, who also did The West Wing, so it was a part I really wanted
‘I had to make up a sketch for the show. So I did an impression of Alan Alda, doing the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars, that whole hologram speech. They’d done things like that that on SNL before, stars’ audition tapes for Star Wars, so I sort of nicked that idea but I didn’t think anyone’s going to do Alan Alda.’
The Alda impression, which pops up in the BBC Two show, did the trick and he got down to the final two. ‘We had to audition for Sorkin, which was terrifying to meet a hero. But I didn’t get the part, and I was really fucked off,’ he admits
But Serafinowicz did win another role, in a Friends-style show called Our 30s. ‘Everyone was trying to do a version Friends, but set a bit later on – when the characters are all in their thirties,’ he says. ‘But it just didn’t happen. The one I did, there were nine main characters – far too many.’
But he was still obliged to hang around in Los Angeles waiting for work to start on that aborted sitcom. ‘I couldn’t do anything because I was committed to this show,’ he said. ‘So I had this idea of doing a showreel.
‘Also, My brother James was bored back in England, and we’re like best friends as well, so I said, “Why don’t you come out here and we’ll make something.”
‘On the TV in LA, from about January everything on TV is Oscars, Oscars, Oscars – they can’t help it that’s all they do there. So we decided on that. He had a video camera, a semi-professional one, about £1,000 and I’m a bit of a whiz on my Mac, so we put it together very cheaply.
‘It’s amazing what you can do these days. What used to be a £1million studio in a Soho post-production house you can now do on a £1,000 laptop and a few hundred quid for an editing programme.
‘YouTube has totally democratised the whole process, too. The revolutionary thing about it was that you could email a link to someone and five minutes later they’d be watching it. You didn’t have to email a 5MB WMV file that would probably look shit, even if you could play it, and you didn’t need to make sure you had the right codec for it to work.’
Codecs? WMV files? Serafinowicz is talking more like an IT geek than a cutting-edge comedian. But not only is the 35-year-old a self-confessed technofreak, his anoraky tendencies extend to comedy, too. His conversation drops the names of Saturday Night Live cast members, an obscure cult US series called Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! which he cites as a favourite, and even the NBC executive who championed Seinfeld, who he calls ‘a bit of a comedy icon’. The man certainly knows his comedy stuff.
Comedy seems to run in his family, too. His brother James, who co-wrote the new show, worked on the Brass Eye paedophilia special, Big Train and The Mark Steel Lectures (and they previously collaborated on Blankety Blank sketch for Comic Relief starring the cream of British comedy), while his brother-in-law is Father Ted and IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan. In fact, it was Linehan who introduced him to YouTube.
‘He sent me this link to Chronicles of Narnia, these two white guys doing gangsta rap – Andy Samburg and Chris Parnell from Saturday Night Live. It was brilliant – one of the most perfect things: so silly, sweet and stupid.’
Serafinowicz is genuinely enthused by the possibilities Web 2.0 creates. But isn’t there a fear that the cult of the amateur, and the fact that internet content needs to fit in to short chunks, means that the days of quality, long-form TV like his beloved West Wing could be numbered.
‘Maybe,’ he concedes. ‘This show is like a love letter to television, before it all disappears. How will these old programmes survive when everyone will be able to download anything they want.’
‘There’s not mystique about being on TV anymore. You see these people go on Jeremy Kyle and carry on their miserable lives as if the cameras weren’t there, there’s no prestige about it. That’s why we came up with Michael-6, a robot talk-show host (right). The people in our sketch just ignore him.’
The Peter Serafinowicz Show was initially intended to be an impression-based show, but they soon broadened out the idea to encompass all sort of TV spoofs, from pared-down gameshows like Heads Or Tales, to adverts that make Cillit Bang’s Barry Scott look demure.
‘There’s a definite naffness to doing impressions,’ Serafinowicz says. ‘Funny impressions can be funny in their own right, but often for about ten seconds, that’s it. That’s the sort of thing that put me off. It was a block for me.’
His range of impressions was also limited by his size. He’s 6ft 4in and used to be quite heavy-set, although his stint in LA got him in physical shape too, as he embraced the Californian fitness culture.
‘I thought I if I’m doing impressions, I need to be as malleable as possible,’ he said. ‘I’ve got distinctive facial features: big bulgy droopy eyes, big nose… There’s a limit to what I can 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.
‘So I’m limited anyway, and I didn’t want another obstacle, so I lost a lot of weight.
‘Also, I thought if I’m going to be in America, you’ve got to be on top of your game. Not only is everyone there really funny and talented, everyone’s really fit, too.
‘A friend of mine Amy Poehler, from Saturday Night Live, describes going to LA from New York as like coming out of a nightclub. You think you’re pretty cool, but then the lights come on a 3am and you realise your make-up’s all over the place, your clothes are a mess and you’re looking really haggard. That what it’s like getting off the plane in LA.
‘You go for audition there and you sit in a room with six Brad Pits, three Keanu Reeveses and a Justin Timberlake – and they’re all clever and witty and ultra-talented and that’s the world. You’re competing against these people, so you have to be your best.
‘The image is that LA a nasty, soulless place – and that is the truth – but what is also true is that it draws immensely talented people from around the world.’
Serafinowicz was especially pleased to meet South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker while in Hollywood – and they asked him to voice the character of Darth Chef after Isaac Hayes sulked off the show, upset at their mocking of Scientology. ‘They were real heroes of mine, and I got to meet them,’ he says proudly.
From the look of the new show, he has tried to capture some of the outrageous silliness of South Park – without too much of its crudeness. That said, the most noticeable change to the redesigned Oscar statuette featured way back in that original O! News report was that it had a proud phallus.
‘We wanted to make the statue different, and were racking our brains thinking what it could be. Then I said the phrase I think a lot of comedy writers have when they’re trying to think of something. They’ll say, “Not this, but…” so I suggested “Not this but… the Oscar has a cock.
‘I think you say that if an idea feels a bit Route One, “The Oscar has got a cock ha-de-ha”. But we didn’t come with anything better than that, and sometimes the simple idea is the best.’
You can see how Peter Serafinowicz’s simple ideas worked out on Thursdays at 9.30pm on BBC Two.
Interview by: Steve Bennett
Peter Serafinowicz: A Life On YouTube
Serafinowicz’s original O! News clip is no longer on line, but here's some of his work, starting with the Blankety Blank sketch:
Michael-6, from the new show:
A longer clip from the new show:
Look Around You:
Posted: 4 Oct 2007