‘Thank You, Centuries of Emotional Repression’: Why British Sitcoms Rarely Work in the US

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Sitcoms have been a staple of British TV for decades, from classics like Are You Being Served? and Fawlty Towers, to contemporary favourites such as Ghosts and Friday Night Dinner, the sitcom-setting has long been popular with audiences. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the people behind these shows are keen to build upon their success in the UK by adapting them for a US audience. But can British sitcoms ever really be successfully translated for an American audience?

Over the last year, we’ve seen several British sitcoms being remade or earmarked for recreation in the US. Earlier this year, an adaptation of Miranda Hart’s self-titled, semi-autobiographical sitcom Miranda was released starring Mayim Bailik. Call Me Kat received lacklustre reviews, to say the least, with Bailik giving a reasonable comedy acting performance but failing to really embody the quirks of the main character as Miranda Hart did so well. Over the last few months, remakes of other BBC sitcoms including Ghosts, Motherland, and This Country have been announced, but fans of the originals have their doubts.

Famous faces from British Sitcoms include David Brent (Ricky Gervais), Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Mark and Jez (David Mitchell and Robert Webb), Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), and Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders)
Source: Vulture

A Twitter poll found that 85% of respondents thought that US remakes of British sitcoms never or rarely work. Some of the suggested explanations include different senses of humour, different values and lived experiences, and US censorship causing jokes to fall flat. Many were quick to point out that various previous remakes have failed and those which were successful, such as Shameless and The Office, did well because they had been carefully adapted to the American sense of humour and American experiences.

Shows That Have Tried and Failed

There have been countless examples over the years of US remakes failing miserably. Fawlty Towers, Men Behaving Badly, and Red Dwarf are just some of the British classics which failed to stick in the US. More recent adaptations of post-watershed British sitcoms have also failed, largely due to American censorship and failure to adapt the script. Skins and The Inbetweeners were remade by MTV in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and both were cancelled after just one series.

Skins creator Bryan Elsley had his doubts about a US remake before agreeing to MTV’s vision for the show, and it seems he was right to be wary. Skins US received mixed reviews and was critiqued for being tamer than the original, yet still drew criticism from conservative groups for its depiction of teenagers engaging in casual sex and drug use, before further questions around child pornography were raised regarding its underage actors. The Inbetweeners, however, maintained much of its character from the British version as the scripts were almost copied and pasted from the original, however, this failure to adapt to the US audience ultimately meant the series failed.

The US remake of Skins was not a commercial success
Source: Google Images

Why Do So Many Remakes of British Sitcoms Fail in the US?

Many argue that Brits and Americans simply have a different sense of humour, with the main distinction being a contrast between American optimism and British realism/cynicism. Ricky Jervais spoke of this consideration when remaking The Office, arguably the most successful American adaptation of a British sitcom ever. Speaking to Time Magazine, Jervais noted how Brits tend to champion the underdog and use irony, sarcasm, and self-deprecating humour more liberally than our American counterparts. Simon Pegg commented that the stereotype that Americans just don’t get irony is wrong, rather Brits use it more as a way to mask with humour certain emotions while Americans find such things comfortable to express. While this may be the case, you will still find plenty of people who say that British humour is simply smarter, wittier, and more understated. Whatever the exact reasons, there is undoubtedly something which differentiates the British sense of humour from the American, and which contributes to the failure of some of these shows to take off in the US.

Cultural differences are also an important thing to consider. As previously mentioned, censorship is a consideration in the US that we simply don’t have to worry about in the UK, as pretty much anything goes after the watershed (the 9pm-5:30am time slot). US broadcasters are also often held to account by religious or otherwise conservative groups which can bring them lots of bad publicity and put pressure on them to censor or even cancel a show, as was the case with Skins. Cultural differences also play a big part in how well a British sitcom might translate to a US audience when considering plot, character and wider cultural and societal references. Many of the sitcoms earmarked for recreation in the US are full of nuanced themes and references which generally only make sense to a British audience, such as pop culture references or ideas around social class. Many characters also display very British characteristics such as the Captain’s dry wit and stiff upper lip in Ghosts or Penny’s emotional distance and perpetual disapproval in Miranda. The cynicism and self-deprecation of British humour is often embodied by such characters in a way which makes them hard to recreate well for a US audience.

The US has remade some British sitcoms in the past – some successful, some unsuccessful
Source: Google Images

Perhaps most importantly, British sitcoms are unique in that many are so clearly inspired by those who went before them. To this day, we see comedic elements carried forward from the formative years of British TV comedy in contemporary sitcoms. The team behind BBC’s Ghosts cite comedies of the 1970s and 1980s, like Rentaghost and Blackadder, amongst their inspirations for the theme and style of the series. Their scripts are also interspersed with elements of dialogue and performance taken from their predecessors, like how a perfectly delivered ‘I’m free’ from Kitty is a nod to Are You Being Served? Similarly, Miranda Hart drew on the slapstick physical comedy of Morecambe and Wise and revived their use of the ‘look to camera’, a metatheatrical technique known as breaking the fourth wall. Hart also plays with the British middle-class desire to climb the social ladder in a way reminiscent of Roy Clarke’s 1990s favourite, Keeping Up Appearances, with the character of Penny having much in common with Clarke’s lead character Hyacinth.

While companies on both sides of the Atlantic are keen to keep adapting British sitcoms for a US audience, it seems they rarely emulate their success in the UK. The exact reason for this is still open to debate, but it’s clear that sitcoms remain well-executed and widely loved by Brits, but something that Americans are yet to master.

Words by Louisa Merrick-White


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