New Heroes of Comedy

We’ve written a lot, well a lot of what we’ve written, which is not a lot, but a lot a of that, here on Marshmallow about the outpouring of comedic talent on British television and radio in the 1990’s. Folks like Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci revolutionised British comedy; fusing the surrealism, verbal acuity and class consciousness of the Python Team and Peter Cook, with the political awareness of alternative stand up comedians and writers like Ben Elton and (early) Richard Curtis. Their writing and performances were intimidatingly edgy, always discomforting and frequently fart inducingly hilarious. Their influence is only beginning to be felt in the work of a number of comedians who came to maturity in a post Morrisian world. Two such new heroes of comedy are the surreal British satirist, voice actor and impressionist Peter Serafinowicz, and the American former professional literary agent, writer and broadcaster John Kellogg Hodgman.

You probably know Peter Serafinowicz as Simon Pegg’s anal flatmate Pete, in the Pegg / Nick Frost vehicle Shaun of the Dead. Serafinowicz came to prominence initially in the Pegg / Jessica Stevenson penned Spaced. After co-staring in the first ever online sitcom ‘Junkies’ (check out a clip here), Serafinowicz’s first major television project was the astonishingly clever series ‘Look Around You’. Serafinowicz co-created the show in 2002 with Robert Popper (who you can hear discuss the program on an episode of the sound of young America here). Look Around You was a short format, pitch perfect, episodic parody of the educational films of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Each episode took a standard educational topic – water, birds, ghosts – and made up a lot of lies about it. Most of the episodes are available on YouTube, we’ve inserted one below.

A less successful second series of LAY followed, which took broader aim at scientific positivism in the form of early episodes of BBC science programme Tomorrows World. Serafinowicz returned to form with his 2007 sketch show ‘The Peter Serafinowicz Show’. Although the show suffered from being focused on a single writer / performer; it featured several stunning sketches, many centred round the rotund aging character Brian Butterfield, a perfect imitation of a well known British ambulance chasing television advertisement. Through the series, Serafinowicz extended the portrayal to absurd proportions in a series of sketches in which Butterfield offered more an more unlikely services.

Another stunningly effectual liar is the rising American star, John Hodgeman. Hodgeman, unlike many comedians, is a superbly eloquent articulator of ludicrous logic behind his own material. Perhaps he developed this talent as editor of the humour section of the New Yorker magazine. You can hear Hodgeman discuss his approach to writing and performing on the Sound of Young America, here and here. His approach shares a love of surreal exaggeration and a paradoxical concern for accuracy with Serafinowicz’s work. Hodgeman is of course best known as a PC. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, check out the video below.

What’s slightly less well know is that Hodgeman is a gifted writer, latterly for celebrated John Stewart vehicle ‘The Daily Show’, is the author of two successful books – The Areas of my Expertise and More Information Than You Require – which have elevated him to the ranks, in his own words of ‘famous minor television celebrity’. The books portray Hodgeman as a nebbish autodidact and expert on a variety of vital and yet utterly lunatic subject, such as Hobos (see below), the nine presidents who had hooks for hands, mole men, the future, and the secrets of Hollywood. Hodgeman has also written for the much loved American humour periodical McSweeny’s (see here), and tours occasionally with comedic nerd-folk singer Johnathon Coulton. Here’s an extract from the audio version of Hodgeman’s first book.


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