The Sound of Young America: Robert Popper, British Comedy Writer of Look Around You and Friday Night Dinner

Episode 59

31st August 2011

Robert Popper is a British comedy writer behind projects like the BBC mock educational series “Look Around You” with Peter Serafinowicz and the new BBC America series “Friday Night Dinner”. He’s also an accomplished prankster. We’ll talk to him about regressing to childhood in the company of your siblings and parents, the construction of some of his favorite comedy bits, and more.

Episode notes

Xeni Jardin steps in as guest host this week! Xeni is a longtime co-editor and blogger at BoingBoing and a tech journalist who’s provided commentary or reporting to NPR’s Day to Day, PBS’s NewsHour, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and ABC World News Tonight among others. She’s currently working on a series of stories for PBS about the physical and economic damage and fallout from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this year.

She’ll talk to Robert Popper, a BAFTA-winning comedy writer and producer who is responsible for the very funny BBC mock educational series Look Around You (with collaborator Peter Serafinowicz) and now, the creation and writing of the BBC America series Friday Night Dinner. Every episode follows a different Friday night as adult brothers Jonny and Adam return to the family homestead for a meal with their (slightly off) parents.

In the past, Robert has worked on Peep Show, South Park, and a number of other TV programs. He’s also well known as an accomplished prankster. We’ll talk to him about regressing to childhood in the company of your siblings and parents, the construction of some of his favorite comedy bits, prank phone calls from his alter ego Robin Cooper, and more.

The final episode of the first season of Friday Night Dinner airs this Saturday at 11:30/10:30c on BBC America. It’s also available for download from the iTunes store.

Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
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XENI JARDIN: Welcome to The Sound of Young America, I’m Xeni Jardin in for Jesse Thorn. Sitting here with me today is the brilliant, the illustrious, the genius funny man, Robert Popper.

ROBERT POPPER: Thank you very much. That’s my natural

XENI JARDIN: Robert, I’ve followed your work for many years.

ROBERT POPPER: And you’ve literally followed me around.

XENI JARDIN: I’ve literally followed you around. I follow you on Google Maps, you’re a little blue dot.

ROBERT POPPER: I’m a little blue dot.

XENI JARDIN: A friendly, pulsating dot.

ROBERT POPPER: Pulsating with love.

XENI JARDIN: Well now that we have that out of the way. You have a new series out on BBC America, Friday Night Dinner, but people listening to The Sound of Young America may know you from other TV projects or from some interesting phone calls that made there way around the internet by way of YouTube and by way of Podcasts.

I want to start with talking about Friday Night Dinner, this most recent project. You are the creator of this series?

ROBERT POPPER: I’m the creator of all life forms on Earth.

XENI JARDIN: Now that’s Tarvuism, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

ROBERT POPPER: That’s Tarvu, we’ll get to that. No, I am, it’s my show. It’s a thing I wrote and produced. Yeah, Friday Night Dinner, which is a kind of – – I hate the word sitcom, but it’s a sitcom.

XENI JARDIN: There’s actually a tight format here. There’s a structure to every episode, every Friday night.

ROBERT POPPER: It’s kind of based a little bit on my upbringing. I’m Jewish, I’m not religious, but on Friday nights I would quite often go home to my mom and dad with my younger brother. What I noticed was that thing when you go home, I think it’s a universal thing, when you go home to your parents when you’ve left the house and have grown up, you sort of revert to being 13 again. Everyone reverts to being kids. It’s kind of that adults as children thing that I thought was good, but it was something I wanted to write about.

XENI JARDIN: Like that environment is so strong no matter how far you go.

ROBERT POPPER: Exactly, once they close the front door you’re in that weird bubble, and everyone has that weird bubble. I wanted to write something that was really specific. Pretty much based on my family, exaggerated. I wanted to write something that was really specific, and there’s no – – I didn’t want a big set up episode, I just wanted you to just get into it, get involved straight away. And go, who are these people? Oh they have their own weird lingo and syntax and the way they do and say things, but the more you watch you go yeah, I see, and you go well, we don’t do that. Or we have our own way.

XENI JARDIN: The first episode that I watched there’s this subversive running gag throughout the whole show of some mysterious thing going on with dad’s junk.

ROBERT POPPER: Yeah, the boys come home and one of them is looking through the window, the other says what are you doing and he says look at dad, and he sees dad and he hasn’t got his top on. He goes yeah, dad’s got no top on, he never has a top on. He says yeah, but look at what he’s doing, and dad his peering into his underpants for ages. And then he takes a magnifying glass, and it’s like, what is wrong with dad. What’s going on. You find out in the end, I won’t ruin it, but what’s wrong with dad’s thingy.

XENI JARDIN: One of the other things from the same episode, one of the characters has written a jingle for radio and I remember thinking when that part of the story passed, was this Robert? Are there little glimpses of your life beyond the set up of the show?

