Peter Serafinowicz is one of the most followed Brits in the Twittersphere and boasts a varied and impressive CV. So it's a little puzzling to find him so often dubbed a 'cult' figure. Perhaps it's the gently outlandish nature of his contributions to comedy. His friend Simon Pegg describes Serafinowicz as "the kind of funny person that funny people find funny".
He followed two critically-acclaimed series of brilliant educational science spoof Look Around You with the underappreciated BBC sketch series The Peter Serafinowicz Show. He has also appeared in I'm Alan Partridge, Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, provided the voice for Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and has now directed a couple of weird and wonderful videos for Hot Chip.
Serafinowicz's new book A Billion Jokes! (Volume 1) is a collection of delightfully-illustrated one-liners. Some are slightly rude: "If you look at a woman's vagina under a microscope, you can really spoil an evening." Some owe more to puns and wordplay: "Having sex without taking your clothes off is the most fun you can have without taking your clothes off." Some consist of brief flights of fancy: "Farts are how bottoms communicate with each other." Actually, quite a lot of them are slightly rude.
Tell me about the book - has Twitter changed the craft of telling jokes?
A lot of these jokes have appeared in some form on Twitter, which I've used as a kind of public joke pad. I've been on there for almost four years now. Twitter taught me how to become better at writing jokes because it forces you to chip away at all the extraneous words. I'd say that 95% of the time the shorter you make it, the more you are getting to the core of the joke. It's the brevity is the soul of wit thing. There was one joke I didn't put in the book which was Shakespeare just saying: "Brevit." But it was sort of it...I don't know...
Yes, let's say too clever (laughs).
The illustrations really bring it all together. They're done in a sort of mock-Victorian, Terry Gilliam style.
I did want to make sure it looked and felt like a book, so we spent a long time getting it right. Most of the drawings are existing Victorian illustrations, and Alex Morris changed them here and there and did some new ones. I hope it raises a smile, or better still a laugh. I loved the one he did of Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca in the drawing room - Chewbacca loses his voice and talks by dragging furniture across the room. I sent it to Mark Hamill and he really liked it. I was chuffed because I'm such a huge fan of his. I think he's an incredible voice actor, and the Joker he does in Batman cartoons and video games is my favourite Joker voice. Really funny and menacing.
You did the voice for Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, so I suppose you're part of the Star Wars family too.
Well, I guess so, in a very, very minor way. I'm thrilled to be part of it, as much as I was hugely disappointed by The Phantom Menace and the other two new films, it was still one of the great experiences of my life to work with George Lucas. A pretty amazing guy. I just wish those films were better.
A lot of the comedy you've been involved in has that very sharable quality - you want to pass it on. Have you benefited from the explosion in viral video and social media?
Yes, immeasurably. When we started Look Around You, myself and co-writer Robert Popper had to copy the pilot onto about 200 VHS cassettes and physically send them to people. That wasn't the 1970s, it was in the year 2000. It's staggering. Now you can make something and the world can see it so quickly. And we're only at the beginning of the whole thing. If you compare it to the history of the movies, we've only just come out of the silent era. I love it. I've made so many friends on Twitter and been in touch with heroes. Thanks to Twitter I'm a director - Hot Chip and I followed each other on Twitter and they asked me to direct one of their videos. Things can happen so quickly, mainly because the internet takes out a lot of the middle men. Take 'Gangnam Style' for instance. How many views does that have now?
Maybe 100 million?
Let's check (checks online)...Yeah, it's over a 100 million views. And that's just one YouTube account. If that had happened ten years ago, it would have been a hit in Korea and nobody else would have seen it. I think it's one of the best music videos ever made.
Do you find yourself still finding stuff that would be good for another series of Look Around You? What's the appeal of educational TV from the seventies and eighties?
We did a short film for the 10th anniversary of Look Around You called Intermission and another called Markets of Britain. I think we just loved watching stuff from that era. It was like porn to us. When we were writing the second series we spent a few days in a hotel going through old stuff from the seventies and eighties. We actually had the live election coverage from the 1979 general election and we just watched the entire thing. Our weird treat. I think if something is just a little bit bad, if something isn't quite right, then the whole thing seems dated and ridiculous.
Do you work to perfect all the impersonations?
I don't really. I rely on having a knack. The person I'm doing has to interest me. With Paul McCartney, it's affectionate because I love The Beatles. With Terry Wogan, we're very similar in tone of voice, in timbre. I guess our skulls must be the same shape.
You were all set to play Paul McCartney in a remake of Yellow Submarine, but the project was scrapped. What happened?
I don't understand all the film financing stuff. I did a couple of days on it, and it was really fun. I saw some of the concept artwork and animation, and it looked incredible. I thought, "Wow, how can that not make a lot of money?" When I was auditioning, I briefly thought, "Why am I auditioning? I'm the best Beatles impersonator in the world". Dean Lennox Kelly, the actor from Shameless, was doing the voice of John Lennon. I do a pretty good John as well, so I was like, "Let's see what this guy's got". We did a couple of scenes and I thought, "He's amazing". Being Paul with someone who had resurrected John was spooky. In a nice way.
Peter Serafinowicz's A Billion Jokes (Volume 1) is available now, Boxtree, £12.99
photo: Socrates Mitsios