When they’re out of material, American stand-up comedians resort to two basic topics: the differences between men and women, and the differences between New York and Los Angeles.
Both subjects are weighed down with clichés and obvious jokes, but with minimal effort, a stand-up comic can convince an audience that they’re hearing fresh material, when in fact he’s just – as we say in the trade – “phoning it in”.
There are, of course, pretty big differences between the sexes, but they basically boil down to this: men, when they’re angry, are angry for 30 minutes; women stay angry for 30 years. All of the other differences flow from that.
New York and Los Angeles are a slightly more complex topic. I’m in New York right now, shooting a pilot episode for a cable network.
It’s a different experience for me – we’re not shooting this one in the usual way, in front of a studio audience. We’re on location in Brooklyn, standing in the rain, waiting for the clouds to pass so we can shoot an exterior scene. We have a soundstage in Brooklyn, too, and a production office, also in Brooklyn. I’m spending quality time in Brooklyn, in other words.
But I’m also spending a lot of time with a new (to me, anyway) show business type: the New York film professional.
Here’s where it gets tricky. For years, I’ve heard comedians make tired old jokes about the New York temperament – brusque, rude, arrogant – as compared to the laid-back, flaky, chill LA attitude. And like most audiences I’ve always thought that this was lazy writing. New Yorkers, in my experience, are genial and almost always polite.
But to be honest, I’ve never actually worked in New York, until now. I’ve visited for long stretches, but never lived a day-to-day Big Apple existence. Now those comedy routines are ringing a lot more true.
For instance: in LA you can always know a gaffer or key grip instantly. Both of those jobs – you’ve seen them listed in the credits, along with other baffling titles, right? – are more or less technical. Those are the guys who light and power a movie set, or control the camera units. In the southern California climate, they’re almost always in shorts and colourful T-shirts, with heavily-laden tool belts sagging from their waists. They all look like ageing, podgy surfers.
In New York, the same positions are held by glowering cigarette-smokers in black jeans. Ask an LA gaffer for a little more juice or, if you’re like me, a place to plug in your phone, and you’ll get an instant “Sure, dude!” The New York guy will give you a withering expression and ask, as one asked me yesterday, “Who are you, exactly?”
“I’m Rob,” I said. “I’m the executive producer.” Meaning: I’m the boss. Get to know me.
“Yeah, well, I’m a little too busy to plug in your phone,” he said. Then he turned away, but suddenly stopped, came back, and said with a heavy dollop of sarcasm: “Sir.”
That, from a New York crew member, counts as politeness.
Ask for an iced green tea at the craft-services table and it will be served up with eye-rolls and heavy sighs. New Yorkers drink coffee; don’t you know that?
Ask for a slightly more specific address than, “Steiner Studios, Williamsburg, Brooklyn” and you’ll hear exasperated huffing and puffing at the other end of the phone.
When they’re not irritated by your lack of sophistication, they’re treating you like a slightly slow baby.
This is how New Yorkers – especially those in show business – deal with their sublimated jealousy of those of us who live in a place that’s sunny all year round. They imagine us in paradise with our swanky cars, living in airy spacious houses, taking walks on the beach – and they curdle with envy.
They’re not rude or irritated because we’re here acting clueless or asking for special snacks. They’re mad because we get to go back to LA, where there’s lots of production work and zero snow or ice.
So all those lazy comedians are, in fact, pretty insightful when it comes to the differences between New Yorkers and Angelenos. It boils down to this: when Angelenos are angry, they stay angry until they’re back in Los Angeles. And when New Yorkers are angry … well, they’ll be angry until they move west.
Which makes this a lot simpler to resolve, actually, than the differences between men and women.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rbcl