ROBERT POPPER: Growing up, whenever I was single, my dad would always take me to a room, sometimes the toilet, for a private chat.

XENI JARDIN: Just like in the show.

ROBERT POPPER: Yeah, he’d take me to the toilet.

XENI JARDIN: Can we have a talk?

ROBERT POPPER: I knew what it would be about, he would say, any… females? He always described them as females. Dad, please, and we’d have this chat. Any females? What about going on the internet? That’s what he used to ask later on. I didn’t want to tell him, why should I tell him.

XENI JARDIN: And the topless dad here actually tries to set up his son with an online dating service, did your dad ever do this?

ROBERT POPPER: No, they never did that. There’s this scene, I just thought it would be a funny thing, a father and son looking at women together.

In families, you can get that intimate and it’s kind of normal and you tolerate it, but you wouldn’t tolerate it with your friends. That’s kind of something I wanted to write about, that horrible intimacy. That embarrassingness. Half the time I hope people watch the show half covering their eyes, so they only see half of it. You know what I mean though? Embarrassed.

XENI JARDIN: Simon Bird, well known for the hit The Inbetweeners.

ROBERT POPPER: He sort of plays a version of me. It’s not really me, but it’s kind of the older brother. I thought he was perfect. I’d worked on The Inbetweeners, I script edited the show, and I just had his voice. We’re quite similar people, wherein if we go out to eat we always have apple juice. I’ve never met anyone that orders apple juice. Isn’t that an amazing fact, that we’re apple juice drinkers? I’m not shy to admit it.

XENI JARDIN: Is there a difference in how you approach a project for American audiences as opposed to approaching something that’s going to air in the UK primarily?

ROBERT POPPER: I really don’t, I haven’t done – – apart from writing on South Park for four episodes, I haven’t done an American thing. When I’m writing it I’m writing what I know; I’m writing a show that’s – – I’m not thinking, this is going to go on in America. I did find out that – – in the show they have the meal, and for dessert they have a thing called apple crumble, a crumble is a British thing, but I found out a crumble in America is like a cheese dish?

XENI JARDIN: Or when you say that I’m thinking like a coffee cake in the South, something you have with breakfast or lunch.

ROBERT POPPER: Right, because you have cobbler don’t you? Things like that. I just write for me and if it makes – – hopefully it makes me laugh.

XENI JARDIN: When I watched the first few episodes of the series, I felt like, well this does feel like British humor; this feels like British sensibility, but it still works.

ROBERT POPPER: I think it does. I think Friday Night Dinner has more of a resonance in America because of the Jewish thing. It’s about Jewish family who are religious, and this is what they do. In England – – your humor is so infused with Jewishisms like Seinfeld, you get it. You just sort of get it, whereas in England we don’t really have that history of that Jewish syntax thing. Friday Night Dinner, lots of people don’t know what the concept of Friday Night Dinner is, but over here people go, oh, Friday Night Dinner, I get it. I’m hoping it will resonate a little bit.

XENI JARDIN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Xeni Jardin, in for Jesse Thorn. My guest is Robert Popper. Before he wrote Friday Night Dinner, he co-created Look Around You, a ridiculous parody of English educational programming from the 70s and 80s. Here, the show provides a scientific introduction to that fascinating organ, the human brain.

The other project that I still try to turn people on to when they’re getting to know me and getting to understand what I find funny is Look Around You. Just this morning somebody pointed me to a series of internet videos – – I’m actually getting ready to go to Japan tomorrow.

ROBERT POPPER: I’ve seen those ones.

XENI JARDIN: And somebody pointed me to a series of videos about Japanese culture, and I thought for the first few minutes that I was watching an actual cultural tutorial, and then I realized, this is a spoof video from a group called Rahmen. Someone said, this is exactly like Look Around You. Look Around You is a series of faux-educational videos. Sort of like what you would watch if you were in school in the UK in the 70s.

ROBERT POPPER: Yeah, in the late 70s or early 80s. I got to work with Peter Serafinowicz, which was such fun to my ear. Series one, which is kind of like those short ten minute ones, are really really crazy. The scripts are so weird to read, they’re like experiments. They’re about sulfur.

XENI JARDIN: Sulfagne.

ROBERT POPPER: Sulfagne, which of course is sulfur mixed with champagne, that’s what it produces. It’s all done dead pan and real. We couldn’t believe that BBC allowed us to make this series and put it on. A big channel, BBC2 is a big channel.

XENI JARDIN: This was an interesting – – there’s an interesting story behind this as I recall as to why these segments were a sort of odd length.

