Who better to launch our Sitcom Search than the star of some of the UK’s finest comedy shows? Simon Bird speaks to Tom Ellen about continually being called a “w*nker"
Perched on a large leather sofa in a sun-drenched north London studio, Simon Bird is deep in thought.
“I honestly cannot believe,” he says, after a moment’s intense consideration, “that there is anyone in the world who gets called ‘w*nker’ more often than me.”
As strange as it sounds, this is fundamentally a good thing. It’s not that people regularly hurl vicious abuse at the 28-year-old, but rather that over-affectionate Inbetweeners fans will bellow “Briefcase w*nker!” upon spotting him in the street.
Aside from proving the cheerful bluntness of Rudge Park devotees, this is also an apt demonstration of the raw power of episodic comedy as a medium.
Panel shows, stand-up sets and sketch shows don’t quite invoke the same unbridled passion (and loud, public swearing) that a sitcom can inspire.
Which is why, as we launch our Sitcom Search, ShortList sat down with Bird to find out what it takes to make a great comedy series.
As it turns out, all you need is a few YouTube clips and a crumpled Pret A Manger bag…
What is it you like most about sitcom as a medium?
I like that you can create an alternate reality. In Seinfeld, for instance, it’s not real life – it’s just sideways of real life – but you buy it. Sitcoms also allow you to become emotionally invested in characters. You’d never get a moment like Dawn coming back to Tim at the end of The Office in any other comedy medium. There’s an opportunity for pathos which isn’t there in quizzes or stand-up. Sitcoms feel more complete and soulful to me.
You’re currently writing Chickens – a sitcom set during the First World War – with Jonny Sweet and fellow Inbetweeners star Joe Thomas. What’s your writing process like?
It’s difficult at the moment because we’re all doing other things – Joe is filming Fresh Meat and I’ve just finished Friday Night Dinner – but we’re at our best when we all write together. We have an office and we’ll try to do ‘office hours’. That said, we end up spending quite a lot of time watching sport clips on YouTube. We invent games, too. The big one at the moment is called ‘Ultimate Serve’ – it’s a mixture of volleyball and tennis, but you use your hand as the paddle and the ball is a screwed-up Pret A Manger bag.
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Does it have to be Pret A Manger? Why not, say, Caffè Nero?
Oh no. Come on, Caffè Nero’s not regulation, mate [laughs]. Actually, ‘Ultimate Serve’ has become a bit more violent lately. It’s developed into a contact sport and taken on some elements of rugby.
Do you look to other sitcoms for inspiration when you’re writing?
We all think The Office is the best sitcom, so that’s the thing we always hold up. We know nothing we do will ever be as good, but that’s the gold standard we shoot for. In terms of structure and plot, we talk about Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm a lot. Arrested Development gets mentioned, too. We also like to watch bad comedy to inspire us.
I’m not going to name any names, but watching bad comedy gives you a mixture of happiness and anger. So, lunch for us is ‘Ultimate Serve’, watching Ibrahimovic’s top 10 goals and then a few clips from various shows we don’t like.
How important is it to draw on real-life experiences for a sitcom?
That’s the one thing everyone told us when we said we wanted to write a sitcom. Iain [Morris] and Damon [Beesley, writers of The Inbetweeners] both said, “Write about what you know.” So, obviously, we ignored that completely and started writing about life during the First World War [laughs]. I don’t know why we did that. I suppose we’ve always liked the idea of people acting in a modern, naturalistic way in odd or extraordinary circumstances. I don’t really have any crazy real-life anecdotes, anyway. During The Inbetweeners, we’d always get asked, “What’s the most embarrassing moment of your teenage years?” and I never had anything funny. They always wanted embarrassing moments. It was never a moment of glory or heroism.
OK, so what’s the most heroic moment of your teenage years?
There weren’t any [laughs].
How much of The Inbetweeners was based on things that actually happened to Iain and Damon?
Oh, a lot. Their lives are laughable. The first time Iain had sex, he was pogoing up and down with his socks on. He swore at a kid with Down’s syndrome on a rollercoaster. The whole first series is based on true stuff.
Friday Night Dinner is back later this year. What can we expect from the second series?
More of the same. The first episode is about Jonny [played by Tom Rosenthal] trying to tear Adam’s [Bird’s character] old cuddly toy to pieces. There’s a great episode where Dad has been put on a diet by Mum, so he employs the boys to sneak cakes and cheeses into the house for him.
Are you able to contribute your own gags to the show?
The short answer is no. Robert [Popper, the creator and judge of ShortList’s Sitcom Search] is a f*cking tyrant [laughs]. But seriously, by the time you’re filming, the script has been through so many edits and changes that it wouldn’t be appropriate to start adding stuff. I always found it amazing when we were doing The Inbetweeners, how people seemed to think we just made it up on the spot. Like it was a documentary and we really were these characters; someone just put a camera on us and we started talking about how I’d w*nked off someone’s grandad or something. I don’t know why I said “grandad” then. Very weird. Oh well, it’s out there now.
Have you encountered surprising celebrity Inbetweeners fans?
