Talking to Peter Serafinowicz About His New Book, Twitter, and Other Fun Things
“It’s just a silly, stupid, clever, clever, clever, stupid, ridiculous, pointless book that I hope makes people laugh a few times,” says Peter Serafinowicz of his new book, A Billion Jokes (Volume One). The book is only the latest addition to his impressively eclectic résumé, having appeared in classic British comedies like Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, dubbed the voice of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, created and starred in his own sketch show, and directed some thoroughly odd and amazing music videos for Hot Chip. His new book continues the tradition of his genius Twitter feed, with one-liners like, “You can tell a lot about someone btw they use abbreviations” and “I hope numbers never disappear. Think of the aftermath.”
When I caught up with Peter on the phone from London…
I’m just getting ready to go. I’ve got my official book launch tonight. It’s at this really nice old bookshop in London called Daunt Books. It’s cool to have a book launch. I never thought I would ever do one. It’s probably the most civilized event you could have. And it really feels like, Wow, I’ve really written a book. I can call myself an author now.
I know you’ve written a lot of this style of jokes on Twitter, but how did the book itself come about?
Well, yeah, it really was through Twitter. When I first joined, I didn’t really know what to make of it. And I think that’s what a lot of people do. I remember in 2007, I think it was, I went on Facebook. And I thought, Wow, this is really amazing, this other layer of communication that wasn’t e-mail, that wasn’t texting. I thought Facebook was great. And then, over the next few months, I grew to just detest it. I loved the little Facebook status thing, and I guess that that’s all that Twitter is. That’s the genius of it.
So when I started using it, like I say, I didn’t really know how to use it, and started just posting a couple of links here and there. I got into in touch with a few people and didn’t really know what I was doing. And then, I saw people were doing jokes on there. It took me a little while to work out [that] I could use it as a kind of pressure valve for the stupid inconsequential jokes that I think of quite regularly throughout the day. That usually, I would just think of and make myself chuckle, if I’m lucky, or usually roll me eyes or probably the most usual one is the heavy sigh. [Laughs] And you know, that would be that, and it would just be lost forever. And then with Twitter, I started getting a response to these jokes, and I just started honing my style. One thing Twitter teaches you is to make everything as short and as succinct and skeletal as possible. You cut out as many extraneous words as you can. It does teach you, not only how to be a good joke writer, but just in general. It’s really made my style much more compact.
So, I was doing these jokes, and then some comedians who followed me said, “Why are you just giving all these jokes away on Twitter? You should do something.” I thought, I’ll collect these into a book, because I’d been sort of saving them since I started. And I thought if I did a book, I’d want to do it as a traditional book to counteract the whole sort of now-ness of Twitter. I didn’t want it to be, like, Peter Serafinowicz’s Twitter Book of Twitter of Jokes. Because the medium’s kind of irrelevant. They’re just jokes. People don’t write word processor novels, you know? And also, they’re pretty stand-alone, and they don’t refer to the medium at all, really. Most of them are not really that nerdy or techy. But yeah, it took me a couple of years to get a publisher interested in it. I did see everyone in town and I even saw a couple of US publishers as well, because, I think bizarrely I have much more cache over in the States than I do here. [Laughs] I don’t quite know why that is.
It nearly happened a few times and then it didn’t. I think it’s a hard thing to get your head around, Twitter. It’s hard to explain to people. It’s hard to know what to do with it. Publishers, I suppose, thought, “What, so it’s all on the internet? It’s all on a website? So people can see all these jokes. Where’s the value in a book of what would just be on a webpage?” They just didn’t understand the concept of it. And I get that because it’s a bit of headfuck to explain. But, yeah, I’ve done it now. It feels great to have done it. It’s a really beautiful object. I wanted it to be a sort of ornate, traditional thing.
And the pictures in the book in the book are hilarious but also really beautiful. Were you involved in putting those together?
Well, I had an amazing illustrator. His name’s Alex Morris, and he is part of this group who’ve done this website for years called The Framley Examiner. It’s a spoof of a local British newspaper. So it’s broadly a bit like The Onion, but it’s a very different sense of humor, and it’s not topical at all. It’s like very, very small town Britain, kind of satire on that, and it’s designed incredibly well, and looks beautiful and really authentic. Do check out that site, because those guys are pretty terrible at promoting themselves. They had a book out a few years ago, and it’s really one of the funniest books I’ve read. I think they’re super clever.
Alex is a bit of a genius with illustration. And actually, a lot of the illustrations are old Victorian illustrations from old books and stuff. Alex did some original ones and modified quite a lot of them as well. But what we had to do for months, it really took like a couple of months as we were editing the book down, [was] to go through and find what we thought was the perfect image for each joke. It was really weird actually, because I was living in this sort of monochrome Victorian world in my head for weeks and weeks and weeks. You know, looking at these old guys with mustaches and stuff, and then I would go out on the street and look at people and think, Wow, people just haven’t really changed that much. [Laughs] You know? I just kept seeing the same kinds of faces, but in, sort of, modern gear. Or maybe I was just hallucinating.
Do you have a favorite joke from the book?
Um, do I have a favorite? I don’t know really. I’m kind of a bit joke blind right now. Do you know what I mean? I think maybe in like 15 years, I could open it, and maybe if I’ve forgotten some of the jokes. There’s one near the front [where] the mobster reviews Hamlet, “It’s about disdain.” I quite like that one, because I love Alex’s illustration, and it’s just a stupid joke. I also like the one about the guy who wants to crack the moon open. He says, “Let’s petition NASA to crack the moon open. I’ve got a feeling there’s some pretty great stuff in there.” I just like the illustration. It’s like this fucking stupid guy, he’s holding this girl’s hand and it’s like, she’s obviously expecting him to say something really [laughs] really romantic, and he’s chosen this moment to expound his bizarre lunar conspiracy theory. Anyway, so I kind of like that, although actually, technically, it’s not really a joke. It’s just kind of a funny idea.
The video you’ve made for the book is very funny, but you have started doing standup, haven’t you?
Yeah, well, that video is kind of based on experience really. I played quite a few gigs last year. And you know, sometimes it went really well, and sometimes—well actually, it didn’t go really well. By really well, I mean about 30 percent of the audience would really laugh and be into it. And the rest would be, like, visibly bored and you know, sometimes they would leave. And sometimes, there would be particular jokes that I would do that people would actually groan at, and it made me think, Wow, there are some jokes that you can’t really do in front of an audience. Particularly sort of punny ones. There’s a particular kind of wordplay that audiences just don’t really like.
I’d really like to do stand-up again. When I see stand-ups that I really love, I see how you really have to dedicate your life to it, and I don’t know if I’m that dedicated to it. It’s just a little sideline. I suppose that means I’ll never be that good. The comedians that I love, they have an onstage persona that is like a concentrated version of themselves. It’s like the essence of themselves, you know? And for me, I haven’t quite worked out who I am really, on stage. My material’s quite solid but I guess it’s not really…[Sigh] I don’t feel like I’m totally myself on stage, when I think a comedian should feel, like, super themselves, you know?
Like who do I love, like stand-ups? There are like the famous ones that everybody loves. Like Louis C.K., I think is great. Jimmy Carr. Stewart Lee, I think he’s just unbelievable. And then recently Rob Delaney, quite rightly, has really taken off, and his stand-up’s very different to his Twitter persona. He’s just, uh, what a beautiful, hilarious man he is. And when I see him on stage, he seems more relaxed and more himself than he does in real life, you know? And uh, whereas I’m a lot more relaxed in real life than I am on stage, and I’m more myself. Who are some other stand-ups that I love? Those sort of one-line, weird conceptual kind of one-liner format, I guess, owes a lot of Steven Wright, who I’ve adored all my life. And also Mitch Hedberg, who you know, he’s a just a huge hero of mine. What a beautiful, supernova of hilarity.
And another comedian I love, while I’m just talking about comedians, is Todd Glass. I’ve seen him probably four times in my life, and I can really remember each time, and I think each time I’ve seen him, he’s made me laugh so much and so hard that I do that sort of paralyzed silent laughter, where my mouth is open and I’m just kind of gently oscillating, and I can’t breath. He’s just a fucking hilarious guy. And I am mystified as to why he isn’t more famous. He should be on TV all the time. He really, really tickles my funny bone. He’s very true to himself, and I love that he’s not afraid to try things out. He just splurges it all out, and I think that’s great. It’s a terrifying thing to do, to attempt to be funny, and say, “Okay this is my idea for a funny character. What do you think? What do you think about this scenario?” And then people are like, “Mmmm.” [Laughs] And then that rejection is just, oh God. Stand-ups must just get it all the time. It’s horrible.