ROBERT POPPER: They had these weird ten minute slots for new comedy. Peter and I thought of this idea of doing these fake but very real, these shows, because we were watching all these old shows that we got from some film library. So we just decided to make a short film for fun, and then once we did that we did a big screening, we invited everyone to come. We didn’t think to make it as a TV show, we just thought let’s do it as fun, and then word got around and the BBC said oh, we’ve got these ten minute slots. So we did them for that. Like on Sulfur and Iron and Ghosts, which was fun.

XENI JARDIN: I think one of my favorite episodes was the one that involved – – I’m even forgetting the theme of the episode, but you break out into song – –

ROBERT POPPER: Oh yeah, little mouse.

XENI JARDIN: Yeah! Little mouse, I hope you understand – –

ROBERT POPPER: Yeah, it was all about music, because we had a computer called the Harrington 1200 that could write music songs, you just had to tell it the key it was in, which the song was in S, and the name of the song, “Little Mouse,” and the speed, quite fast. And it gives you a printout of the song, and we just thought it would be so funny to then cut to a sort of pop video.

That was the best. That was the best day of my life.

XENI JARDIN: Serious? Frolicking around?

ROBERT POPPER: I was outside, it was a really nice beautiful day. I played guitar since I was a kid and I always wanted – –


ROBERT POPPER: Yeah, yeah, I do all the music. I always wanted to be a musician, that was my thing. And now I’m going to dress up in 70s clothes and jump around singing this ridiculous song in front of everyone and mime it and do it on top of this semi-castle. It was brilliant. Such a laugh.

XENI JARDIN: So the first season of Look Around You was these surreal ten minute things, and then you went off into more narrative territory later.

ROBERT POPPER: They wouldn’t give us another series for some reason. We did pretty well – –

XENI JARDIN: They’re awesome!

ROBERT POPPER: Thank you, but they said no, typical BBC, the ten minute things are just for new things, so we don’t series them. Oh, okay.

XENI JARDIN: So the fact that it was new at once and successful..

ROBERT POPPER: They just said we’ll try other things out there. We said, oh, because we wanted to spend our whole life just making those. I would have been happy doing them forever.

XENI JARDIN: As would the world have been.

ROBERT POPPER: Yeah, just living in that world, in a basement filming with a blue background and dressed up in science clothes pointing at test tubes. That’s the best job in the world.

XENI JARDIN: Down in your copy book.

ROBERT POPPER: Exactly, write it down in your copy book. I’ve got that copy book prop in my office, it’s great.

XENI JARDIN: With Peter’s brother studiously looking on.

ROBERT POPPER: Yes, looking bored and studious. Then we said, please can we have a second series? No, no, no, no. We don’t do second series for these slots. Oh, but…we liked doing it. Please? No. And then about a year and a half later we get a phone call, We’re interested in a second series. Oh, right. But it has to be 30 minutes long and you have to have people in it. So it’s like, okay. We can’t just have people pointing at test tubes, so we had to rethink the whole thing.

XENI JARDIN: One of the episodes that found new life online involved a computer for women. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played that or showed that to people. The Petticoat 5.

ROBERT POPPER: The Petticoat 5, yes, the computer made by women for women. She had really big teeth, her name was Patricia, but she didn’t have a last name. She said, I do have a last name, but it’s silent.

And she’s covered in makeup, the woman. Yes, I don’t wear makeup myself, and we have a closeup of her and she’s covered in makeup.

XENI JARDIN: Both of those series, one of the things they have in common is the fact that they seem to draw from growing up in a particular era in the UK.

ROBERT POPPER: Yes, maybe I want to regress and be living wombs.

XENI JARDIN: Is it 1975? Is it 1980?

ROBERT POPPER: Friday Night Dinner is modern, of course. Pete and me – – 1981 is the year we thought – – around then was quite, in Britain, sort of spooky for some reason. It always looked a bit spooky.

XENI JARDIN: New Order was all alive.

ROBERT POPPER: Yup, definitely. It was just cold – –

XENI JARDIN: Cool music out of Manchester.

ROBERT POPPER: It was just a kind of – – between 1979 and 1981 were kind of weird times in Britain.


ROBERT POPPER: Don’t know. Just remember being growing up and it being cold and rainy and there would be strikes – – I can’t really, I can feel it. It’s a feeling I have. Also in the era I was in school and we watched those shows. I just remember that time.

XENI JARDIN: You watched those educational shows?

ROBERT POPPER: And even then thinking, I love these. These are fantastic.

XENI JARDIN: Because you’re not actually having to – –

ROBERT POPPER: And also listening to – – both me and Pete randomly, he’s from Liverpool and I’m from London, we didn’t know each other, but listening to shortwave radios as a kid. We were into listening to all that kind of Radio Moscow and world services from around the world and all that spooky thing, which informed a thing we did later on called Radio Spiritworld.

XENI JARDIN: This is a creepy surreal thing.

ROBERT POPPER: Yeah, it was just a thing.

XENI JARDIN: That could only happen on the internet.


