Liz Meriwether: Why Hating L.A. Is Good for My Comedy

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by FOX

This week Vulture is running a series of stories about the comedy produced in and inspired by New York and Los Angeles. Today New Girl creator Liz Meriwether writes about finding inspiration for the show in her surroundings.

If you want to write comedy, the most likely places to live are New York or L.A. I would like to present a third option: You can live in L.A. and kind of hate it. 

Just to be clear: L.A. is a vibrant, diverse city that is much bigger than the entertainment industry. It’s actually the most diverse city in America, with the highest populations of people from Korea, Thailand, Iran, Mexico, and El Salvador. It has beaches, mountains, glamour, history, gruesome murder tours, delicious restaurants, a fantastic symphony orchestra, salads so fresh that you’ll feel like a rabbit, and strip-mall sushi so good that it becomes weirdly sexual. L.A. is many things, so when I talk about “L.A.,” it’s from my experience as a 34-year-old white girl with a possibly cancerous skin tag on her face, who drives in traffic to a studio lot every day to write network television. There are a million ways to live in L.A. This is mine. And when I say I “hate L.A.,” I am not saying that lightly. 

Everywhere I’ve been, people tell me they hate L.A., like it’s okay to look me in the eye after I’ve just told you I live there and say, “I hate L.A.” No. It’s not okay for you to say it. You’ve been here for a week or a weekend, and you are very cool and very smart and you don’t own a television and I get it. But if you’re going to hate L.A., then really hate it. Hate it with flair. Hate it with the recognition of all the hatred that has come before you, because hating L.A. is an art that has been mastered by some of the greatest, funniest people in the world — Woody Allen in Annie Hall, and David Cross! Go listen to the first five minutes of David Cross’s comedy album Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! His description of L.A. women wearing lip liner will get old with you.

If you’re going to tell me you hate L.A., don’t just look at me and say, “There’s so much driving.” What do you hate about the driving? Do you hate the way the sun hits your face through your car window like a kid with a magnifying glass trying to kill a bug? Do you hate the way sitting in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard going from east to west in the morning is like being strapped down on a wooden board that’s sitting in a shallow grave and just giving yourself over to death? Do you hate when you put on a podcast just to make your brain feel even a little bit alive, but it won’t make the cars move and it won’t make the sun stop shining and it won’t make the tourists stop taking pictures of the Beverly Hills sign? Stop! Stop taking pictures of the Beverly Hills sign, and do literally anything else with your life! Take off your clothes and hold each other. Be naked and tell each other the stories of how you got your scars. Then, maybe, when you feel like you’ve communed with the devil, the lover, and the god in all of us, then take a picture of yourself with the Beverly Hills sign. Oh, look, there’s a weirdly attractive guy jumping up and down on a rope tied between two trees. Does he have a mental illness, or did he come here for pilot season? Is this God’s way of telling me that life is a balancing act? Damn it, I just missed this whole podcast because I was watching a guy jump up and down on a rope for no reason.

The truth is, when I say I “hate L.A.,” I’m not even talking about all of that. Yes, there’s traffic. Yes, there’s juice. Yes, sometimes you get stuck in a conversation about surfing that is so boring, you can actually experience a sort of living death. No. I’m talking about living and writing and working for years in a place that doesn’t feel like home. And how maybe, somehow, it can end up being a good thing.

Obviously, I’ve chosen to live here, and that choice was, in large part, about making a living as a writer. I moved to L.A. fresh off a breakup and in the middle of falling in love with comedy. In New York, I was going to every stand-up performance and improv night I could go to. I actually saw David Cross live when he dropped in unannounced at a show on the Lower East Side. Comedy in New York was dirty, absurd, subversive, alive. I don’t know, man, I just really loved it. But I wasn’t a stand-up, and I wasn’t enough of a joke writer to work in late night, and I blew my 30 Rock meeting by talking for 45 minutes about robots — in New York, the options were limited. So I ended up in L.A. in January 2008, just in time to see Obama become the president. In New York, I was a receptionist who wrote plays. In L.A., I was a “screenwriter.” I could make money only writing. It was unfathomable to me. It was so exciting. 