When you hear people such as Wayne Rooney are recommending the show, that’s really exciting. Actually, I was watching an England game once and someone came in with a particularly heavy tackle and John Motson said, “Feisty one, he is” [like Bird’s character, Will]. That took a couple of seconds to sink in. You know you’ve made it when Motty’s seen your show.
So exactly how often do people shout “Briefcase w*nker” at you?
All the time. In a way, I couldn’t have picked a worse show for dealing with the public, because I played a loser whose nickname is ‘Briefcase w*nker’. But obviously, it’s a dream come true to be in a hit sitcom that means so much to people, so I can’t complain. All four of us [from The Inbetweeners] have discussed the fact that the show is going to stay with us over the years. But I think we all hope we can move on and do other stuff that has a similar resonance.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve been recognised?
I remember being in Yosemite National Park in California. My girlfriend and I had just done this beautiful hike up to a waterfall and it was so peaceful and deserted. Suddenly, someone stepped out from behind a tree and went, “Wahey! Briefcase w*nker!”
Have you ever considered wearing a disguise?
Well, I own a lot more hoodies than I did five years ago, put it that way. I’ve never gone as far as sunglasses, though. They’d have to be prescription – it’s too much hassle.
Have you seen much of the US version of The Inbetweeners?
I’ve seen one episode and I saw the [extremely negative] reaction to the trailer on YouTube, which I thought was a bit over the top.
But doesn’t it just prove how much people love the original?
Yeah, I’m not complaining, it’s great. It had 96 per cent dislikes – I’m happy [laughs]. No, I’m joking, obviously. I suppose it’s odd because the reason [The Inbetweeners] was so original was that it was the first time Brits had done a teen comedy. It was Superbad with added irony. So it’s strange that it can be bought as a concept and sold back to the Americans second-hand. But I think people have been very harsh – they need to give it a chance.
What can you tell us about The Inbetweeners film sequel?
I can tell you that I don’t know anything [laughs]. None of us four [actors] have ruled ourselves out, but it’s about whether Iain and Damon think they can make it as good as the first one. I know they’re currently trying to think of ideas, and Channel 4 and everyone else are obviously very keen for it to happen.
Do the four of you still meet up regularly?
I see Joe all the time, obviously, but we all try to meet up every couple of months. We have a brotherly relationship because we grew up doing that show and shared that experience of becoming famous together. It’s a very deep bond. When we meet up, we immediately fall back into a relationship which is sort of based on our Inbetweeners characters. We’re far more mature with our other friends than we are when it’s just the four of us together.
Iain and Damon first spotted you and Joe in a sketch you did about Tim Henman. What happened in it?
It was set around the time that Tim Henman was being overtaken by Andy Murray. I think Tim is a great tragicomic character – it’s so sad that someone who was so good at what he did isn’t seen as a success. So, I was playing Tim as a bitter, desperate man. Joe played Andy as a pompous and satisfied character. I can’t remember how it ended. I think it just petered out, like our sketches tended to do.
You started out doing stand-up. Are you ever tempted to go back to it?
I’d love to go back to it in the future. The reason Ricky Gervais says he did stand-up is that he just wanted to prove he could, and I think there is definitely something gladiatorial about it. It’s got to be the toughest test, in that it’s just you and a microphone, so if you work in comedy there’s always a part of you that wants to show you can be that funny. But working in sitcoms was always my real dream.
Have you ever met Gervais?
I met him once, before The Inbetweeners came out. Joe and I used to write for a radio show that Iain and Damon produced, and Gervais came on as a guest. I think people expect him to be quite arrogant, but he was really sweet and humble. Actually, Gervais is the reason Iain and Damon’s production company is called Bwark [like the chicken sound]. The three of them used to work together in an office at Channel 4 with very thin walls and it was right next to the office of a high-up executive. One day they were all having a fight – a fun, ‘laddy’ fight – and it ended with them crashing through this thin wall, right into the office of this executive. In the melee, Damon fled the scene of the crime and left Iain and Gervais to deal with it. So when Gervais next saw Damon, he strutted round him, doing a chicken walk and going, “Bwark” [laughs].
Did you have any bad heckles during your stand-up days?
I don’t know about hecklers, but I remember a bad moment during a play that Joe, Jonny and I once took to Edinburgh called The Meeting. It was basically set up as a boardroom meeting with the audience as our ‘colleagues’, and because they were sat right next to us, you could really tell if they weren’t enjoying it. Someone fell asleep one night. I’m pretty sure they were from the BBC comedy department too, so that was a low point.
Finally, what’s been your biggest extravagance since you became famous?
I’m quite frugal. The most expensive thing I’ve bought besides my flat was my sofa which is… well, ‘extravagant’ is the word. It’s velvet, to start with. Fabric of kings. There’s a bit in Seinfeld when George says, if he could, he’d drape himself in velvet at all times. I feel the same way [laughs].
Friday Night Dinner returns to Channel 4 later this year. Chickens will air on Sky Atlantic HD in 2013
Photography: Levon Biss