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Peter Serafinowicz: A big name in comedy

The character comic talks to Jay Richardson about Butterfield, Arrested Development, Bad Sugar and more

He’s a superb mimic and talented comic actor who pops up in all manner of programmes – although his own star vehicle was short lived. But the prolific Peter Serafinowicz is about to have a bumper year, with a batch of new movie projects in the pipeline.

His hapless overweight businessman Brian Butterfield is to become the star of his own film; he’s appearing in the big-screen version of cult American sitcom Arrested Development, and he’s developing The Other Side, the Radio 4 series apparently broadcast from the afterlife, for Film 4.

Next year also sees the publication of his first joke book – and he’s just finished shooting the pilot of Channel 4’s Bad Sugar, written by Peep Show’s Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. All that and he’s making tentative appearances on London’s stand-up circuit to boot.

The Butterfield movie – which he is writing with Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, placing the character as an inept private investigator – could be the one that makes his name. Serafinowicz likens the plot to the Pink Panther and Naked Gun series. ‘We wanted to do a modern Clouseau movie but with our character’ he explains. ‘So he’s a really unsuccessful detective, just one of his many businesses that fail. Then this terrible detective becomes embroiled in a real case.’

Also working the screenplay are Serafinowicz’s brother James and Andrew Ellard, script editor for The IT Crowd and Red Dwarf.

‘We’re on the fourth or fifth incarnation of the script’ says 39-year-old Serafinowicz. ‘We want to spoof the genre like The Naked Gun and Police Squad but we’re trying to make the character three-dimensional. It’s great fun fleshing him out, giving him a backstory and family life.’

Last seen in August in a guest appearance on Shooting Stars, Butterfield made his TV debut on The Peter Serafinowicz Show. Promoting himself as a workplace injury lawyer, dietician and speaking clock amongst other doomed business ventures, The Butterfield Detective Agency revealed a less than impressive chameleonic range, including ‘lord mayor’s croupier’, ‘pyramid worker’ and ‘gay man’, as he pledged to return kidnapped loved ones ‘dead or alive’.

First airing on BBC Two in 2007, the show averaged around a million viewers and failed to secure a second series. Yet despite ‘the continuity announcer mispronouncing my name every single time the show was on’, he doesn’t think the BBC treated it ‘particularly unfairly’.

Withholding a laughter track undermined its mainstream appeal, he thinks, but forsaking that distraction extended the life of sketches ‘designed so they could be broken up and put on YouTube’.

‘What’s exciting is that people in America are taking an interest’ he says. ‘People in the industry there seem to know more about it than here for some reason. Maybe it’s because it’s on YouTube that it makes it out to be more successful than it was.’ He said Butterfield was ‘the character people most respond to’ and potential other spin-offs include him hosting a chat show, ‘something I’d still love to do.’

His working relationship with Hurwitz began on Running Wilde, the short-lived Fox network sitcom starring Arrested Development’s Will Arnett as self-centred billionaire Steve Wilde. Making his American television debut, Serafinowicz was Fa-ad Shaoulin, Wilde’s idle rich neighbour of suspiciously vague Middle Eastern origins.

‘It was dispiriting to be on a show with the viewing figures coming in, realising as you’re filming that it was going to be cancelled’ he sighs. ‘But otherwise, working with Mitch and Will in New York, it was kind of the perfect job, one of those “pinch yourself” moments where you find yourself creating something with one of your idols. Having Mitch on board for the Butterfield movie is a huge boon for us.’

Serafinowicz’s role in the forthcoming Arrested Development movie ‘has changed at least once’. But he doesn’t yet know if he will feature in the show’s 2013 US television return on subscription channel Netflix. ‘The film is good enough for me to be honest,’ he enthuses. ‘How can that not be exciting? It was the funniest TV show of the decade, one of the funniest ever!’

He employs a speedy, guerrilla approach to shooting, editing and posting his sketches online, exemplified by The Funny or Die skit in which he and Arnett share a passionate kiss, while their spouses, comedians Sarah Alexander and Amy Poehler, stand awkwardly by. ‘I can’t remember whose idea that was’ he admits. ‘Only that our wives weren’t too happy about it’.

Sadly, shooting Butterfield on the run isn’t practical, because ‘it’s too expensive and time-consuming, the costume and make-up alone takes between three and four hours’. At the same time, ‘trying to get stuff made for TV is really arduous, an extremely protracted process. So we figured, if we’re going to invest all this time, why not gamble on making a film? I don’t even know if I I’ll direct it. I doubt it. I’ll be in a fucking fat suit for God’s sake.’

Like the IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, who made his feature directing debut with Submarine last year, Serafinowicz honed his filmmaking skills on music videos, depicting comic Ross Lee as a creepy, boyband-obliterating alien for Hot Chip’s I Feel Better and starring in a Rocky/Robocop mashup for Alex Metric and Steve Angello's Open Your Eyes.

‘For a budding comedy director, a music video is a tremendous opportunity’ he says. ‘Making a short film is a depressing little cul-de-sac, an offshoot of the entertainment industry of about 1,000 people, where all they do is make short films. Music videos are seen by millions.’

In the last week, Serafinowicz finished shooting Bad Sugar alongside Olivia Colman, Julia Davis, Sharon Horgan, Reece Shearsmith and Kayvan Novak. It ‘started out as a spoof English version of Dynasty but has become entirely its own thing. It’s very over the top, a really odd show’.

As the gay heir to a coal fortune, Serafinowicz is pursued by the golddigging Horgan, who remains oblivious to his sexuality right up until their wedding night. ‘It’ll be difficult to get such an amazing cast together next year’ he stresses. ‘But we’ve all got very high hopes for it.’

Meanwhile, he and his Look Around You co-creator Robert Popper are re-writing The Other Side into a possible film, while continuing to develop their spoof religion Tarvuism into a vehicle for US television.

‘Robert and I love working together but we just end up too busy’ he laments. ‘He still has to finish the second series of Friday Night Dinner. But I’m excited because I love being in this world that we create, that odd, bleak universe.’

Meanwhile, he continues to craft 140-character-or-fewer jokes for Twitter, which will form the basis of his joke book. ‘I use Twitter as this big public joke pad and it’s been great discipline for me, learning how to write gags’ he explains. ‘Although it’s a very ephemeral medium, I’ve been stockpiling jokes since I began.’

Jimmy Carr suggested he adapt them for stand-up and Serafinowicz has been appearing semi-regularly on the London circuit ever since.

‘Jimmy’s very kindly been helping me out, mentoring me, turning my jokes into an act. I was about to say I enjoy it but the truth is I find it terrifying and extremely unpleasant. Yet there’s some part of me that keeps coming back. It’s good old-fashioned, terrifying fun.’

Posted: 19 Dec 2011

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