Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz of Look Around You
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Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz's short-lived comedy series Look Around You debuted on the BBC in 2002; the first season consisted of a mere eight 10-minute segments spoofing the classroom educational films Popper and Serafinowicz watched as kids in the late '70s and early '80s. But those super-short episodes, exploring topics like "Maths" and "Sulphur," garnered the BAFTA nominees a cult following, including comedy notables ranging from Tim and Eric to Matt Groening. Popper and Serafinowicz—part of the Brit comedy circle that includes Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright—later adjusted the format for the show's second and final season. They did away with narrator Nigel Lambert and the mock instructions to take notes during the "experiments" (zapping ghosts and observing ants building igloos, among other odd things), in favor of a magazine-style, mock-scientific journalism. But the first-season episodes were something special, and Adult Swim is currently airing them on Sunday nights for Americans' benefit. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Popper and Serafinowicz to discuss "horrible nostalgia" and their fascination with odd-sounding words.
The A.V. Club: The first season of Look Around You came out seven years ago. Why did it take so long to come to American television?
Robert Popper: 1902 it was almost, no?
Peter Serafinowicz: Ha ha ha. I don't know. It was 2002?
RP: The first series was on 2002, the second was 2005.
PS: Was it really? Seven years ago?
AVC: Is that surprising?
PS: It is a bit, yeah.
RP: We did make it, didn't we?
PS: It seems like it was quite recently that we made it, but also—
RP: …quite a long time ago. And you can quote that. I don't know, really, I know [the planners at Adult Swim] were fans, but I think it took a while to do some deal with the BBC or something quite boring, that's the boring answer.
PS: That's the boring and only answer.
AVC: How did you guys get hooked up with Adult Swim?
RP: I know Tim and Eric are big. I was out in L.A. last year, and Peter and I got to know Tim and Eric pretty well, and they introduced me to [Cartoon Network's] Matt Harrigan, and he was saying, "We love Look Around You, we'd love to put it on." I was like, "Yes, please do." We just kept saying, "Please, please put it on," and the rest is the future.
AVC: Your show is a lot like Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Or, rather, their show is a lot like yours.
PS: Yes, that is the way time works. I don't know, really—did they see our show?
RP: Yeah, they saw our show. Remember when we met them a few years ago? We had a lunch that we thought would be awkward, didn't we? And then it was fun, and then we went back to their place and showed them some Look Around You… We're good at interviews, aren't we?
AVC: Why did you think that lunch was going to be awkward?
RP: We didn't know them, did we? [A friend] said "You should meet these guys," and they sent us some DVDs, and we loved their stuff, Tom Goes To The Mayor. It wasn't awkward. In fact, Peter, you ended up taking your clothes off, didn't you?
PS: I put them back on. And Tim described it like a reunion when we met for the first time. It was really their next series that was totally unbelievably amazing, and was very sort of our kind of vibe as well.
RP: You're talking about Battlestar Galactica, when they wrote and made that? We thought Tim And Eric was the weirdest show, maddest show we'd ever seen, and then Xavier's on, and Tim And Eric is just like watching the news.
AVC: What about low-budget educational films appeals to you guys?
RP: I remember when Pete and I met like 10 years ago, August the 6th, and we used to talk about what kind of things we grew up with. We both remember these old educational films that were quite specific to British kids—these ones that had this horrific blue background. And we started getting some old tapes out, just searching and watching these tapes, and somehow that was our porn, wasn't it? Just watching old 1970s and early 1980s horrible educational grim films, and remembering that feeling.
PS: And it was great watching them from the safety of adulthood and not feeling threatened and terrified by them, and knowing that you hadn't gone that path of being a biochemical engineer or whatever. [At the time,] it seemed like one of only five jobs was available to you. By watching these things, it was—I suppose just watching stuff that's kind of—
PS: —that's sort of cheap, and they just do one take of everything and put it all together, and sometimes in quite an artful way. These original programs have often a kind of bleak beauty about them, you know? A sort of terrifying—
RP: Beautiful ugliness.