I immediately started feeling out of place. The people I met were happy and healthy, and they projected confidence and power. They exercised and were pumped about exercising. I wasn’t used to the corporate culture of the studios, or the emphasis on numbers — your quota, your box office, your ratings. I had to get my head around the idea that I was now a product, and my work would ultimately be judged on whether or not it could make other people money. I went to a comedy roundtable for the Transformers sequel and pitched a joke where one soldier tells the other soldier he’s gay right before the aliens attack. Michael Bay did not laugh. He did, however, turn and look at me with his magical elf-slash-murderer eyes. As I was leaving, two writers were discussing the money we had just earned for a day’s work, and one guy said to the other guy: “Hey, now I can retile my pool.” These weren’t my people. I was lost.

I also got lost. I went to studios for meetings, and I got epicly lost. The map they give you at the security gate feels like the map equivalent of a “Fuck You.” Only after asking three to four people for help will you ever have a chance of figuring out where you’re going. And the problem with getting lost on a studio lot is that all the sidewalks and buildings have been shot in multiple TV shows, movies, and commercials, so everywhere you look, you recognize as a place you may have been before. It feels like you’re lost inside an ad for tampons you saw when you were 14. And then there was the time when I had a meeting at Universal and I went to the Universal Studios theme park. In case you’re wondering, they are not the same thing. I walked around for 30 minutes asking people selling cotton candy where Dreamworks was. When I figured out my mistake, I ran to get my car. Then I got lost in the Jurassic Park–ing lot for another 30 minutes.           

I missed the darkness of New York. I missed the public unhappiness. The dirt. The intensity. In high school I had a job working at a deli, and my boss would sometimes pull me aside and say, “I’m going to need you to be happy.” L.A. had that feeling to me  —I was back working at the deli, and I had to look happy for the customers. I was miserable. I missed home. I was what the executives would call a “fish out of water.”

It’s an old comedy idea: The character is forced to live in a place where she doesn’t belong. Eastbound & Down is a great fish-out-of-water story. Sister Act, obviously. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire. A fish out of water is only funny to people who are watching the fish. Being the fish sucks because, you know, you’re about to die. But that feeling made me want to write. The pilot for New Girl was based on some memories of hanging out in a loft in Brooklyn with my male best friend and his two roommates. Words cannot even describe how dirty that apartment was. It was horrible. The bathroom looked like a hurricane had just passed, and the only survivors were pubes. I missed it so much. I wrote the pilot in L.A., but it was about trying to re-create the feeling of home I’d had in that loft. The distance from my friends and my life in New York brought into painful focus how much it had all meant to me. Looking back, I don’t think I would have written that pilot if I’d actually been in New York. And whatever, I’m not holding it up as some great piece of writing, and you can make up your own mind about the show — there are a lot of weird dick jokes, and season three was kind of a mess. But my point is this: Living in L.A. and missing New York inspired me to write that pilot.

So, is it better to live in a place that you love? Sure. I think so. But what if living in L.A. while kind of hating it can actually become a source of inspiration? Some of my favorite movies and shows about L.A. are written by people who felt conflicted by the place. Think of Barton Fink. The Player. L.A. StoryModern RomanceClueless. David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. The Larry Sanders Show. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even Singin’ in the Rain. (Are you too fancy for Troop Beverly Hills?) Comedy rarely comes from characters at home in their world.  Maybe it’s okay to make the wrong choice and live in the wrong place — maybe it gives you something to write about.

Now I work every day on the Fox lot, but I have learned to find the little pockets of weirdness around me. I love the animals that live on the lot. The Fox lot has an insane stray-cat problem, and every night, hundreds of stray cats come out and roam around. (Do they go into the Modern Family set and talk to the camera? Do they sneak into American Horror Story and have terrifying, insane sex?) I love the birds that live in the rafters of the soundstages and poop on everything and ruin takes. I love anything that shouldn’t be there. I love how filthy our writers room is. This year, one of our writers put a piece of chicken in a hollowed-out wooden cane, duct-taped over the top, then lost the cane somewhere in the room. When I asked him why he did that, he defended himself with: “I put salt in there, too.” Oh, perfect. So the salt will preserve the chicken? You are a genius. But I get it. You can’t make comedy if the sun is out and everyone’s confident and wearing business-casual. There has to be a cane with a piece of rotting chicken somewhere in the room. 

I got emotional the day the security guard on the Fox lot, after four years of seeing me every morning, waved me in without making me swipe my badge. I was probably operating on very little sleep, sure, but there was something so moving to me about that tiny act of rule-breaking. It wasn’t that I was some big deal and he knew who I was — believe me, that was not it at all. It was just that he recognized my face. I wasn’t a number. In my mind, in that moment, I felt like he was saying: Hey, you come every day, and you try pretty hard. I see you. You’re a person. Come on in.