Where my pitches had to pop

With 'Men Behaving Badly' Simon Nye made his name as one of the funniest writers in British television. But did that mean our man could cut it in the gag factory of Los Angeles?

I Was In A hospital in Manchester. The drizzle was insistent. It was October and night was falling - at lunchtime. We were filming an episode I'd written of My Wonderful Life, the story of Donna, a single mother of two. Halfway between Coronation Street and Roseanne, it is the kind of real-life comedy (although I say it myself) that we should be doing more of.

As we ran splashily to the decrepit old double-decker bus where lunch is always served on location, I decided that real life, however important, could be suspended for a while ...

Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles is a wonderful place to live, especially in winter. It's never cold, it's rarely too hot. People are courteous. The beaches are sandy and broad. The reflex criticism of LA is that nobody walks, but in the end why the hell should they? They don't because everything's airy and spread out. The streets are palm-lined boulevards. There are parking spaces. Smog is in decline and is in any case hardly noticeable close to the ocean. You can't get good cheese, but how important is cheese?

I have come here with my family to ... let's face it, mainly to lie on the beach on a towel. But the work ethic is a terrible thing so I have written a sitcom script for Disney and have been helping on the American version of my show Men Behaving Badly, which has been on air since September.

When I arrived the US Men was faring reasonably well. There were tensions, however, between the actors, who believed the show lacked the edge and idiosyncrasy of the British one, and the writers, who felt that the actors were immature, unconstructive and, well, not very good. As I prepare to leave, it's got worse. Well, you can't win them all.

The show is structurally similar to the British one, although the Leslie Ash role has been attempted by five different actresses. Barbie-doll-style effigies of the four replaced actresses hang from the ceiling in the writers' room. This is either a trenchant comment on the cruelty of the acting profession, or a cheap shot, I can't remember which. We suspect that effigies of the four writers who have left the show are dangling in the actors' dressing rooms.

The systems are very different. At a rough count, a British sitcom script might take a writer 100 hours from start to finish. The average US script probably takes 750 writer-hours. Each script is worked on by anything from eight to 20 writers. Each show does about 24 episodes a year. There are some 70 sitcoms produced a year in the US. Head writers typically earn $2-3m a year. If you can do funny, you are laughing.

And all these shows need jokes. Jokes about sex, jokes about how your parents drive you mad, jokes about going to the baseball match, about losing the remote control, about Baywatch, and big hair, and ... well, what have you got?

There are 11 of us in the writers' room - the Room - on the US Men Behaving Badly. It took me several weeks to assimilate the jargon. Here is a taste. It's not playing = it isn't funny. It doesn't quite pop = it isn't funny. Vanilla = bland. Look in the sock box = find a joke that echoes an earlier joke to humorous effect. Hang a lantern on the runner in the tag = bring the running gag out more strongly in the post-credits sequence. The love drawer = the drawer of candy where writers gorge themselves if their pitches aren't popping.

The atmosphere in the Room is friendly and urbane, more like a university tutorial rather than Gag-Tag. Nevertheless the system requires a bunch of highly-paid men - and in our case one woman, the disarmingly named Brown - to sit around on sofas pitching jokes to the head writer. It takes chutzpah, and I don't really have it. My few efforts are along the lines of "How about he comes in and says ... Oh no, that won't work" and "What if ... Oh no, that's not funny. Sorry. Ignore me."

What I do have to offer is my slightly spurious guru status as writer of the British show. Experience counts for something but the US series is hobbled by particular problems. The notion of "bad behaviour as comedy" is a subtle one. If the characters don't have charm and credibility - qualities the US show occasionally lacks - it can be about as funny as being cornered by the town drunk.

And NBC, one of America's three big broadcasters, is touchy about what is acceptable. Hit shows such as Friends and Seinfeld use their muscle to deal with adult issues but less successful ones can fall foul of powerful "taste and decency" lobbies. (A recent showing of Schindler's List on network TV was criticised by a US senator for nudity and violence - an example if ever there was one of how to miss the point.) The episode I wrote for the American Men included the line "Has your mouth cleared that with your fat ass?" Okay, it's not The Fairie Queene, but the mild shock value was important in context. During the week, largely out of deference to NBC and the actor whose ass was in dispute, this became "Make sure your mouth has cleared that with your out-of-control ass," then "Make sure your mouth has cleared that with your fleshy knees," which didn't remotely play, let alone pop. Bizarrely, ass is generally unacceptable, whereas butt is okay. As someone in Friends might say: Hel-lo?

So what is the difference between American and British humour? The conventional answer is that we do irony and they don't. But the best American sitcoms ooze irony, possibly because many of the writers are East Coast-Jewish, more Woody Allen than middle-America. Nevertheless, a lot of hugging does go on: characters tell each other they love them. In a good show it's a welcome antidote to the emotional constipation of much British comedy. In a less-than-good show, it's difficult to keep your supper down.

In the end, perhaps, there is a cuteness and cleverness in American comedies which isn't very British. We put a higher value on surprise and idiosyncrasy. We will know this is no longer true when a US version of Father Ted goes into production.

American culture rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, especially if you won't take the rough with the smooth. In TV terms this means taking the hugely successful Xena: Warrior Princess with ER, the infomercials with Larry Sanders and The Simpsons. Jingoism on both sides of the Atlantic blurs the rather dull truth: that the ratio of good to bad shows is probably the same in both countries.

After three months my two-year-old daughter has started calling me Simon, in an American accent. I've finally got the hang of valet parking (Oh, I get it, you keep the key). My girlfriend Claudia has started hanging out at the mall. There was an earthquake measuring 5.4 this morning. The plumber who came to fix our shower offered to do my horoscope. All in all, it's time to leave.

Real life is a fragile thing, and in the end Los Angeles is a place to visit rather than live in. You can have too much unreality.

'My Wonderful Life', Simon Nye's new series, begins on Thursday at 8.30pm on ITV.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine