x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In comedy, being nice in real life is often all it matters

Moviegoers don’t really care if an action star is a nice guy in real life. But in comedy, Rob Long says, it's a different kettle of fish.

There’s a fairly bright line, or there used to be, between the worlds of television and feature films. In the old days, it was a major class distinction. Movies were upper; television was middle. (Radio was lower.)

Actors wouldn’t appear on a television series unless they were certain that their movie career was finished, because once you headlined on the small screen it was impossible to go back. Film screenwriters pranced around with the most prestige. Next came television drama writers, who were a notch below but still bursting with ego and entitlement. And in the lower regions of pomposity and artistic pretension were the comedy writers – like me – who mostly wrote half-hour television sitcoms.

Writers’ compensation had little to do with social prestige. Comedy writers with a successful show or two are among the highest paid personnel in Hollywood. It’s not unusual for the richest person in the swankiest Hollywood restaurant to be the unkempt, podgy and unrecognisable comedy writer, sitting apart from the sea of famous, attractive faces.

These days, though, most of the class distinctions have collapsed. Oscar-winning actors with fully-alive movie careers will take a year or so to do a smart television series. Television writers will dabble in film. The business is so chaotic and broken – thanks to the multichannel universe and a distracted audience – that the quaint old rules of the Hollywood aristocracy have broken down.

Occasionally, my friends in the movie business offer to buy me lunch – never an expensive one – to ask for help on a project or to pitch a story to me that they think has promise. Sometimes, it turns out that I have a few useful thoughts, and the lunch evolves into what we writers like best, which is an actual paying gig. Mostly, though, we sit around and talk about the movie business.

This time, the mood was gloomy. Two of my friends were responsible, respectively, for the biggest and second-biggest comedy failures of the year. I should have known the lunch wasn’t going to be fun when the restaurant turned out to be a grubby burrito place on Melrose Avenue.

“What do you think happened?” they asked, as we waited in line to place our orders. (I told you the restaurant was nothing special.)

The bluntness of the question surprised me. Despite the general mixed-up quality of the entertainment business, there’s still a lot of haughtiness to movie people. When their movies do well, they’re insufferable. They lord it over us like old-time Ottoman pashas, lecturing their lunch companions on what “the American public wants to see” and how they alone have “tapped into the subconscious dreamscape of the American moviegoer.”

And when their movies fail, they bore you to tears with endlessly detailed lies about “foreign markets” and “Asian box office” and “ancillary profits”, as if these numbers will somehow make up for their spectacular domestic losses.

When we sat down at the table and tucked into our burritos, I knew it took an enormous, uncharacteristic amount of humility for them to admit that their movies hadn’t caught fire. In fact, both had failed, and failed miserably. Both, though, had done everything right: they had scripts written by top-level writers (scripts that I’d read and thought were funny and engaging); they were directed by nimble and experienced movie directors; and, best of all, they both had famous and popular comic leading men at the top. And that, I told my friends, was the problem.

“I have a theory,” I told them, “about comic actors who get too rich and too successful. All of the money and the assistants, the cosseting and the yes-men, constantly living in a bubble where your every need is catered to, well, it has a terrible effect on the face. You can see it in their eyes ... they look like rich jerks who will cut ahead of you in line and be rude to your children.”

The producers thought about this for a moment, and they both admitted that the stars of each of their pictures – men who once were funny and approachable comic everyman – were, in fact, jerks in real life.

Moviegoers don’t really care if an action star is a nice guy in real life. But when it comes to comedy, the money is in being likeable, being regular, being somewhere in the benign middle. Audiences think about comedy in almost the same way as everyone else does in Hollywood: it belongs close to the ground, in the lower level, and as long as the folks who write and, especially, act in comedies remember that, they’ll always be successful.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles

On Twitter: @rcbl