Robert Popper: “I’ve said it so many times: I hate my friends, they’re so close they can annoy you” | TV comedy

RRobert Popper began his career writing for The Big Breakfast characters Zig and Zag. He then worked as a comedy and entertainment editor at Channel 4, where he helped launch Bo’ Selecta!, Black Books and Spaced. He was the producer of two series of Peep Show, writer of three series of The Inbetweeners, and co-wrote the first half of the first series of Stath Lets Flats with Jamie Demetriou in 2018. His own creation, the acclaimed sitcom Friday Night Dinner, ended with its sixth series in 2020. Now Popper is back with an all-new female-led comedy, I Hate You, starring Sex Education’s Tanya Reynolds and newcomer Melissa Saint in the role of two best friends roommates in their twenties.

Hi Robert! What is your process for dreaming up a new sitcom?
Well, it starts with this… [gestures to wall of Post-It notes].

Isn’t the first rule to find a situation where the characters are thrown together but can’t escape?
I never really thought of it like that. I always try to set the mood of the show, instead of thinking about the premise as a whole. With Friday Night Dinner, I found the title first, remembered how my family talked to each other, growing up, and thought, “This is my show.” I wanted to do something about an equally intense friendship, where you can’t explain the times you had to be there. I’ve said so many times, “I hate my friends,” because they’re so close they can piss you off. The title sums up the show: when we are so intensely close, we love each other but we hate each other.

bickering siblings you wrote in the past (adam and johnny in Friday Night Dinner, Mark and Jez in Peep Show, the Inbetweeners) were all male. Did you find it difficult to write for the characters of Charlie and Becatwo women bickering?
I have always loved writing about women. I mean, if you can’t write female characters, then you’re not really a writer. They’re not much different from us guys. They still talk shit. All my female friends are still talking bullshit half the time. And I love that. I love shit.

Was it also a deliberate attempt not to have two white guys as main characters?
You can always have two white guys. It depends on the story you’re telling. The boys [on Prime Video] is two white guys, and it’s fantastic.

Like Friday Night Dinner, are parts of I Hate You also taken from your life?
Much is taken from what friends have said. There’s a bit in the first episode where the girls start dating men in their 80s. It was from a friend who said, “I see my old friend tonight. I would say, “How long have you known him? and they said, “No, he’s my old friend.” He is 85 years old. It was quite mysterious. In the opening scene of Episode 2, Becca spots a bouncer with a fly on his head and wonders, “What if I kidnapped him?” It happened to me once. I also used to regularly pass this blackboard with my buddy in LA that said “Dog Adoptions Available” and change it to “Dog Abortions.” He thought I was an idiot, so that’s also a recurring joke.

Charlie (Tanya Reynolds) and Becca (Melissa Saint) in I Hate You. Photography: Natalie Seery/Channel 4

Like many of your characters, Becca and Charlie’s relationship could be described as “messy”. Have you ever had a messy relationship with someone you worked with, for example?
When I was at Channel 4, Iain Morris – who later co-wrote The Inbetweeners – also worked as a command editor. Iain’s office was empty but my walls were covered with all these nonsensical scripts that random people had sent. If I had an important phone call, he would walk into my office and tear one up in front of me. When E4 was launched in 2001, we had these E4 branded bouncy balls, so if he was on the phone important, I got a huge fistful of bullets, threw them in his face and closed his door. We took our jobs very seriously!

Friday night dinner.
Nice little quarrel… Friday night dinner. Photography: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

Do you remember the pitches people sent in?
There was one with pictures on the front of a dog with swastikas all over it which definitely caught my attention. [The premise was that] Hitler had trained his Alsatian to give the Sieg Heil salute and decided to invade the Soviet Union or Great Britain. The British trained an identical Alsatian so they could change dogs, so when Hitler said, “Are we going to invade Russia or Britain?” the dog walked on the map and saluted Russia.

How far down the production line did this go?
Not far away! Another guy sent in a proposal that Iain and I became obsessed with. It was a sitcom based on instructions on how to build a remote control car, as a tribute to his late father. It was very confusing, with a lot of patterns…

Surely you’ve had some of your own crazy ideas for sitcoms? What was your biggest wasted opportunity?
Peter Serafinowicz and I – who I worked with on [science spoof] Look Around You – Tried to write a sitcom called Peter and the Wasp, about a guy whose roommate is a moody wasp. We’ve gone quite far and even featured it on the BBC. But then we thought, what’s going to happen in episode four, when he gets tired of poking people? It would probably fly away.

I Hate You will air later this month on Channel 4.

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