American Television Reinventions: Comedy
Created | Updated Jul 31, 2017
Comedy | Drama | Family | Game Shows | Reality
Whether we live in Britain or America, we all like a laugh. Many of the most popular television series in America have been British comedies. From Monty Python to Little Britain, audiences on both sides of the Atlantic have been laughing their socks off. Yet not all jokes make it across the water successfully. The background behind a gag is sometimes important to its meaning, so an American audience may not find the joke funny as a result.
Therefore many British comedies have been remade in the US with broad backgrounds that led to their appeal to begin with, minus the jokes that American audiences would not understand. Some have proven highly successful, others failed to impress. This article compares and contrasts just a few examples.
Dad's Army / The Rear Guard
Possibly one of the most unlikely remake attempts, this is an example of a successful British television series that failed to make it beyond pilot stage in America.
Dad's Army (1968-77)
Set during the Second World War, this tells of a group of men ineligible for military service, either by being too old or too young, who have volunteered to guard their home town in the event of a Nazi invasion. Ill-prepared, ill-equipped and incompetently led by the pompous, but unquestionably brave Captain Mainwaring, they spend more time fighting their rival, Hodges, who is the town's Air Raid Precautions warden, and arguing with the vicar and verger about their use of the church hall.
Nine series were made as well as a film in 1971, which kept most of the same cast. A remake film, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, was released in 2016.
The Rear Guard (1976)
A series about a small town under the threat of invasion from Germany seems an unlikely proposal for an American remake, but in 1976 a pilot episode was indeed made. Now entitled The Rear Guard, the pilot was a remake of classic Dad's Army episode The Deadly Attachment, in which the platoon guard the crew of a German U-boat. Unsuccessful, the only copies of the pilot to survive are poor quality, but nevertheless clips often appear in documentaries about Dad's Army.
The most successful science-fiction comedy television series of all time, Red Dwarf has been going strong since 1988. With the concept created in 1984 being repeatedly rejected, it was only finally commissioned by BBC North when they discovered that Ben Elton was not going to make a second series of Happy Families after all, and they needed to make a comedy series at short notice.
Red Dwarf (1988-93, 1997-99, 2009, 2012, 2016-17)
Running initially from 1988 to 1999 but frequently revived, Red Dwarf is a classic series that has a look and feel all of its own.
The story of the first ever episode of Red Dwarf, entitled 'The End', is simple. Dave Lister's life is a misery. He's stuck on the titular spaceship in the middle of nowhere, following the orders of a complete twit named Rimmer who supervises his cleaning of the chicken-soup machines. When Captain Hollister, Red Dwarf's commanding officer, finds that Lister has hidden an unchecked pregnant cat on the ship in defiance of the ship's quarantine regulations, Lister is sentenced to be frozen in stasis for the rest of the journey. Shortly afterwards, Rimmer is responsible for a nuclear accident that wipes out all the crew. Lister awakes three million years later to find that the crew are long dead and he is lost in deep space. He must now fight to survive accompanied by a hologram of Rimmer, a sentient but narcissistic lifeform that has evolved from his old pet cat, and a senile computer called Holly. They are later joined by Kryten, a robot.
The series has attained a large fan base worldwide, aided both sides of the Atlantic by the broadcasts on PBS. When Series III was in production, Red Dwarf's creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, learned that the first two series of Red Dwarf had been the highest-rated programme on PBS since Monty Python. This enabled them to successfully persuade the BBC to give them a bigger budget and greater publicity.
Red Dwarf USA (1992)
As Red Dwarf had been such a success in America, television executive Linwood Boomer bought the format in 1992 with the intention of adapting it for the American audience. He was very much in favour of staying as close as possible to the look of the original series, having nearly identical sets and special effects to the ones on the UK series, with the pilot episode following fairly closely to the first episode of the original British one.
