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Five More Minutes

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

Writers who work in television in the United States always really secretly want to work in the UK. TV is so free there: you can say a lot of words that you can't say here (actually, I think you can say everything there that you can't say here) and as far as I can tell, the official British policy on nudity is, full frontal nudity is fine, as long as the fully-nude person isn't attractive in the least. Or, in the case of British comedies, as long as the full-frontal nudity is part of some outrageous, hilarious, nauseating sight gag involving applied pieces of latex and simulated deformities. However, if the actor or actress is even slightly physically appealing, well then, frontal's out and you're stuck with partial.

Writers in the UK get to use salty language, adult situations, nudity. And they get a pretty free hand in other areas of the script, too. There aren't as many layers of executives in Britain. The script really gets shot as written. And they only have to make six or so a year, rather than the American standard of 22 or 25. Britain really is a paradise for television writers.

Except they only get paid about six cents, which is why most of them would gladly forgo their jobs in the UK with the freedom and the language and the dangling bits for a job here, in over-compensated, sunshiny, lots of light and space story must have two act breaks and a clear resolution hell.

I went to London last week, as a guest of the BBC, to sit in on one of their gatherings of the comedy department. It was something like what American networks do once or twice a year -- they ask a comedy writer to come and talk to the people involved with developing new comedy shows and give them the perspective of a writer and creator and... oh, wait. American networks never do that. Ever. What they do is trundle down to the Ritz in Laguna or maybe Bacara up in Santa Barbara and sit around with each other doing Team Building exercises. "Okay! Everyone in the Current Comedy department close your eyes and fall backwards into the arms of the Variety Alternative Development Team!" Or they come up with idiotic lists of what makes a hit show -- as if you can do that -- that they put on a greaseboard with one of those squeaky pens that smells like burning plastic. "Relatable Characters. Who's Your Way In?" "Current Trends: the Net, question mark, question mark??" "Strong Moms!" "Dating In Your Thirties: Dream vs. Reality with Reality underlined a couple of times."

What American networks call this is a "retreat," which they think sounds thoughtful and meditative, but which actually sounds like what it is: military retreat, ignominious surrender, bedraggled and bloody troops turning tail and heading back to camp, leaving their wounded to the mercy of the enemy, and their dead to the birds of prey that circle above. In a conference room in Bacara. Next to a dry erase board. Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.

But in London, last week, it was a different story. In fact, the only thing that reminded me of home was the inability of certain executives to get the comedy writers lingo right. I was trying to illustrate a phrase we use. Sometimes, when confronted with a lazy piece of writing -- a bad title of a movie, say, or a terrible name for a series -- we say, "five more minutes." Meaning, spend five more minutes thinking about what you want to call your movie or your TV show or your product for that matter and come up with something a little better. Five more minutes.

"Ah! We'll have to use that around here," said one of the BBC executives. "Just five minutes more."

"Five more minutes."

"I'm sorry?"

"It's five more minutes."

"Right. Just five minutes more."

See? In a small conference room in Central London or the Champagne Sunset Room at the St. Regis Monarch Bay, it's pretty much the same wherever you go, except there you can say dirty words and show nude ugly people. Which is nothing to sneeze at.

That's it for this week. Next week, I mess with your head. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.

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