No laughs please, we're British

Three BBC sitcoms are to be remade in the US. But will they survive the journey across the Atlantic, asks Sarah Shannon
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The Independent Online

American television executives are increasingly turning to successful "Brit-coms" - buying up formats from the UK and remaking them to suit American tastes.

NBC has bought the BBC comedy drama Coupling, remaking it with a group of handsome young Chicago dwellers. Fox will show The Kumars at No 42, a format that has also been sold to Israel, Germany and Australia. The American version revamps it, replacing the Asian Kumars with the Mexican-American Ortega family. Universal has also caught the British bug, buying up The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's black comedy about an inept middle manager working for a Slough-based company.

This is all very nice for British broadcasters. But will these shows survive translation? We asked television executives on both sides of the Atlantic to rate the new comedies' chances of success.

The judges

Crispin Leyser Senior vice-president of September Films, a British independent with a Los Angeles production base. Before going to the US, he worked at Channel 4 and as a comedy producer for LWT.

Jon Plowman BBC head of comedy entertainment - and executive producer on The Office and Absolutely Fabulous.

Paul Lee Chief executive officer of BBC America, who has introduced US audiences to a raft of British programming, from Graham Norton to Changing Rooms.

Tom Gutteridge Creative director of The Television Corporation, which makes documentaries, sport and entertainment for international markets.

The Office

David Brent's obnoxious management patter won ecstatic reviews from American television critics watching the UK original. BBC America's chief executive Paul Lee thinks Universal's remake may struggle to match up. "You might make money out of The Monkees, but they'll never be The Beatles. Nothing will ever match that special moment when David Brent adjusts his tie."

Jon Plowman believes The Office's problem will lie in the way that American TV stations normally force-feed viewers their comedy with laughter tracks and obvious jokes. "You have to watch The Office quite closely: most American comedy doesn't work that way."

An executive from America's Comedy Central told Plowman that he loved the show, but wouldn't buy it. "He said a lot of viewers will think it's a documentary and not even work out it's a comedy."

Another problem could be its mundane setting. US comedy likes to be aspirational. "The mentality is: if he's a failure, why should I bother watching him?" says Plowman.

"You just know they'll screw it up," adds Crispin Leyser. "Brent is that kind of comedy monster that we occasionally do so brilliantly in the UK. He's British through and through."


"When it first came out in the UK, I thought Coupling was a down and dirtier version of Friends," says Plowman. "But that might not be a problem in the States. The theory there is often, 'This is a hit so we'd better make something else like it.'"

Coupling also holds two trump cards for US television audiences - the characters are good-looking and, on the whole, nice to each other, unlike in most British comedies.

But Tom Gutteridge, creative director of Television Corporation, doubts it can work. "It's a hugely competitive market to crack. It will be down to the production skills and how they adapt to American tastes."

Crispin Leyser says: "The feedback I've had is that NBC has spent an awful lot of money getting it right."

NBC bosses summarily dismissed an early pilot and ordered it recast. "There are also nerves about how raunchy it is. It openly talks about sex in a way Friends never would."

Gutteridge agrees. Last week he found himself having to remove a shot of a contestant wearing a thong on his company's American reality TV hit Paradise Hotel. "You can't show buttocks in 2003. It's unbelievable. The rules here in the US are far stricter."

The Kumars at no. 42

Across the Atlantic, the Asian Kumars will be transformed into the Mexican Ortega family.

Plowman points out that the situation of Hispanic culture within America is so massively at variance with that of the Asians in Britain that the US remake will inevitably be a very different animal: "You need performers who are going to take the idea and make it their own. If they want to end each episode with a folk dance, then so be it."

Leyser thinks the nature of the show's jokes could be a problem in a nation so sensitive to issues relating to racism. "I think they will face the same translation problem that Banzai [Channel 4's spoof Japanese gameshow] is having out here. People here are outraged by Banzai. I don't remember there being any fuss about it when it started in the UK".

Gutteridge thinks The Kumars' spoof chat-show format and gentle ethnic teasing might pass audiences by. "The psychology of production here is completely different. The opening titles are very short and there are super-teasers before each commercial break. The whole grammar of television presupposes that the audience is not prepared to engage," he says.