Words: Alex Towers / Pictures: Stephen Maurice Graham
In December 1978 Peter Sellers appeared on The Muppet Show. Except Sellers didn’t actually appear as himself, choosing instead to rotate through several different characters ranging from a demented gypsy violinist to a sociopathic German masseur. Heading into his fourth marriage breakdown the actor was also recovering from both a second heart attack and a flopped sixth addition to the Pink Panther franchise. Kermit the Frog, likely sensing the man was on the edge of mania and concerned for the audience of children, stopped the actor mid-sketch and told him he could relax and be himself. This caused Sellers to become suddenly despondent. “My dear Kermit, that would be altogether impossible,” he told the puppet, ashen-faced, “I could not be myself. There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” Kermit’s mouth contorted into bewilderment as quickly got on with the show by launching into another impression and playing some chickens like bagpipes.
Despite his lack of self, Sellers is an obligatory influence on a generation of comedians and it’s Peter Serafinowicz who is probably his most obvious successor. After years of listening to The Goon Show in Liverpool, Serafinowicz would perfect imitating Sellers’s imitations and occasionally even dress up as the actor when the young comic later moved to London. “I’ve always been a massive fan” he says, “my favorite thing he worked on was the mid-seventies Pink Panther films. I just really think they are sort of perfect.”
But while both started in BBC Radio, Serafinowicz has crafted a career that veers into areas Sellers could never have approached. Although a lot of people may not know his name, most will recognise his imposing presence (he’s 6’3 and has a voice so gravelly it’s heard in Assassin’s Creed III trailers and as Darth Maul in Star Wars) from the shows of his more well-known contemporaries like Simon Pegg, Steve Coogan, Will Arnett and Dylan Moran.
But where Serafinowicz proves to be exceptional is in work that isn’t very well known. For instance in 2002 he co-created the series Look Around You, a surrealist but hyper-accurate parody of shoddy seventies British educational films. Although critically acclaimed (“One of the funniest shows ever” would arguably sound hyperbolic were it from anyone other than Matt Groening) the show unsurprisingly was limited to a cult following and didn’t make it beyond season two.
But given his uncanny ability to mimic voices, Serafinowicz probably could have played it safe and built a career dedicated entirely to imitating celebrities. As a semi-regular on the comedy panel circuit, he is frequently asked to do impressions, but it’s not exactly something he relishes. “I didn’t want to be seen as an ‘impressionist,’” he explains, “because then you might not have any sort of identity yourself.” This idea likely fueled his recent *Funny or Die* sketch where he impersonated people who make videos of themselves impersonating numerous celebrities, except in a Sellersian twist Serafinowicz just made up all the celebrities and so bounds through inventing voices for creations like Dillon Belch, Manthony Popkins and Gubfield Queerborn. “When I’ve done impressions in the past I’ve sometimes felt a little embarrassed. They tend to go out of fashion quite a lot and can be seen as pretty cheesy,” he admits “but I do really enjoy doing some of them, especially Terry Wogan.”
Serafinowicz’s Terry Wogan impression is the perfect illustration of his brilliant but singular humour. He can imitate the man to the level that makes it impossible to distinguish between the two. But instead of ingratiating himself with millions of middle-England Radio 1 listeners, he created T-WOG$; a Bizzaro version of Wogan as a pirate radio host who busts out pulsing garage, dubstep and electro with shouts out to the “massive”. “It basically came from listening to pirate radio for hours at night” he explains, “then I just started doing it in Wogan’s voice.” While the overlap in the Venn diagram of people who can appreciate accurate parodies of both London’s pirate radio scene as well as the cadence of a retired Radio 1 morning show host is unquestionably hairline, it doesn’t seem to bother Serafinowicz much; “It’s that kind of stuff I really love doing more than anything else”
As a result when the BBC commissioned his primetime sketch show it wasn’t surprising he wrote sketches that involved ideas like a robotic talk show host that habitually strangles guests and a service that allows you to download ham from the internet over safer Rory Bremner style humour. While The Peter Serafinowicz Show lasted only seven episodes, its sketches are now appreciated by hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers. Although his comedy seems destined for purely cult appreciation, it’s also not something that concerns him “Yeah I don’t really know why that is” he admits “It’s quite hard to say what I think is funny about myself. I just know what makes me laugh.”
Serafinowicz however is determined to follow Sellers’s by channeling his idiosyncratic humour into a feature film but is also aware there exists a higher threshold for comedians to make the transition to film. “For the past year I’ve really been focusing on writing film scripts” he says, “films take fucking ages but I really want to be in a position to have more creative power.” Given his roles so far have been limited to cameos in films like Shaun of the Dead and Couples Retreat (as well as coming frustratingly close to playing Paul McCartney in Robert Zemeckis’s cancelled 3D blockbuster remake of Yellow Submarine) it’s clear to see why he’s keen to have a more creative role in bringing his comedy to the cinema. While one of his scripts centres on a stand-up comedian who murders someone (“it’s a very black comedy” he admits) the other is an extension of his most popular character from his BBC show. Brian Butterfield, a grossly overweight salesman whose sweetly surreal incompetence exceeds even Inspector Clouseau’s, has emerged as the sole survivor of the sketch show and now commands his own twitter account, iPhone app and upcoming feature length film. “I did quite a few characters on the show and most of them were soon forgotten but people really seem to like Brian and almost indentify with him” Serafinowicz says fondly. “You don’t know when you’re creating the character what’s going to work but we’ve just finished the script for his film and it’s been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done.”