Dave Lister (Craig Bierko) is a long way from his home town of Detroit. Stuck aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf, he's forced to obey the orders of a stuck-up but similarly lowly officer named Arnold Rimmer (Chris Eigeman). His duties mainly involve pushing a cart around while Rimmer fixes the soft drink machines on board ship. All this changes when Captain Tau (Lorraine Toussant) finds out that Lister snuck a cat aboard the ship and she sentences him to the stasis booth for not telling her where it is hidden. Thousands of years later Lister is reanimated to find that the crew is dead and he now has to share the entire ship with a hologram of the dead Rimmer and a creature evolved from his cat (Hinton Battle).
The first pilot was based on the original episode 'The End', with two main changes. One change was that Holly, the ship's computer, was female and played by Jane Leeves, who would later star in Frasier (1993-2004). In the British series Holly had been male in the first two series before becoming female for Series III to V. The biggest change was that Kryten appeared in the episode, although in the British series he had only become a main character in Series III. Played by Robert Llewellyn, he was the only actor from the UK version to reprise his role in the American pilot. This change meant that the script had to be extensively rewritten to include him.
As the show was being made for NBC, it needed to accommodate commercial breaks. This meant the script had to be shortened to 22 minutes from the original's 30 minutes while including more, especially Kryten, within it. It strained the adaptation beyond breaking point, meaning that the script that Boomer had developed made little sense. Red Dwarf's creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, hoping to make the remake work, rewrote the script to make it easier to follow, but though their work was favoured by the actors, Boomer chose to use his own script to make a pilot. It was not picked up by NBC.
A second pilot was then shot, loosely based on Grant and Naylor's script but working as an extended trailer. Ten minutes in length and featuring a female Cat, played by Star Trek: DS9's Terry Farrell, it too failed to progress. It also received criticism that, unlike in the original series, the cast was entirely white. Universal Television passed on the series and this pilot has never been publicly broadcast, but that has not stopped low-quality bootleg tapes being sold at science-fiction conventions.
Little Britain / Little Britain USA
Little Britain (2003-07)
Like many British television comedies, Little Britain began on BBC Radio 4 before making the transition to BBC Three. A sketch series created by and starring Matt Lucas and David Walliams, with narration by Tom Baker, it managed to combine the interests of BBC Three's younger audience with the more sophisticated tastes of the Radio 4 listenership. Chock-full of colourful characters with quirky catchphrases, three full series were made as well as a live show, mini-series Little Britain Abroad, special Comic Relief DVDs and numerous outtake sketches.
Little Britain USA (2008)
More of a spin-off or continuation of the original show, Matt Lucas and David Walliams made this as their fourth series of Little Britain, only now set in America. They kept many of the original show's favourite characters, and new ones were introduced too. Although this attracted reasonable viewing figures both sides of the Atlantic, numbers were noticeably lower than for Little Britain. Only one series of six episodes was made.
On the Buses / Lotsa Luck
On the Buses (1969-73)
Written and created by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, this was a London Weekend Television production featuring Reg Varney as bus driver Stan Butler at the fictional Luxton Bus Depot. A key factor in the success of this series was that it featured a lively home life, with Stan going home to his henpecking mother, his sister Olive and his brother-in-law Arthur, none of whom had anything in common.
The main comedy came via Inspector Blake, played by Stephen Lewis, who often found out about Stan's various schemes to get on with the clippies1 or carry his mother's washing home on the bus. Also involved in the fracas was Stan's friend Jack, shop steward and pain in Blake's side.
A huge success at the time, it was written mainly as a showcase of Reg Varney's talent as a comedian. Stan's Mum was played in the first series by Cicely Courtneidge, but was replaced for the second series by Doris Hare.
It spawned three films featuring the same cast in their relative roles, as well as spin-off Don't Drink the Water (1974-75), about a character who has moved to Spain with his sister.
Lotsa Luck (1973-74)
Instead of a bus driver, the US version focused on a down-and-out clerk at a lost-and-found desk in a bus depot. It was conceived, much as the UK version was, as a vehicle for its star Dom DeLuise, who played Stanley Belmont. The same framework was used for the familial scenes, where Stanley went home to his mother Iris, his sister Olive and brother-in-law Arthur Swan. But a spark was missing from the adaptation and it only managed a season before being cancelled.
