"What's the difference between a plum and an elephant? They're both purple. Except for the elephant."
I remembered that joke when I sat down to write this post about Way To Go, my new BBC3 comedy (Thursdays beginning January 17 at 10:00pm) about three guys who start an assisted suicide business, because it reminded me of the difference between British and American television comedy: They're both really good. Except British comedy is much better.
And as an American television comedy writer, who's forever been an avid fan of the work on British TV, I've always wondered why.
Maybe it's because the length of time a writer has to tell a story on the BBC is 25 per cent longer than on any American broadcast network, allowing more time for the writer to explore characters and let the narrative breathe, instead of having to dart from plot point to plot point between a rash of car and detergent commercials.
Or maybe it's because not every actor in a UK comedy has to be arrestingly gorgeous enough to be a supermodel. In fact, the people on-screen who an audience is supposed to identify with and relate to tend to look like what I'd commonly refer to as, well, dare I say... human beings.
Or maybe comedy on the telly is better simply because of those astonishing British accents. I mean, c'mon... even a tepid joke seems sophisticated when it spills out of the mouth of what appears to be (and often is) a Shakespearean trained actor.
Don't get me wrong; there have been great comedies in the States. In fact, I've been fortunate to work on some of the best of the last twenty years (including The Simpsons and 3rd Rock From The Sun). But institutionally, it seems the approach taken by American comedies pales in comparison to the daring subject matter and wicked humor that grace British television sets.
So what does an American writer do with his subversive comedy about the highly illegal business of euthanasia? In my case, I was lucky enough to enlist the support of my friend Jon Plowman - the former head of comedy at the BBC and brilliant executive producer who ushered in such hits as The Office, Absolutely Fabulous and, more recently, Twenty-Twelve. Jon immediately championed the script.
But even in Britain, not everyone was jumping up and down to do a comedy about assisted suicide. In fact, it took us nearly two years before cameras began to roll.
The first step was having my pilot script, which I'd written in English, translated into, um... English. Apparently, there are differences between the language the British speak, and the version I was taught in elementary school - known in the UK as "primary school," which already sounds more cultured and cosmopolitan. Suffice it to say, when the finished, "Anglo-cized" script (carried out with great finesse by Brian Dooley, a wonderful writer who subsequently wrote episode five in the first series) was finally emailed to me, I opened it like a kid at Christmas.
Gone was the hapless gang of three from New Jersey beginning their risky, underground operation. In their place was a hapless gang of three from Liverpool. The story, the scenes, the characters, the jokes were all the same. But now, translated into densely brash Liverpudlian, I had to admit everything felt so much funnier. Even though I couldn't understand some of the dialect (what the hell were Wagon Wheels, digiboxes and Garibaldis?), it didn't matter; the whole thing seemed perfect. As an American show, I thought it would have been really good. But as a British show, it felt really right; almost difficult to imagine it had been conceived any other way.
During the course of future rewrites and additional scripts, the characters evolved south a bit towards London. So, apart from Paddy, the first character to euthanize himself (played by the magnificent actor Tom Georgeson), much of the original hard-edged dialect diminished. And as I spent more time in the UK, being influenced and educated by voices of the extraordinary cast that inhabited the roles I'd created, future scripts barely had to be "Anglo-cized" at all.
Except for during rehearsals, when our hilarious actors Blake Harrison, Marc Wootton and Ben Heathcote would lovingly snap at me, "I would never say this." And with a mortified blush, I'd excise any "for sure" and "totally" and "like," that this Los Angeles-based, Valley-bred writer had unwittingly slipped in.
I'm excited by the collaborative opportunity I've had for my original vision to be sprinkled with British TV 's magic - whatever that is. I think it's resulted in a controversial comedy both sides of the pond can readily identify with, argue about and, most importantly, laugh at. Which may very well be the best kind of comedy of all.
Like, totally, for sure.