XENI JARDIN: The internet is like the modern shortwave radio.

ROBERT POPPER: It totally is. I used to wear headphones in bed as a kid from like 10 to 15, probably more actually, and tune into weird – – we had this old radio in the house and we’d listen to Radio Moscow and it would be all crackly and weird and giving you weird news and there opinions, it was during communism and things. And we’d still listen to all these weird channels like Radio Tehran, they were all really boring, like, rice production in the Soviet Union has increased by this much. I found it really hypnotic.

Pete used to do the same and we didn’t realize it. Always thought it would be good to do a show like that but then we thought it would be really good to do one from the spirit world, so it’d be the only radio station broadcasting from the afterlife to Earth, which we thought would be creepy. We’d make it funny as well, but also make it sound like that sound. It’s all very up. Hello! And welcome to Radio Spiritworld!

XENI JARDIN: The spiritworld is not a grim place.

ROBERT POPPER: Right, it’s just like, Hello, boy do we have a show for you today! We had a thing called How Did You Die. How did you die?

XENI JARDIN: Man on the street style.

ROBERT POPPER: Yeah. I died in my sleep, or, I was abandoned on a submarine and rotted away. Things like that. Two people saying we drowned, but all really upbeat.

XENI JARDIN: One of the other projects that I love that you can find a lot of on the internet – – you’re a prankster, you love doing these silly phone calls. You have a book, The Timewaster Letters.

ROBERT POPPER: Timewaster Letters were two books, and then The Timewaster Diaries, which was a novel based on the Timewaster Letters.

XENI JARDIN: I hope that I’m not putting any spoilers by revealing the fact that you assume different characters, different names.

ROBERT POPPER: Sure, I did the character Robin Cooper who wrote these books The Timewaster Letters, which I used to write for fun as a little project. Fake letters to companies, very British ones, very English.

XENI JARDIN: So, for instance?

ROBERT POPPER: It was the British tug-of-war society, and I’d been training lizards in the art of tug-of-war, and would you sponsor us and they would write back. Or the English Table Tennis Association. They were just these crazy associations, The British Egg Association with just mad, not nasty things, but just mad detailed requests and drawings and inventions, and they would write back, then I would write back, then they would write back. Some of them went on for six months at a time. It’s hard now, because the books did well and they can Google me. But at the time I could keep my name off the internet and people weren’t Googling as much, when they were out it was like, 2004 or 2005. I was writing them since 1999 for years, just as a hobby. It took me four years to get a book deal. I wrote loads and loads, and it was really hard to get a book deal. People said why don’t you try and get a book deal?

From that I used to love doing silly phone calls. Not to like, I know people are like, silly phone calls are the lowest form of wit. They can be, but they can also be great. I never do them to humiliate people, it was more like (high pitched voice) I would do my voice, “Hello, yes, Robin Cooper, how are you? Pardon, beg ya pardon?” He sort of doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t listen to anything anyone says.

XENI JARDIN: One of the ones I blogged recently on Boing Boing involved Robin Cooper calling the Apple Store, am I remembering that correctly?

ROBERT POPPER: Was it about Twitters? Not knowing what Twitters were?

It’s more like I phone normally and don’t think about what I’m going to talk about. I’ll have one idea, but other than that.

XENI JARDIN: It’s all improvisation?

ROBERT POPPER: Eventually I’ll come up with a big long name and I’ll write that down so I remember, but that’s it.

XENI JARDIN: So this isn’t scripted?

ROBERT POPPER: No, never scripted. I don’t know where the conversation is going, this is going to be fun, let’s see what happens. I just like the idea that somewhere in space and time a conversation just weird and mental happened. It’s like, in England we have the sky network, a thing that relays the channels basically, and we pick up some weird African religious channels, and there’s one that I love phoning, there’s one that you may have seen to a preacher called Gilbert Deya. I love getting on his shows, he’s a nutcase.

He prays for people, and I said, I have a pain in my buttocks. I think I was attacked by a crow, or an eagle, I think. In Britain getting attacked by an eagle, I can’t remember what it was. It bit me on the buttocks. He goes, you have pain in your buttocks? Yes, I have terrible pain in my buttocks. He’d keep saying it, do you have pain in your buttock? And he prays to me and I go, I can walk around now, you saved me, my buttocks is saved, the evil spirit came right out my buttocks.

Then he always says, you’re a wonderful lady. I’m not a lady, I’m a man. It’s on TV as well, so it’s like watching him on the TV channel.

XENI JARDIN: It’s been wonderful talking to you.

ROBERT POPPER: It’s been wonderful talking to you, too.

XENI JARDIN: Robert Popper is the writer of Friday Night Dinner. Its first series finale on BBC America airs Saturday, September 10th. It’s been picked up for a second series in 2012. You can also download past episodes on iTunes.

Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you’re interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.

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  • Robert Popper

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Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

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