It is interesting to note that arguably the most well known character of the UK version, Inspector Blake, does not have an equivalent character in the US adaptation.
British and American Men Behaving Badly
Men Behaving Badly (1992-98)
This British 1990s sitcom about two layabouts was a firm favourite during its time and starred Martin Clunes, Neil Morrissey2 and Caroline Quentin. A lot of the appeal was in the fact that the two leads were fairly unlikeable people. It remains one of the best-known UK comedies of the 1990s.
Men Behaving Badly (1996-97)
Unfortunately, the American version starring Rob Schnieder took only the format of the programme and changed everything else to the point where even the title, Men Behaving Badly, no longer actually applied to the characters. It was cancelled soon after the start of its second season.
This series was broadcast in Australia and New Zealand under the title It's a Man's World, further distancing it from the original concept.
One Foot in the Grave / Cosby
One Foot in the Grave (1990-2000)
One Foot in the Grave is David Renwick's classic sitcom from the 1990s. Featuring Richard Wilson as Victor Meldrew, it is about a grumpy old man who finds life in retirement considerably less enjoyable than he thinks it should be. Constantly complaining to his wife Margaret (played by Annette Crosbie) about how bad each day of his life is, this series became a classic and a constant ratings winner. The finale saw Mildrew dead, leading to a nationwide 'Bring back One Foot in the Grave' campaign!
The theme song, by Eric Idle, is also one of those wonderful toe-tapping tunes that is very hard to forget.
The more recent Bill Cosby series originated from the idea of remaking One Foot in the Grave for the American audience, but starring Bill Cosby. Although it was originally conceived as a remake of the UK series, you'd be hard pressed to pick that out from casual viewing. One Researcher said:
I myself watched it many times during its run, and the thought that it in any way resembled 'One Foot in the Grave' never occurred to me.
Once they had Bill Cosby, the star of The Cosby Show, one of the most successful series of the 1980s, aboard, they threw the original concept out the window. Instead the series used Cosby's earlier series as its basis more than One Foot in the Grave, and tried to follow up on Cosby's original success.
The series follows the life of Hilton Lucas who has been retired by his employer, including how he has to deal with retirement and the changes it will mean to his life. Although Cosby doesn't actually play Dr Huxtable, his character from the earlier programme, he certainly takes his cues from his previous performance and several of the original stars of that programme made guest appearances in this one as members of his family.
Although not as successful as the producers had hoped for, it ran for four seasons and got moderate ratings.
Steptoe and Son / Sanford and Son
Steptoe and Son (1962-65, 1970-74)
A 1960s sitcom by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson starring the brilliant Wilfred Brambell and Harry H Corbett as father-and-son rag-and-bone men in charge of their junkyard. The dynamic of this series revolved around how the two characters clearly despise each other, yet care deeply for each other at heart. The premise was born out of an episode in the 1960s series Comedy Playhouse which featured these two characters. The idea was seen as so good that the writers were asked to develop it into its own series.
Steptoe and Son spawned two films during the 1970s, Steptoe and Son (1972) and Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973), featuring the same cast. A remake as part of the BBC's Landmarks of Comedy series was made in 2016. The series also inspired remakes in many other countries worldwide, including in Sweden and America.
Sanford and Son (1972-77)
Created as a vehicle for comedian Redd Foxx, this adaptation moved the business to San Francisco and featured Foxx as Sanford, the black owner of a scrap merchants, constantly getting in the way of his son's ambitions. It was a great success during the 1970s, particularly with African American audiences. Though a fairly accurate adaptation, the chemistry that had existed between the characters in the British original was notably lacking. The actor who played the son ultimately left the series, leading to it becoming known simply as Sanford (1980-81). Unable to survive in this new format, it was soon cancelled.
