I have had a Twitter account – @thejohnfleming – since March 2009 but, honestly, I have never got the hang of it. Nonetheless, people follow me – only 2,026 at the moment, but every little helps.
Naomi Rohatyn started to follow me last week. Her profile says: “Wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in LA. Aspiring to become wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in London.”
I thought this was fairly interesting as most comedy writers in London seem to aspire to be writers in Los Angeles.
But just as interesting was the fact she runs a Tumblr website called Pun Dumpster.
It is just a series of pictures of PhotoShopped graffiti on large waste containers.
So, obviously, I FaceTimed her in Los Angeles this morning.
“You like British comedy?” I asked.
“I think the real obsession for me,” she explained, “started a couple of years ago with Peep Show. I think people of my generation in America grew up watching Monty Python… AbFab was on in the 1990s and even The Young Ones played here I think on Comedy Central in the 1990s.
“A couple of years ago I was just tootling around on Hulu and found Peep Show and now I’m obssesed. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about it. So then I became obsessed by everything David Mitchell and Robert Webb did and Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have ever done and followed the threads. I could follow David Mitchell round all day and listen to his brilliance.”
“You know he’s taken now?” I asked. “He married Victoria Coren.”
“Yes. I hadn’t really been aware of her before. The only panel shows I’d watched were a fair amount of QI because, of course, Stephen Fry is brilliant, but then I sought out Victoria Coren’s panel show and she’s very funny and witty and… this is so embarrassing… I wanna pretend I have fine taste, but.. I was watching 8 Out of 10 Cats and she had this great riff on Goldfinger. David Mitchell and Victoria Coren are perfect for each other.”
There is a clip of Peep Show on YouTube.
“Where do you see all this stuff?” I asked. “On PBS?”
“All on my computer,” said Naomi. “On YouTube or Hulu or Netflix. All the panel shows have been on YouTube.”
“Have you got BBC America?” I asked.
“I don’t have cable. I just watch everything online.”
“Why UK stuff?” I asked.
“Part of why I love British comedy so much,” explained Naomi, “is what I perceive as bleakness in the British soul; a way of looking at the world with a knowing smirk. So much of British comedy starts from the premise that life is basically a series of humiliations and disappointments – whereas American humour is perhaps still uplifting at its core – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just doesn’t have the same gaping ennui, which is something I just love about British comedy.
“I think we do political satire and social satire really well, but there’s still something missing – a different approach to the human experience. In scripted shows, we still tend to default to things that are ultimately uplifting or protagonists that are either utterly likeable or a a clear anti-hero – they’re not just flawed fuck-ups.
“There is also that stereotype – for a good reason – that British humour is wittier and more intelligent than some American stuff. That has a foundation in truth, though it’s not because Americans hold the sole patent on stupidity and ignorance. But I do think there’s a strange cultural rejection here for anything perceived as intellectual.
“Even if you look at something like (the British TV show) The Thick of It and (its US re-make) Veep. I feel Veep is smooth peanut butter as opposed to the chunky original.”
There is a BBC trailer for The Thick of It on YouTube.
“We do have this weird proto-populist rejection of anything that is too intelligent. In The Big Bang Theory – even though they’re supposed to be super-intelligent – it’s low-brow humour.
“When I watch Peep Show it is so grim and vérité, but then they make allusions to Stalingrad and I feel that would come off as somehow so elitist here or people simply wouldn’t get the references. It’s not part of discourse here except in academia. And there’s not such a culture of self-deprecation here as there is in Britain.”
“You’re a writer or stand-up or both?” I asked.
“I would say 90% writer and 10% performer. What I mostly am is a dork.”
“And you write for…?” I asked.
“Yeaahhh…” said Naomi. “We are still working on that.”
“What did you study at college?” I asked.
“Critical Social Thought,” replied Naomi. “Probably the subject least applicable to any actual career. It was the liberaliest arts degree one could get. Our joke was it made you even less employable than an English Major.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles (from San Diego) I started at the very bottom rung of the entertainment industry, production assisting on many horrible TV reality shows which are woven of the devil’s testicles. I did a lot of random crewing – art department, sound department, post production stuff. Then the 14-hour days started getting to me and I wasn’t writing enough, so I took a day job at a law school for a couple of years and I’ve gone in a straight downward trajectory and now I walk dogs for cash in hand to support my writing habit.
“I feel like now I have goodish contacts here in LA: a lot of friends many of whom do have representation and are legitimate, functioning, employable human beings.”
“What are you writing at the moment?” I asked.
“I’m working on a satirical travel book. A satirical guide to Britain for American travellers. All utterly worthless information – a satire on those Rough Guides.”
“Have far back does your British comedy knowledge go?” I asked. “Do you know British acts like Morecambe and Wise?”
“Yes. This was why Peep Show was such a great gateway drug because it got me into the history of the double act. That’s something we don’t have as much of.”
“Off the top of my head,” I said, “I have to think back to Burns & Allen.”
There is a clip of George Burns and Gracie Allen on YouTube.
“We had Nichols & May,” said Naomi.
“But, in the UK,” I said, “they were not really known as a double act. They were a film director and a writer and, in fact, sadly, Elaine May was not much known here.”
“That’s too bad,” said Naomi.
“Indeed it is,” I said.
“There’s Key & Peele today,” said Naomi, “but double acts seem more of a tradition in British comedy.”
There is a clip of Key & Peele on YouTube.
“I suppose there is a British tradition,” I said. “Reeves & Mortimer, Little & Large, Cannon & Ball… Do you know Tommy Cooper who, in Britain, is really the comedians’ comedian?”
“I don’t know him.”
“You wouldn’t want to live in Britain, though,” I said. “Living in Los Angeles has some advantages. For example, there is sunshine.”
“It is wasted on me,” said Naomi. “I don’t care about the weather, I don’t care about the beach. I can’t swim very well, I don’t surf, I don’t need sunshine. To me, rainy, cold, foggy miserable, dark, damp, grey Britain is perfect because it gives me an excuse to hate everyone and be in a coffee shop writing.”
“You should move to Glasgow,” I said. “You will love the weather and the fact you hate humanity will be much appreciated. If you go round being aggressive, you will fit in perfectly. In fact, if you like bleakness in the British soul… I think Scottish humour is much more dark and dour and straight-faced than English humour – Scotch & Wry or Rikki Fulton or Rab C.Nesbitt.”
“I’ve seen Frankie Boyle on the panel shows,” said Naomi, “but most of my concept of Scottish comedy – or Scottish life in general – is English comedians slagging it off – drug addicts and reprobates and fried Mars bars.”
“That is not comedy,” I said. “That is social realism and reportage.”
There is a clip from Rab C.Nesbitt on YouTube.