Robert Popper is an award-winning comedy writer and producer. As well as co-writing the popular mock-documentary Look Around You with Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead, The Peter Serafinowicz Show), Popper is the brain behind Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner, which stars Tom Rosenthal and Simon Bird as bickering brothers Jonny and Adam, alongside Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter and Mark Heap. Friday Night Dinner is arguably one of the best sitcoms on television in terms of joke economy and originality, and that is why the show recently returned for a fourth series.
I asked Robert a few questions about his past and current projects in order to learn more about his creative processes…
How did you get into the comedy industry?
I didn’t know anyone in TV when I decided I wanted to give it go. I was basically clueless, but I knew that if I just sent off my rather dull CV I would just get rejection after rejection. So I created a new CV for myself, one that looked completely normal and totally bland, but the more you read it, the more you thought, ‘Huh?!’. It said that, aged 3, I was the sole survivor of an air crash in Canada, and that I was rescued and reared by wolves. It also had all these strange job references I’d mocked up on fake letterheads. There was a syrup factory that I worked in, until I fell into a vat of boiling syrup and spent years having skin grafts. There was a reference from the chief surgeon at the hospital I was sent to, and one from a guy who was my boss in a company that bottled urine as a drink. His reference was written on prison notepaper. Anyway, my stupid letters got me lots of interviews, and led me to work with Peter Richardson – who was one of my comedy heroes – at The Comic Strip. I remember when I went to his office for the first time, I heard him calling from upstairs, ‘Bring me the wolfman! Bring me the wolfman!’ I knew I wanted to work there right away.
How does your own life inspire Friday Night Dinner?
The characters are very loosely based on my family, but that was very much just the starting point. My dad rarely wore a top in the house when I grew up, and did say quite a few of the things his character says in the show – ‘Shit on it!’ being one of them. My mum does have red hair and was always really excited when my brother and I would come back home for dinner. My brother and I used to – and still do, sadly – playfight and put salt in each other’s drinks – so those things are definitely true. The more I wrote, however, the more the characters became their own people. I guess, what I was trying to do with the series was capture the rhythms and melodies of the way my family, and a lot of my friends spoke, growing up, and also share that central idea – that, no matter what age you are, as soon as you go back to your parent’s house, you become a kid again.
What is your aim with the latest series of Friday Night Dinner?
As with every series of FND, I just want to make people laugh out loud. That’s all I want really. It takes a while for viewers to get to know characters, but I feel that by series 4, they’re pretty well bedded down now, which makes my job a little easier in that I know the show is an easier watch now for people. At the same time, trying to come up with new stories, when basically the characters are in a house for 25 minutes each week, becomes harder and harder.
What was your first writing project?
Writing on a panel show called The Brain Drain. I was crap.
Which writers are your favourites to work with?
I’ve worked with quite a few, and they’re all so different. I’m lucky to have worked with so many great writers, either producing or script editing their shows. I’ve worked particularly closely with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, so I guess I know their style, and way of working the most. They’re ridiculously good, and also have that thing that great writers have – they are totally easy with criticism.