The Office (2001-03)
The Office is a spoof documentary set in a fictional paper factory in Slough. The office manager, David Brent, sees himself as an ideal boss who is fun to work for, when in reality he is obnoxiously opinionated. The series also covers the blossoming relationship between Tim and Dawn. Though only 12 episodes and a two-part Christmas special were made, the series led to the worldwide fame of Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Martin Freeman. Merchant and Gervais' next series, Extras, spoofs The Office with fictional series When the Whistle Blows showing how a 1970s-style sitcom would have approached the idea.
A spin-off film, David Brent: Life on the Road, was released in 2016.
The Office: An American Workplace (2005-2013)
This remake kept a similar style to the original and began by Americanising a few details, so that Tim became Jim, Dawn is renamed Pam and in a casting coup, Steve Carrell played the equivalent of David Brent, now called Michael Scott.
Simply known as The Office in America, the series was initially broadcast in the UK as The Office: An American Workplace to differentiate it from the original. Unlike the original, which was initially broadcast on BBC 2 with the specials receiving a prime time Christmas slot on BBC1, The Office: An American Workplace was broadcast on rival channel ITV2. As the series developed, new, original characters were created and it quickly established its own, highly successful, identity.
Man About the House / Three's Company
One of the most successful television comedies on both sides of the Atlantic is Man About the House, which spawned Three's Company, and surprisingly both versions led to spin-off series. Both were immensely popular for much the same reasons; they somehow tapped into the psyche of their young audiences of the time.
Man About the House (1973-76)
Man About the House was a sitcom created by John Mortimer and Brian Cooke that ran on British television for six series from 1973 to 1976. Its premise involved a catering student named Robin Tripp, who becomes the flatmate of two girls, Chrissy and Jo. To stop their landlord George Roper from worrying about a man sharing a flat with two girls, he is told that Robin is gay. Occasionally, Robin's friend Larry would also be involved in their misadventures.
Quite revolutionary for its time, Man About the House featured exaggerated situations and settings that were not entirely uncommon to those of young people in that period of the 1970s. The joke of Robin being gay was dropped within the first series.
Although fans expected Chrissy and Robin to get together, as implied by the sexual tension in all their scenes, by the end of the series Chrissy married another man, with Robin being the best man at the wedding. The series finished in 1976 after 39 episodes. It remains to this day a classic of the genre and has aged remarkably well. Hammer even made a feature film of the series with the same cast in 1974.
Man About the House produced two spin-off programmes. One, Robin's Nest (six series, 1977-81), concerned Robin Tripp's attempts to run his own restaurant, named 'Robin's Nest', with his girlfriend Vicky and her ever-present father. Another key character was Albert Riddle, a one-armed Irish washer-upper, who would get Robin and Vicky into more trouble. As successful as the original, with the same tone and humour, Robin's Nest allowed the continued development of Robin Tripp's character to go a step further. Also written by Mortimer and Cooke, the series ended with Robin getting married.
The other spin-off, George and Mildred (1976-79), is arguably better known. It features the landlords from Man About the House, George and Mildred Roper, who have been forced to move out of their original neighbourhood and now live in a higher class suburb, causing them to often be at loggerheads with their new neighbours. As popular as Man About the House, it has been commented that both Robin's Nest and George and Mildred are so similar to the parent series that they are virtually a continuation, just split in two. It also produced a feature film in 1980, featuring the same cast. The film was released shortly after the sudden death from liver failure of Yootha Joyce (1927-80), who played Mildred.
Three's Company (1977-84)
American producer Norman Lear, who was a big name of television comedy in the 1970s and was responsible for several US remakes of UK programmes, bought the rights to Man About the House in 1976. Renaming his show Three's Company, this was broadcast from 1977 to 1984 and ran for a staggering 169 episodes before being cancelled.
The initial pilot episode, appropriately titled 'A Man About the House', was almost word-for-word identical to the British original, with the exception of the character names. Jack Tripper shares a flat with two girls, Chrissy Snow and Janet. Unfortunately, landlord Stanley Roper doesn't want a man to share the flat, afraid all sorts of hanky-panky would ensue, so the girls convince him that Jack is gay, which Jack plays along with.