PS: Yeah, yeah.
RP: And we thought it would be good to emulate those, but twist the reality, so rather than just watching a comedy, you're watching a comedy that also is very evocative and specific, and made you think of being at school, being forced to watch a TV program for school. But not one you particularly enjoy.
AVC: Robert, you mentioned in another interview that the show evoked a feeling of "horrible nostalgia." What do you guys mean by that?
PS: I suppose it's like that quote, I don't know who said it, "The past is a foreign country." It's so weird to see this stuff that was from 20 years ago that you've lived through as well. Especially the second series of Look Around You: It just seemed so normal to us, these people talking so—
RP: They were just such—I don't know, it was so formal, wasn't it? TV then. It was really formal and—
PS: Formal and slow.
RP: You couldn't really relax watching it, and there wasn't really much talk about entertaining in any way. We quite like that, people wearing bowties and suits and things just because there's a camera aimed at them.
PS: The entertainment threshold was a lot lower then, wasn't it?
AVC: Is there a danger of being so true to the cringe-inducing aesthetic that you inadvertently alienate people?
RP: [Laughs.] Hopefully.
RP: We wanted to do an episode about trigonometry that was basically just about normal trigonometry.
PS: The whole thing with the series was that it was us talking about science in a very authoritative way, but neither of us know anything about science.
RP: And we didn't do any research, did we?
PS: No, and we thought that doing something as specific as advanced trigonometry, and doing a sort of animated thing where it's all pure equations—
PS: And lines.
RP: "Let's do that."
PS: "Beep! Problem three." Horrible, oh my God.
AVC: Have people complained about the factual errors they find in the show?
RP: Only on YouTube, you get someone saying, "I can't believe they said that scissors appear in the sky." And then you'll get another person going, "You dumb-ass, it's a joke." [Laughs.] A lot of science teachers have e-mailed us saying that they've shown it to their kids as a joke, you know, but said it's real.
RP: It's all made with fondness though, isn't it?
PS: Yeah, total fondness.
RP: And made with weirdness.
RP: Fondness and weirdness. Weird fondness.
AVC: How much tech goes into creating the low-budget-like visuals?
PS: For the first series, we tried to shoot it as they would've shot it, so 16mm. And then when we did use special effects, it seemed to stand out more, you know? Like the first short film that we did, "Calcium."
AVC: The precursor to the show?
PS: Right, right.
RP: Quite hardcore, that one.
PS: Yeah, that is quite hardcore.
RP: But not as hardcore as "Trig."
AVC: In "Calcium," the experiments actually seemed realistic, as opposed to the ridiculous ones from season one. Was there a conscious effort to stray further from reality later on?
RP: "Calcium" wasn't even a pilot, we just started writing, and we thought, "Let's just make this." And it wasn't for a TV series, it was just for fun, and we did it all for free, so we made it however long it was—and it happened to be 20 minutes. It led to a TV series, and we had 10 minutes, and we had to make it slightly sillier and a bit lighter.
PS: We wanted to put more jokes in it as well. There's probably, like, three times as many jokes in each 10-minute one as there is in the 20-minute "Calcium." And the jokes are, as you know, not like Mr. Bean or Friends.
RP: Like: putting a dirty pipe away in a silver box.
PS: There are lots of disguised puns or just funny little things. It's like all these little comedic things trying to break out of this super-serious prison. [Laughs.]
RP: Super-serious prison, I like that.
PS: We had the première for the first series at the IMAX in London.
RP: The biggest screen in the country, and we had these tiny fingers pointing at, like, a little block of sulfur.
AVC: There's something terrifying about seeing tiny things blown up way too big.
RP: Yeah. [At one point] when we watched these old shows, we saw this central nervous system. And it was a model of these little sort of metal sticks that formed a nervous system, and it said—
PS: No, it was a baby, wasn't it? A nervous system of a baby. It was horrible, anyway.
