With the announcement this week that both Gavin & Stacey and Spy have been picked up in pilot stage by U.S. television networks, Fox and ABC, respectively, and the news weeks back that there will now be an ‘American’ Downton Abbey, one can’t help but revisit some past history of comedies trying to head west to America. While situation comedy has faced monumental issues making the trip back across the Atlantic, other formats have flourished in the States. Reality format programs such as Antiques Roadshow, Pop Idol, Big Brother, The X Factor, Hell’s Kitchen and Strictly Come Dancing have been quite the success stories for American networks.
From a comedy standpoint, of all the attempts to ‘Americanize’ the brilliant British comedy that comes out of the UK, success’s can be counted on one hand with Sanford and Son, All in the Family and The Office leading the way. I’d say we all remember the failures, but given that some of them either never made it to pilot stage, never made it past pilot stage or were, essentially, ‘one and done’ by week three of the networks Fall season, you may now know all the entries without a scorecard.
Thankfully, WalesOnline has done most of our work for us and done a brilliant job of reminding us of the number of British sitcoms that crossed the pond over the years and, in their words, ‘…were no laughing matter. They start out by correctly identifying that America and the UK are ‘two nations divided by a common language’. Somehow, however, when it comes to comedy, that divide seems to be larger than the Grand Canyon. Looking at the list, I had forgotten about a post-Soap Richard Mulligan trying his best to be the American Reginald Perrin.
It really hasn’t made a difference if scripts were bought and read word for word (Coupling), if producers decided success was guaranteed if they simply would import stars from the successful UK versions (Nigel Planer from The Young Ones, Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd) or import creators/writers of the UK versions to pen the American versions, there is no blueprint for success when it comes to comedy. Why anyone would watch Fawlty Towers, perhaps the funniest comedy on Planet Earth, and think that they could make an American version. They tried….three times!
Chateau Snavely starred Harvey Korman in the Basil Fawlty role overseeing a highway motel, while Amanda’s had Bea Arthur (post-Golden Girls) changing the character’s sex and, the most recent ill-fated attempt was in 1999 with Payne with John Larroquette at the helm of the Whispering Pines Hotel. Even though it had John Cleese’s personal blessing, its doors closed once and for all after only eight episodes with one of them having never aired.
So, you can see why I’m a bit leery when I hear that the newest entries in the ‘let’s make British comedy better by making it American’, Gavin & Stacey and Spy are headed to pilot stage. Hopefully, they will prove me wrong for once.