The major difference between Man About the House and Three's Company is that the latter sticks closer to the original premise. All the seasons feature a number of adapted scripts from the original, where only minor details were changed. As a US Season features more episodes than a British one, new scripts were also needed. The actors soon brought their own approaches to their characters, who evolved in a different way to those in the British series. Unlike the original, the running joke of Jack supposedly being gay continued, allowing star John Ritter to showcase his comedic talents opposite Stanley Roper. Key changes needed to be made to later scripts based on the British series, as the originals no longer featured this element, leading to the US series creating a life of its own.
The biggest change occurred when Suzanne Somers, who played Chrissy, left the show. New characters with their own personalities were created to fill her place, while in the British original, all the main cast members remained for the entirety of the series run. In the final American episodes it was revealed that Jack was not gay and he left to start his own restaurant business.
Like the British programme, two spin-offs, both based on the British spin-offs, were created. The Ropers (1979-80) was a remake of George and Mildred. Stanley and Helen Roper move into a new neighbourhood, causing much grief to their neighbours. Three's a Crowd (1984) was a remake of Robin's Nest and saw Jack Tripper opening his own restaurant with his fiancée, Vicki, whose father tags along to keep an eye on things.
Both series returned to basics and used the original UK scripts for the most part. Neither managed to get the ratings of the parent series. The Ropers lasted two years, while Three's A Crowd only lasted a single season before being axed.
Till Death us do Part / All in the Family
Till Death us do Part is a comedy that was so popular it created three British spin-offs and an American series which itself spawned seven spin-offs.
Till Death us do Part (1965-75)
Brilliant and controversial, this 1960s BBC sitcom starred Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, the outspoken head of a lower class family living in London. Garnett was intended as a satirical portrayal of an over-the-top bigoted character whose views were so unacceptable they mocked anyone with a similar outlook. However, the character was so well portrayed by Mitchell that, despite being intended as an unlikeable character, he became unbelievably popular, coming across as a familiar figure to those watching.
Harsh, often bordering and even crossing over into racist language, it was a rapid departure from the standard sitcom fare of the day: Garnett was not afraid to argue with his wife, and his daughter and her husband, in a situation that real families related to. Till Death us do Part often pushed the boundaries of satire, but each and every comment was valid. From political observations to familial disputes, there was a realistic dimension to the programme that many sitcoms, before and since, were afraid to go near. Mitchell revelled in playing the elder man, and many of the series highlights were the interactions between his character and his onscreen wife Elsie, portrayed by Dandy Nichols.
The programme spawned three spin-offs. The first was the short-lived Till Death... (1981) followed by In Sickness and in Health (1985-92), also featuring Mitchell as a now-alone Garnett, battling to live his life in the modern 'Thatcher-influenced' world of the 1980s but sticking as ever to his unacceptable single-minded views on life. A remake as part of the BBC's Landmarks of Comedy series was made in 2016.
All in the Family (1971-79)
As famous and popular as the original, this remake of Till Death us do Part featured Archie Bunker, a similarly outspoken father in a family featuring his wife Edith, his daughter, and his son-in-law. The format was the same as the original but the scripts and situations were considerably different. Norman Lear (the producer also responsible for adapting Three's Company and Sanford and Son) reportedly bought the rights to remake Till Death us do Part without having ever seen a single episode of the original. He saw the potential in the format alone and he was proven correct, as this series became a ratings winner in the US.
Each episode of All in the Family opened with an announcer and caption slide, which warned that the programme contained subject matter that may be offensive to certain viewers. While comparably tame compared to modern television, All in the Family broke through several boundaries of American Network television and paved the way for many of the sitcoms made in the US today.
Various spin-offs were produced. These were:
- Maude (1972-78), based on Edith's cousin Maude
- This had a spin-off, Good Times (1974-79)
- The Jeffersons (1975-85), based on the Bunkers' neighbours
- This too had a brief spin-off, Checking In (1981)
- Gloria (1982), based on Archie Bunker's daughter
- Archie Bunker's Place (1979-83), about Archie running a restaurant and bar.
- 704 Hauser (1994), about a family who have moved into the Bunker family's old house.