Simon Bird and Robert Popper Interview FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER

     July 30, 2011

The new comedy Friday Night Dinner, premiering tonight on BBC America, follows the Goodmans, a traditional but not strictly observant Jewish family whose weekly Friday night dinners see brothers Adam (Simon Bird) and Jonny (Tom Rosenthal) act like kids again, and Mom (Tamsin Greig) and Dad (Paul Ritter) are as embarrassing as they’ve always been. With grandma in a bikini and a creepy neighbor who’s terrified of his own dog, there is never a dull moment at the Goodman residence.

During a recent interview to promote the show’s premiere in the States, actor Simon Bird and show creator/producer/writer Robert Popper talked about how much of the series came from personal experience, the difference between American comedies about Jewish families versus this UK family, and how everyone can relate to having embarrassing parents. Check out what they had to say after the jump:

Question: Robert, no matter how old we are, when we go home to visit our family, we revert to a certain age and act a certain way. Did most of the stuff on this show come from your personal experiences?

ROBERT POPPER: Quite a lot of it did, yes. My brother and I still do childish things, like jumping and sitting on each other’s heads, and taping things from my mom’s phone. We would grab my mom’s phone and send each other disgusting texts, like “I’ve never loved you all,” “I wish you’d been an abortion,” etc. We got quite good at that.

Simon, is Adam an older version of Will McKenzie from The Inbetweeners?

SIMON BIRD: I think Adam is more comfortable in his own skin, so there’s no direct overlap. Any overlap is just my own idea to make the character distinct. I think Adam is certainly more comfortable and put together, and less vulgar.

Were you able to add any of your own things to the story?

BIRD: No, I really didn’t need to, just because Robert [Popper] had done such a good job already. The scripts didn’t change much at all, in rehearsals. It certainly rang true for me, particularly the episode where Jonny (Tom Rosenthal) jumps out of a rubbish bag to scare me.

Since your success with these shows, how are you doing with the females?

BIRD: Well, I’ve already got a female.

POPPER: Well done!

BIRD: Those awkward conversations with my father are a thing of the past.

Is this the kind of Friday night get-togethers you hoped for or actually experienced?

POPPER: It’s like a heightened version of the ones I grew up with. The mental things that happen in the show didn’t quite always happen, but the two brothers are quite similar to myself and my brother. We did silly little pranks that managed to ruin each other’s meal, and my dad would walk around with no top on. That is very similar. And, my mom does have red hair and my dad has got a hearing aid.

Do you think American comedies about Jewish families are over-the-top or just right?

BIRD: I don’t think Robert is out to specifically write a Jewish sitcom. I think he wanted to write a sitcom about his family, and his family just happens to be Jewish, but they’re quite relaxed Jews. Some of the Jewish customs don’t really come into it, just because they’re not a big deal for Robert’s family. But, I’m a massive fan of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I don’t know if they’re over-the-top, though. On Seinfeld, Judaism didn’t really come up much. It does more in Curb, only for the occasional storyline, here and there. In America, you’ve had decades of humor being fused with Jewish humor. In England, we just don’t have that. Our humor is not infused with Jewish humor. It’s completely different. So, whenever I see Jewish people depicted, they’ve always been done in either an over-the-top way, or a sentimental way. This family is Jewish, and they meet on Friday night. Their candles are lit, but they’re not going to do the whole thing. The way they talk is modern British. It’s second generation and third generation Jewish people. Jewish people will recognize they’re Jewish, but non-Jewish people might not. They might, if they know some Jewish people, but it’s not an issue. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you just enjoy it.

POPPER: It’s not a Jewish family sitcom. It’s a sitcom about a family who just happens to be Jewish. He’s based off my dad.

BIRD: I’ve met Robert’s dad, and I’d say he’s actually a tamer version of Robert’s dad.

POPPER: Yes, I’d probably agree. When you’re older, you revert to being kids again, and all dads, when they hit 55 plus, go mental and they’re a bit off. My dad has just become a little island in the family.

BIRD: In the UK, a lot of people have spoken about the fact that they can really relate to that. I think everyone thinks their dad is a little bit odd or crazy. As they get older, they develop their own little habits. They have a certain way that they like to live their life, and nothing is going to interrupt that.

Is there any rabbi who could really straighten out this family?

BIRD: Yes, I’m sure there is. Maybe you can help us get in touch with one.

What’s the oddest thing about middle-aged Americans versus middle-aged English people?

BIRD: I can’t say that there’s really much of a difference. I think that’s a universal thing. George’s parents in Seinfeld were actually set in their own ways and very weird. That new sitcom in America, $#*! My Dad Says is the idea that your dad is just a funny character. I think that’s pretty universal really.

Robert, how does your family feel about this show?

POPPER: Occasionally, they say, “You don’t need to say we actually did that to everyone in the press. That’s embarrassing.”

BIRD: The thing that his mom got really upset about was the scene in the show where Martin (Paul Ritter) eats a bit of toast out of the [trash] bin. That was the one thing that his mom was like, “No, you can’t put that on TV.”

POPPER: Yes, she didn’t like that a bit. She said he’s never done that.

Simon, did you get your family together to watch this series when it aired?

BIRD: Oh, no. I’m not quite confident enough to put on one of those big gatherings to show off my work. I sit on my own in my living room, watching through my hands, really. It’s a very strange and quite terrifying experience to watch yourself on TV. I never like to do it with other people.

Do you not look forward to hearing what other people have to say about it?

BIRD: I don’t look forward to it. At the same time, I look up reviews, which maybe I shouldn’t do, but I can’t help it. I think you always want to know. Because you spend so much time working on these projects and you invest so much in them, you want to know what people think.

With Tamsin Greig being the only female on set, did you guys play pranks on her at all?

POPPER: Simon played pranks on Tom, who played Jonny, his brother

BIRD: Tamsin is a proper, amazing actor. We were a bit scared of her because she’s so brilliant, so we didn’t do any major pranks or hi-jinx. That was more for me and Tom.

Robert, what was the inspiration for the neighbor and his dog?

POPPER: Well, we used to have a weird neighbor who looked and acted a bit like Salvador Dali. He was a very surreal man. At first, I thought I was going to have a man that looked like Salvador Dali, then I just thought of the idea as a concept. That just made me laugh out loud, when I thought of it. And, when I told a couple of people, they all just laughed. It’s just a simple idea that I hadn’t seen yet. Also, the dog never barks or anything. Why does he have a dog? He’s terrified of his dog, and his dog is actually really nice. I just thought it was so vague and odd. And Mark Heap, who plays him, flinches better than anyone does.

BIRD: That’s the thing, it was already so funny on paper, but Mark Heap is such a brilliant actor. He brought so much to it, and he really brings it to life.

Robert, since so much of this show is based on your life, are you concerned at all of any fall out from your family? Is it something that you think about when you’re writing? Do you think about the reaction that people are going to have when you’re basing characters on them?

POPPER: They’ve been fine, really. They read the first script and said, “This is dad. Oh, we did that. Oh, you can’t do that.” But, they enjoyed it. It’s very loosely based on them, although there are a few scenes which are completely, 100% lifted from stuff that happened in my house.