For a quarter of a century now, Peter Baynham has been one of the writers of Britain’s most cutting edge comedians and satirists, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan. In 2005, however, he began to wonder if he hadn’t forgotten how to be funny. “I said to myself, ‘Everything I have, I’ve lost,’” said the 57-year-old. “It was gone. “
About a decade earlier, he had joined the most original comedy crew since Monty Python when producer Armando Iannucci brought him in to co-write the television parody The Day Today, with a cast including Coogan, Morris, Rebecca Front. and Patrick Marber. . He teamed up again with Coogan and Iannucci for the gloriously atrocious sitcom I’m Alan Partridge; Later, Coogan directly gave him credit for making the grotesque and washed-up DJ of Norfolk more human and likable. He was also Morris’s criminal partner on Channel 4’s Brass Eye series, with his wildly funny “Paedogeddon” special, a tabloid hysteria show that sparked its own media outcry.
Here he is now at the age of 41, wondering what to do next. “I was in a bit of a hollow,” he recalls. “Things hadn’t gone so well. His animated comedy I Am Not an Animal, about a group of talking and urban creatures freed from the laboratory of a vivisectionist, had been decried by the brass of the BBC. “One executive said, ‘I won’t come back to this.’ It broke my soul.
Baynham was sitting in a gas station cafe pondering his future when the phone rang. It was Baron Cohen, asking if he could fly to the United States to help save his new film, which was falling apart. Baynham explained that he was playing with his own idea for a sitcom. Later that day, he recounted the exchange to his friend Jez Simmonds, a writer of Never Mind the Buzzcocks. “Jez said, ‘Are you crazy? I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s right!’ “
A phone call later, Baynham was in Los Angeles working on Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a combination of densely scripted comedy and foreground improv starring Cohen in the role of the corresponding clumsy and anti-Semitic Kazakh. The film grossed $ 262 million and earned Baynham their first Oscar nomination. He received another one this year for the daring sequel, Borat After Moviefilm. Filmed in secret during the lockdown, it hijacked the pre-election news cycle thanks to a scene in which Rudy Giuliani becomes clearly too familiar with Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s daughter.
Baynham has lived in LA since making Borat’s first film – that’s where he talks about today – and has become a sought-after screenwriter specializing in animated entertainment: Hotel Transylvania, Arthur Christmas and the Next Adventure. Disney Ron’s Gone lonely teenager and his faulty AI friend.
Animated films take many years to reach the screen, while one of the perks of Baynham’s new podcast Brain Cigar is that he and Simmonds could recruit a few friends (including Julia Davis from Nighty Night) and make it split without external interference. The show invites listeners into the world of biased comedy that Baynham and Simmonds have cultivated together since they first met at an improv workshop in the late 1980s.
The show features friends recalling pop culture memories that have only a hint of truth. Did David Bowie really market a line of frozen meals called Bowie Dinners? Did Jack Nicholson really appear on Multi-Colored Swap Shop, the Saturday morning children’s TV show, to promote his erotic thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice? And has the actor really lost his temper live and called Action Man a “little bitch”? Baynham believes it – and he wants us to believe it too.
“It’s nice to think that this could have happened,” he says. “I’ve always liked investing properly in these things, rather than saying, Here’s a wacky idea. He looks for what he calls “broken logic” in the strangest notions, like when he tells Simmonds that he and his wife asked Bono to babysit their children. Simmonds looks incredulous: Has Bono ever expressed a desire to get into this field? No, Baynham replies. So why ask him? “Because we don’t have our usual babysitter. “
It’s the same tradition of deadpan surrealism in which Baynham and Chris Morris operated on Morris’ shows on BBC Radio 1 in the 1990s. He has fond memories of when he claimed to find Johnnie Walker dead under a cloud of clouds. flies in an adjacent studio. Morris persuaded him that the nicest thing would be to allow the late DJ to say a final farewell to his fans. “He made me punch a hole in the back of the neck of dead Johnnie and blow into it while manipulating his jaw to make him talk.” Our dynamic has always been that Chris was the chic bully and I was the idiot who did whatever he said.
Prematurely killing public figures has become a pastime for the duo. Another article, in which they announce the death of Michael Heseltine, earned them a two-week suspension. “We didn’t actually say he was dead,” Baynham said. “Chris said:”And there is news of the death of Michael Heseltine in the next hour, we will keep you informed… ‘”
It seems reasonable to assume that controversy has been built into their work. Wasn’t that part of the Brass Eye joke that he angered the very people he laughed at – censoring tabloid hacks, mindless celebrities, opportunistic politicians? Baynham insists no. “We weren’t looking for trouble. For better or worse, we were just presenting things that had come out of our brains. When we did Paedogeddon the Sun put out this huge broadcast that said, “They never have to work on TV again. I remember being in my apartment and shaking in my boots. Chris wasn’t looking for controversy either, but it’s more like water on a duck’s back to him.
Baynham’s route to comedy sounds like one of his own deranged skits. Born and raised in Cardiff, he spent five years from the age of 16 in the Merchant Navy: “I wanted to see the world but no one had told me about Interrailing. He came to London in his twenties with vague ideas about creativity before embarking on stand-up and improvisation. For a workshop at the Comedy Store in London, her classmates included Mike Myers, Paul Merton and Julian Clary. “They were like the sixth graders and I was the new boy. “
Spells written for the weekly news radio show Week Ending and gags for Terry Wogan preceded a meeting with Iannucci, who was a screenwriter and producer at the BBC. “I ran into him while stealing photocopier paper,” Baynham said.
Morris had initially resisted the idea of hiring more writers for The Day Today, which was the TV version of BBC Radio 4’s On the Hour, but Baynham impressed him with a sketch about a horse infestation in the London Underground. In fact, he briefly cornered the equine humor market by coming up with thoroughbred names for the program’s race commentary, including Trust Me I’m a Stomach and Massive Bereavement. “I absolutely got hooked on this stuff,” he says. ” I liked it. “
Although he called his experience with The Day Today “incredibly exciting,” he also felt like the odd one out. “I wasn’t from an academia and I didn’t have confidence in my bones. It was that combination of flea on the shoulder and complete terror. I was like the kid in the script, ‘Can I give you this, sir? I have no more horse jokes! ‘”
His happiest professional moment came when he, Coogan, and Iannucci improvised scenes for I’m Alan Partridge. It was Baynham, for example, who coined “Monkey Tennis” – Alan’s last desperate throw when blocked by the BBC editor – as well as the unforgettable phrase “the boys are back in the game. barracks ”to describe when Alan recovers from accidental exposure to indecent exposure.
“If someone shares your sense of humor, it makes you funnier,” he says. “Back in the days of the Merchant Navy, I used to go on six month trips with these scary, racist men who just thought I was weird, and so I wouldn’t be funny all the time. Then I walk into that room with Steve and he laughs crying because I said ‘the boys are back to the barracks’, and I think, ‘I’m so happy!’ “
Ask him what his proudest moment is, and the Giuliani incident is high on the list. Did that rock the American elections? “I wouldn’t want to pretend that,” he said. “But the week it came out was when the story of Hunter Biden laptops was gaining momentum, and you never know what will unexpectedly turn the tide in an election. So while I don’t think Borat won it, I think we did our part. Baynham largely writes for children these days, but surely it is something to say to grandchildren.