RP: [The narrator] said "Here's a model of the nervous system of a baby boy. And here's a baby boy's penis." It was unbelievable. They would have close-ups, very slow, on like, the top of a battery, and you'd just be forced to stare at something you've never stared at for much longer than you normally would. And we'd never really seen that before in comedy. So we like the slow pace, and we like forcing yourself to look at irritating images in extreme close-up for quite a long time.
PS: For the first series, we actually shot a gag reel. We had, like, the scientist coming in with a pencil onto a battery, and then the battery just falling over. I think we only ended up with about three, so it would've been very short.
AVC: What influenced the shift in format between season one and season two?
RP: Basically, we tried to get a second series of the 10-minute ones, but the slot it was on in the BBC was looking for new things. We could spend a whole life making these 10-minute ones, but we said, "Can we do another series? A 30-minute one." But they wanted humans in it instead of just hands.
PS: I mean, that's an entirely reasonable request for a comedy series.
RP: We should've had humans, but with like hands as heads. One big hand.
PS: There wasn't really an analogous series that had humans in, really.
RP: What, any TV series?
PS: We settled on this show Tomorrow's World as the basis for the second series, which was about science. It was on once a week, early evening, and the whole nation would watch this show about computers and robots, if you were lucky. But usually it was about some kind of disabled toilet system.
RP: You know, like, a new way of making a brick wall or something like that.
PS: And they were obsessed with burglar alarms for some reason. But sometimes you'd have a really cool one, like about synthesizers or samplers or the space shuttle or—
RP: Compact discs.
PS: Yeah, compact discs. My God, doesn't that sound old-fashioned now? The presenters were trying to have fun as well, in this very sort of dead world. They were very choked in a way that people just aren't. They'd talk very quietly and very slowly, and with a little quarter-smile all the time.
AVC: You guys stopped after the second season. Is something else going to happen with Look Around You, now that you've jumped to American TV?
RP: We're going to be commissioned by Adult Swim to make lots more Look Around Yous! [Laughs.] I mean, there were talks of doing a musical… No. What do you think, Pete?
PS: One daydream that I've had is that Pixar got in touch with us, and wanted to do another module of the first series.
RP: We'll bankrupt them. Pixar's closed, a billion children hate us.
AVC: You're working on a new show for Adult Swim about the fictional religion Tarvuism, correct?
PS: It's just like sort of a televised Sunday service, but for this totally invented religion, where the whole congregation are used to all these sort of ridiculous, "You stand here, and now you kiss each other on the nose, and then the men sit while the women stand, and the men sing…" I'd say our comedy falls under the banner "unpopular culture." [Laughs.]
AVC: Your show gets inventive with its wordplay—making up a product called "Garry Gum," which induces "diarrhoea." What is your word-creation process like?
RP: We used to have like a notebook, which had lots of our kind of words; we read them out if we were trying to name a thing. Often it's just saying words.
PS: When we started up the Tarvu thing, we looked back at our old notebook for some inspiration. I think tlel was in there.
RP: Yes it was. Have we used tlel yet?
PS: I don't know, maybe.
RP: That's a good word. T-L-E-L, tlel. Try saying that, it's annoying. And then s-r-a-r-n-u-m. Tlel srarnum.
PS: Tlel srarnum.
AVC: What does that mean?
RP: Nothing. It's two words that we've got to find a meaning for.
AVC: The first season ran for eight episodes, and the second for six. Why are British TV seasons so short?
PS: I don't know, what makes America so great? [Laughs.]
RP: Britain always thinks really big, doesn't it? I think it's just money.
PS: Like, a sitcom here is written by one person usually, and then you have 22 episodes a season in America, and there are four or five main writers, and a team.
RP: This bloody country.
AVC: Still, you guys are love-'em-and-leave-'em types, aren't you?
PS: Yeah, yeah. In fact sometimes we just leave them.