FOr a quarter of a century now, Peter Baynham has been one of the writers behind Britain’s sharpest comedians and satirists, including Sacha Baron Cohen, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan. In 2005, however, he began to wonder if he had forgotten how to be funny. “I thought, ‘Whatever I had, I lost it,’” says the 57-year-old. “It is gone.”
Roughly a decade earlier, he had joined the most original comedy team since Monty Python when producer Armando Iannucci hired him to co-write the television news parody The Day Today, with a cast that included Coogan, Morris, Rebecca Front and Patrick Marber. . . He teamed up again with Coogan and Iannucci for the gloriously excruciating comedy I’m Alan Partridge; Coogan then took direct credit for making Norfolk’s grotesque and decadent DJ more humane and understanding. He also served as Morris’ partner in crime on the Channel 4 series Brass Eye, with its wildly hilarious “Paedogeddon” special, a tabloid shipment of hysteria that sparked its own media outcry.
Now here he was at the age of 41, pondering what to do next. “I was in a bit of a bind,” he recalls. “Things had not gone so well.” His animated comedy I’m not an animal, about a group of urban talking critters freed from a vivisectionist’s laboratory, had been belittled by the BBC’s top brass. “One executive said, ‘I will not visit this again.’ It crushed my soul. “
Baynham was sitting in a gas station cafe contemplating his future when the phone rang. It was Baron Cohen, asking if he could fly to the United States to help save his new movie, which was in the process of falling apart. Baynham explained that he was toying with an idea for a sitcom of his own. Later that day, he recounted the exchange to his friend Jez Simmonds, a writer for Never Mind the Buzzcocks. “Jez said, ‘Are you crazy?’ All of a sudden I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s right!’ “
After a humiliating phone call, 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 seat-of-pants improv starring Cohen as the anti-Semitic Kazakh and clumsy correspondent. The film grossed $ 262 million and earned Baynham his first Oscar nomination. It received another this year for the daring sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Filmed in secret during the confinement, it hijacked the pre-election news cycle thanks to a scene in which Rudy Giuliani clearly becomes acquainted with Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s daughter.
Baynham has lived in Los Angeles since he made the first Borat movie, from which he speaks today, and has become a sought-after screenwriter specializing in animated entertainment: Hotel Transylvania, Arthur Christmas and the upcoming Disney adventure Ron’s Gone Wrong, about a lonely teenager and his malfunctioning AI friend.
Animated films take many years to reach the screen, while one of the advantages of Baynham’s new podcast Brain Cigar is that he and Simmonds could recruit some friends (including Julia Davis from Nighty Night) and get her to split up without outside interference. The show invites listeners into the universe of slanted comedy that Baynham and Simmonds have been cultivating together since they met at an improv workshop in the late 1980s.
The show features friends reminiscing about pop culture memories that only have a slight overtone of truth. Did David Bowie really market a line of frozen dinners called Bowie Dinners? Did Jack Nicholson really appear on Multi-Colored Swap Shop, the Saturday morning children’s television show, to promote his erotic thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice? And did the actor really lose his temper live and dismiss Action Man as “a little bitch”? Baynham thinks so, and he wants us to believe it too.
“It’s lovely to think that it could have happened,” he says. “I’ve always liked to invest properly in these things, rather than saying, ‘Here’s a crazy idea.’ He looks for what he calls “broken logic” in the weirdest notions, like when he tells Simmonds that he and his wife have asked Bono to babysit. Simmonds sounds incredulous: Has Bono ever expressed a desire to expand in that line of work? No, responds Baynham. So why ask him? “Because we don’t have our regular babysitter.”
It is the same tradition of serious surrealism in which Baynham and Chris Morris operated on Morris’s programs on BBC Radio 1 in the 1990s. He has fond memories of the time he claimed to have found Johnnie Walker dead under a cloud of flies in an adjacent studio. Morris persuaded him that the kindest thing to do would be to allow the deceased DJ to say a final goodbye to his fans. “He had me poke a hole in the back of dead Johnnie’s neck and blow through it while he operated his jaw to make him speak. Our dynamic was always that Chris was the classy bully and I was the jerk who did what he said. “
Killing public figures prematurely became something of a hobby for the duo. Another item, in which they announced the death of Michael Heseltine, earned them a fifteen-day suspension. “We didn’t actually say he was dead,” says Baynham. “Chris said, ‘Yes there is any news of the death of Michael Heseltine in the next hour, we will let you know … ‘”
It seems reasonable to assume that the price of controversy in his work. Wasn’t that part of the Brass Eye joke that angered the very people it satirized: censorious tabloids, stupid celebrities, opportunistic politicians? Baynham insists not. “We weren’t looking for trouble. For better or for worse, we were just presenting things that had come out of our brains. When we did Paedogeddon, The Sun ran a big broadcast that said, “You must never work on television again.” I remember being on my floor and shivering in my boots at that. Chris wasn’t looking for controversy either, but to him it’s more like water from a duck’s back. “
Baynham’s route to comedy sounds like one of his own deranged sketches. Born and raised in Cardiff, he spent five years in the merchant marine since he was 16: “I wanted to see the world but no one had told me about Interrailing.” He came to London in his early 20s with vague ideas about creativity before turning to 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 sixth graders and I was the new kid.”
Spells to write sketches for the current affairs radio show Week Ending and gags for Terry Wogan preceded a meeting with Iannucci, who was a script editor and producer at the BBC. “I ran into him when he was stealing copier paper,” says Baynham.
Morris had initially resisted the idea of hiring more writers for The Day Today, which was the television version of BBC Radio 4’s On the Hour, but Baynham impressed him with a sketch about a plague of horses in the London Underground. In fact, he briefly cornered the market with equine humor by making up Thoroughbred names for the show’s racing commentary, including Trust Me I’m a Stomach and Mass Duel. “I was absolutely hooked on all of that,” he says. “I loved.”
Although he calls his experience on The Day Today “incredibly exciting,” it also felt strange. “I didn’t come from college and I didn’t have confidence in my bones. It was this combination of cold shoulder and utter terror. I was like the urchin in the script: ‘Can I give you this, sir? I have 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 pitch when blocked by the BBC’s editor-in-charge, as well as the unforgettable phrase “the boys are back at the barracksTo describe the moment when Alan recovers after an accidental indecent exposure.
“If someone shares your sense of humor, it makes you more fun,” he says. “In my merchant marine days, I would take six-month trips with these scary, racist men who just thought it was weird, so it wouldn’t be funny all the time. Then I go into that room with Steve and he’s crying with laughter because I said ‘the boys are back at the barracks’, and I think, ‘I’m so happy!’ ”.
Ask him about his proudest moment and the Giuliani incident ranks high on the list. Did it influence the American elections? “I would not like to state that,” he says. “But the week that was leaked was when the Hunter Biden laptop story was growing, and you never know what will unexpectedly turn the tide in an election. So while I don’t think Borat won it, I do think we did our bit. ”Baynham is writing mostly for kids these days, but surely that’s something to tell grandkids.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism