Looking In and Out

An Open Letter to US TV Execs: Not Everything Funny Has To Be American

Hi TV Execs,

I know you’re all busy doing important things, but there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.

Have you ever heard of Downton Abbey? PBS shows it, and it’s pretty damn popular; in fact, NBC Universal claims that more than 120 million viewers worldwide have watched it. Do you ever look at Facebook? Of course you do. When it’s time for a new Downton Abbey, social media websites come alive with giddiness from American viewers. They can’t get enough, my friends.

Downton Abbey is a properly British show. Yet American viewers are going ga-ga for it. Crazy but true.

I know you lot are all about numbers and trends, so I’m thinking you probably would love to get in on that kind of action. Yet you look over the pond, see a popular British comedy show, and think “Hey, here’s a successful formula. Let’s change it!”

from-alf-garnett-to-archie-bunkerNow right off the bat, let’s deal with the obvious: the times that it’s worked. I know it’s happened. You changed Till Death Us Do Part to All in the Family; Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son; and they worked. The remake of Shameless is still new but doing pretty well on Showtime, and, of course, there’s The Office, but I’m not really sure that one counts. In the end, it strayed quite far from the original so let’s just call that one inspired by a British comedy, shall we?

So yes, on occasion, it has worked. It wouldn’t have made sense to have Archie Bunker admiring Enoch Powell, hating Socialists and calling his son-in-law a randy Scouse git. You took a very British character coping with changes in Britain and made him a Yank dealing with a changing American society. Fair dues.

What’s not fair, though, is your assumption that an American version is always the wisest choice.

Why do you do it?

Is it because British people sound weird? I won’t deny it: they do have British accents. But as Stuart Smalley used to say, that’s . . . okay. American viewers can handle accents: it took me a while to be able to comprehend Honey Boo Boo, but now I do (well, her accent, not her appeal).  Is it because they sometimes say words that Americans don’t — like shag and chav and lovely-jubbly? Again, I’m going to have to refer you to Honey Boo Boo, guys: go-go juice, beautimous, sketti, etc. Viewers have the ability to understand words that are unfamiliar because of things like dictionaries, the Internet, and context.

Is it because some of their references are different? Like they make jokes about the North and the South, but the stereotypes there are different than the ones here? You got me on that one: some shows do have jokes about things that aren’t parts of Americans’ lives, such as the National Health Service, the European Union or cricket. But British TV showed Friends and British people enjoyed it, despite the fact that most of them have never been beautiful people living lives they shouldn’t be able to afford in New York City. There’s nothing wrong with exposing Americans to a world that’s different than their own. Not many Americans have ever experienced the 31st century yet they seem to love Futurama. Seeing beyond borders might actually be a positive thing — the world’s quite big, you know, and varied and can be magical and scary and interesting. And also very funny.

SpeakOutJackWhitehallwebYes, British people can be very funny. They can be crude and clever and silly and stupid. Not all British people are aristocrats in castles living during the reign of King George V. Give ’em a chance, people! (Though if you think Americans can only handle posh Brits, there’s comedy about them, too — try Miranda or anything Jack Whitehall is in.)

And don’t tell me that it’s because Americans don’t get British humour. You’re just wrong. Take Showtime’s series, Episodes. It’s got a great mix of what people stereotypically call British humour (innuendo-laden, ironic, self-deprecating) and stereotypically American humor (crass, slapstick, observational). It’s funny and successful, with Golden Globe nominations in 2012 and 2013. So there.

So what are your reasons? Please tell me why you can’t just allow your viewers the joy of Rev. (set to be remade by ABC) as it is? Tom Hollander created it and plays the lead, Reverend Adam Smallbone, with a balance of earnest faith and raw insecurity. And Gavin and Stacey (set to be remade by Fox) as well? Again, the creators, James Corden and Ruth Jones, star in it, and every other role in the original is perfect. Both of these popular shows are already well-written, already wonderfully cast. Why change them?

If you are going to say it’s because you will improve them or you’ll to make them more appealing to a US audience, save your breath. (Don’t make me remind you of your success with remakes of The IT Crowd, Friday Night Dinner, The Inbetweeners or your various attempts at Fawlty Towers — all good shows you changed into bad ones).

Look, I know it’s probably about money. It’s always about money with you guys. I understand that. I may be desperate, but I’m no fool.

But here’s the thing: with me, it’s about funny. And America is really missing out on some.


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