The joke's on you
Frank Cottrell Boyce
I only did the Hollywood Shuffle once. A studio was briefly interested in a comedy idea I had. They flew me out, put me up, fed me, gave me little presents and introduced me to their famous friends. I'd worked for 10 years in the British film industry and no one had so much as offered to pay my train fare, so when friends back home asked, I said Los Angeles was wonderful and the people there were lovely. Sometime in that awkward pause between first draft and moving on, I had a conference call with the lovely people and they were lovelier than ever. They said it was a privilege to work with me and they were so excited but they had a few notes (lovely notes).
Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke
When the call was over, I hung up and then picked up again, to make another call. They were still on the line. They were talking about me: "When are you going to tell him?" / "Tell him what?" / "He's not funny enough."/ "I think we stay with him now and get someone funnier after the move on. We can always make it funnier later." / "We need someone now. If we don't Richard Curtisise this, there's not going to be a move on." And as I listened I realised with horror that bedtime shenanigans were beginning in the room below me, that any minute now a child was going to yell "But I've already brushed my teeth!" and my cover would be blown. I ended up under a bed with the duvet pulled around me to muffle the noise. I wanted to say: "You think I'm not funny? You should see me now." I'd been Richard Curtisised. It allwas very ... unlovely. Like sneaking round the back of the Punch and Judy booth and finding that the puppeteer was Dracula.
Rob Long's very, very funny book is a long, horrifying look behind the same curtain. While waiting to hear if his comedy series has been recommissioned the hero receives a basket of fruit from the studio and is paralysed with fear. A basket of fruit - what does that mean? He rings round other writers asking if they know anything about interpretation of fruit baskets. His agent calls the studio and is told that the fruit basket is just a fruit basket. But then our hero's show is dropped. In Hollywood, niceness is just another way of mystifying the process, of keeping the talent guessing, edgy and dependent.
Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke takes us through one American TV season - from the cancellation of Rob's show in the spring, to the making of a pilot for his new show in the autumn, through the long sweaty wait to see if the pilot will blossom into a series the next spring. It's fictionalised in the negative sense - ie the names of the guilty have been removed - but it's not fiction as such. There are no characters apart from the writer and his agent; nothing much happens. The result is as riveting and real as gossip. Indeed, there's a brilliant section on the nature and meaning of Hollywood gossip - Long points out that Hollywood is the least imaginative place on earth and therefore all its gossip is probably true. There are hilarious sections, too, on the precise and rigid hierarchies of the film set (the difference between an actor and an Element), on the necessity of plastic surgery, on actors' cars, and an amazing couple of pages in which Desi Arnaz (of I Love Lucy!) is repositioned as an avenging genius.
I was oddly moved by the sequence in which he bumps into a well-known actor on holiday and outlines for us the moral code by which it would be, like, SOO wrong to schmooze the "talent" during family vacation time - before going on to schmooze the talent. This pattern keeps repeating itself. He sees the Better Way but is so mesmerised by the Game that he cannot stop himself sneaking off down the Worse. If you ever wanted to know why American TV drama is so much better than anyone else's, the answer is here. Every top show is like a comedy Los Alamos project - burning up vast quantities of brains, cunning, endurance and paranoia. The formula is simple: the studios simply buy up job lots of brilliant young souls and crush them. There's just enough moral weight in this hugely enjoyable book to make you wonder if it's all really worth it, if it might not be better for a nation to send its best and brightest on a quest to end global warming or poverty, rather than just another third series.
Source: The Guardian
(R) thedailystar.net 2005