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?
Sunday 30 March 1997
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.
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