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Anorak | Comedy Is The New Making Your Own Pasta: Timewaster Robert Popper Speaks!

Comedy Is The New Making Your Own Pasta: Timewaster Robert Popper Speaks!

by | 15th, July 2007

timewaster-diaries.jpg ‘Comedy is the new making your own pasta, which is the new rock’n’roll’

Robert Popper speaks!

Hot on the heels of Alastair Campbell’s revelations comes another highly personal account of Blair’s Britain : The Timewaster Diaries by Robin Cooper.

If Campbell is the ultimate insider, then Cooper is an ‘outsider’ nonpareil. While Campbell has the ear of the highest in the land, Cooper has trouble getting to speak to his own wife, and is frequently banished to the garden shed. But Cooper’s misfortune is our good luck. His enforced solitude, coupled with regular periods of unemployment, allows him ample time to reflect upon the issues of the day and record his thoughts for posterity.

Again, the contrast with Campbell is telling. For the high-flying spin-doctor, these issues include war, bribery scandals, and internecine struggle. For the non-flying Cooper, the same themes arise in very different forms: domestic strife, social betrayal, and the stench of corruption emanating from the judging panel of the local paper’s jokes competition.

Two men. Two stories. Two historic monuments to the drama and complexity of British life in the early twentieth-first century.

Anorak was granted an in-depth and sort-of-exclusive interview with a source close to Robin Cooper, who asked to be referred to as ‘Robert Popper’. ‘Popper’ worked closely with Cooper on the bestselling Timewaster Letters series, but when he’s not assisting Cooper, ‘Robert’ enjoys a successful career of his own. He was commissioning editor for comedy at Channel 4, and as a writer, performer and producer he was responsible for award-winning shows such as Look Around You and Peep Show.

ANORAK: Was it always your ambition to work in comedy?

POPPER: I played guitar since the age of seven, and
originally wanted to be a musician. I was in a band but we spent all our time arguing, so I left – literally took my amp and left. It was quite dramatic. But I’d also loved comedy since I was a kid, and loved doing silly things – making silly phone calls, writing sketches. I always ‘mucked around’ and made people laugh.

I had heard Alan Partridge on the radio, and thought it was brilliant. I sent letters to Steve Coogan in gold envelopes, because I thought he would remember me. I wrote to him as if he were Alan Partridge, and because I knew he wouldn’t write back, I also enclosed a reply from Partridge. The idea was that he would see that I could do the character. He left a message (as Alan Partridge) on my answer machine, saying he liked my stuff. I wiped the message by mistake, but we had a chat.

To get into comedy I wrote mad letters and made a fake CV saying that I was raised by wolves after an air crash in Canada. My first job was working on The Comic Strip with Peter Richardson in 1993 or 1994. I was commissioning comedy at Channel4 for a number of years, did Look Around You, and the rest is… the present.

What do you think of the state of TV comedy?

It’s like music: people always say there’s no good music. There’s always good music, it’s just that people don’t know where to look. There’s always good comedy. There aren’t that many outlets for comedy, and there are risks involved. Scripted comedy, like drama, is also very expensive. Peep Show took a long time to bed down. People love it now, but it took two or three series. Even when The Office started, people didn’t really watch it to begin with, it was word-of-mouth.

How did the Timewaster Letters come about? Did you set out to ‘do a Henry Root’ [William Donaldson’s spoof letters of the 1970s]?

I was only vaguely aware of Henry Root, because my mum and dad liked him. It started with a letter to a garden furniture company saying that I made beef scarecrows, and they wrote back. I thought this was brilliant so I wrote back, and they wrote back, and I kept writing. This was just a hobby, I never planned to do a book. I did this for about a year, and passed around photocopies, and then it got into a magazine called Jack, and people started asking if I was doing a book of them. It took me four years to get a book deal – I was rejected by everyone. When I got a deal, I thought: if this does well, it will be difficult to write more, so I’ll write loads now, so I’ll have a second book ready.

Are there any similarities between Robin and yourself – or anyone else?

Not really, although I do like him. The letters started off randomly, then after a while I started using things like his wife’s ankle. [Rita’s recurring ankle injuries are a running joke.] Robin is really a vehicle for my stupid concepts and observations. I don’t share his obsessions, although my dad likes butter sandwiches and I find it funny as a concept. I like birds; I think they are funny.

Why did you make Robin 52 years old? When I discovered his age, it made the whole thing seem more melancholy…

I didn’t want to reveal it too early, but if you reveal it too late, people are annoyed, because they’ve read the whole thing thinking he was a different age.

Did you need to develop his character for the diary, or was he a fully-fledged persona when you wrote the letters?

He’s totally self-deluded. But after each disaster he pulls his socks up and gets on with it. He’s very English. With the letters it’s just madness all the time, but with the diary, you obviously have to flesh out the characters. It’s boring when you have to work out the plot and everything, because you have to do that as yourself.

Do you find that when you are ‘in character’ the material flows, or is it a more structured process?

I wrote the letters in a semi-trance, maybe a bit in character. ‘Dear sir…’ and then I’d write really fast. I don’t say it out loud, but there’s an attitude when I write.

Are you a funny person in everyday life or are you a person who produces funny material?

I’m a big mucker-arounder. I’ve got the attention span of a flea. My trick at the moment is getting into a bin liner and looking like a bag of rubbish in the corner. I make stupid remarks the whole time, I can’t help it. I’m always thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if…’

Have you ever kept a diary yourself?

I did when I was 10: ‘Bed at nine! Wow! Watched Monty Python. Went to grandma’s. Boring.’ I kept that up for a few months, then I did one for eight months when I was 16, with pictures of pop singers like Debbie Harry – not Debbie Harry, but people I fancied. It was pretty naff. When I was doing the book I decided to look at my old diaries, hoping for nuggets of observation. No use whatsoever.

Do you read other peoples diaries? (Published ones, that is.)

I did read someone else’s diary once, but I can’t say whose it was. They don’t know about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone’s published diaries. I bought some, for research, but I only dipped into Samuel Pepys and Bridget Jones.

The publicity describes the book as ‘The Diary Of A Nobody for our times’. That’s a book whose influence can still be seen clearly in contemporary comedy. What do you think of it, and was it an influence on you?

I love it, it’s fantastic. It is strangely modern, it could be written now, about then. Or about now.

Is comedy serious, in the sense that expresses the truth, or the essence of things, in ways that other forms can’t?

Oh my God! What? If you are laughing, you are relaxed, so you can hook ’em I guess. Not cynically… My brain isn’t deep enough for this… My answer is ‘yes’.

Who are your favourite humorists (writers)?

I loved A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I read a lot of history. Weirdly, I don’t read a lot of humorous stuff.

Comedy was famously the new rock’n’roll in the nineties. From your experience in the business, what would you say it is now?

Making your own pasta.

Comedy is the new making your own pasta?

Oh, I didn’t mean that. How about: ‘Comedy is the new making your own pasta, which is the new rock’n’roll.’ You can quote me on that.

The Timewaster Diaries by Robin Cooper is published by Sphere, £9.99



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