Oh I’ll tell you who else is a big influence on me, in doing this book, is Jack Handey.
Ooh, I can see that connection, now that you mention it.
I discovered him through Graham Linehan [creator of The IT Crowd, amongst other things], when we were in New York years ago. He said, “Look, we’ll get these little books by Jack Handey. They’re amazing.” And you know that thing when you discover a new joke. It’s like a new way of telling a joke, a new thing, and a muscle or a little lobe explodes in your brain and makes a new connection. It’s just so delicious and I remember reading these books and thinking, Oh shit, this is great. It’s like a new way to be funny. His influence is definitely in the book as well. And talking about Mitch Hedberg, that was a thing with him, just creating connections between things that you’d never thought would be connected but they’re kind of in plain view. Just getting you to think about things differently. It’s like, we live in a ridiculous world and the way our brains work, we have to take so much of it for granted. We have to just accept that’s the way the world is. And I like it when you just kind of stop and press pause and think, No actually, the world’s fucking ridiculous. People behave like lunatics every second of the day.
I originally knew you as an actor in things like Spaced and Shaun of the Dead. Is that how you would describe yourself?
Yeah, well, I suppose that’s my job is like an actor. I dunno. I do a lot of different things. I spread myself extremely thin, because I like to try doing new things, and I wish I could just concentrate on one particular thing and get really good at one thing, you know? At the moment, I’m writing two screenplays. One is in really great shape, we’ve nearly finished our proper second draft of the Brian Butterfield movie, which is a character that I did in my sketch show. I’ve been writing that for the past year and a half. The whole thing with the film world is everything just takes years and years. I’m quite an impatient guy, and it’s one of the reasons I love just getting something together, shooting something, putting it on the internet. It’s why I love directing music videos as well. That’s usually a really quick turnaround, and you can do it and get the response and it’s done. And film isn’t like that, really.
And then I’m writing another film on my own, which is about a stand-up comedian who kills a heckler one night. He gets into a fight with a heckler and ends up killing him, and that’s really good fun to write. It’s like a kind of comedy thriller. So I’m trying to concentrate on those things. I’d love to be in a position where I could make films, direct them, be in ’em, and have a bit of control over what I’m doing. That’s the thing about being an actor. If you’re just an actor, you’re just constantly sitting by the phone or your computer screen waiting for an email from your agent, and doing auditions, which is just, which I can’t, I HATE auditions. I absolutely hate them. But that’s kind of my aim, is to get my films going really. That’s what I’d love to do.
I like the challenge of making comedy films, as well. I’m a huge comedy fan but I find that there aren’t really that many funny comedy films. I guess a lot of comedies get made, but the last time I was in the cinema and was really laughing out loud, like the whole way through, was when I watched Bridesmaids, which I just thought was beautiful and so funny and really had it’s own thing. Oh, I did love Tim and Eric’s [Billion Dollar] Movie. That’s really great. It’s fucking bananas, of course, but they really did make a proper film and it’s a huge achievement. Tim and Eric’s film, the only film this year that I’ve really laughed out loud at. So I like that challenge. I think, Can it be really that hard to make a comedy film? I mean, clearly yes. [Laughs] But, you know, that’s what I’d like to aim for anyway.
At this point, Peter had to head out for his book launch, but I caught up with him on email to ask…
I just couldn’t do an interview for Splitsider without asking you about the Arrested Development movie, because we’re obviously very, very excited about that. Is there anything you can share?
As far as I know I’m going to be in the movie – and that is really all I know! It’s pretty exciting and daunting in equal measure.
I also, personally, wanted to ask if you had any advice on being successful while having quite a difficult last name…
When I started out I considered changing my name to Peter Serafino but it sounded like a lounge singer. When I had my own show on the BBC, the announcer mispronounced it EVERY time!
Most common exchange in my life:
– Peter Serafinowicz.
– Ooh, that’s a long name! (Laughs)
– Yes, it is! Shall I spell it?
– (Laughs) Yes please!
It probably accounts for 18 months of my entire life.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City.”Cz” is basically pronounced like a “ch”.