Transatlantic Trauma: When British sitcoms become Americanized

“Fawlty Towers” pays homage to the Germans.

There have been several occasions in which a British sitcom develops such a sterling reputation in Britain, and perhaps in the states as well, that an American producer or network will attempt to recreate that success with an American version of the show. The odds against success are great. Rather than allowing Americans to be content with the laughter and joy so many brilliant Britcoms have brought us, Hollywood insists on watering down true comedy masterpieces with versions that often miss the point (and creativity)of the originals.

Let’s go back to the early 1970s and, curiously enough, to an exception to the above. When Norman Lear adapted the British Till Death Us Do Part to create All in the Family, he launched the most influential and arguably one of the funniest American sitcoms in history. It is difficult to imagine even the British original achieving the depth of the characters (not to mention the groundbreaking content and language) of All in the Family. Lear achieved further success by transforming the British Steptoe and Son, about a crude, disagreeable old man (Wilfred Brambell, the “grandfather” in the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night) and his adult son running a salvage business, into Sanford and Son.

But how has the record of transatlantic transformations been since then? Man about the House, created by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey (Good Neighbors), is about two young women sharing a flat with a young guy, and became Three’s Company here. While never known for its wit, Three’s Company did get its fair share of laughs, mostly from John Ritter’s talents as a slapstick comedian. However, the contrivance of passing himself off as gay in order to pacify the landlord Mr. Roper was not used in the original Man about the House, and was no doubt a product of American sitcom sensibilities in the late 1970s. Three’s Company also followed its British counterpart by producing a spinoff, The Ropers (George and Mildred in Britain). The comedy of The Ropers consisted in large part of familiar husband-wife put-downs, and was more groan-inducing than funny.

Porridge, starring Ronnie Barker (Open All Hours and The Two Ronnies), was a very popular Britcom in the mid-1970s. Porridge was set in a prison, and was adapted in America to become On the Rocks in 1975. Originally scheduled as a companion piece to Barney Miller, On the Rocks lasted a single season.

Ted Knight and Nancy Dussault starred in Too Close for Comfort, a rather run-of-the-mill sitcom based on the run-of-the-mill Britcom Keep It in the Family. Still, Too Close for Comfort can be considered a success. It aired for almost six years, first on ABC and then in syndication, until Knight’s death in 1986.

The original Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), and Amanda (Bea Arthur).

Next we have an example of American producers tampering with no less admired a sitcom than Fawlty Towers, which somehow became Amanda’s on ABC for half a season in 1983. Both series were set in a small hotel, both featured an incompetent Spanish waiter, and yet the creators of the American version eliminated Basil Fawlty from the mix. He instead became Amanda Cartwright, played by Bea Arthur. Even if poor Basil had somehow survived this transatlantic crossing, there was no equivalent to John Cleese and Connie Booth’s writing skills to be found in Hollywood. And, while scenes in Amanda’s were indeed lifted from the original, it still begs the question: why? Why produce a re-make at all? If viewers were expected to notice any kind of improvement over Fawlty Towers, they would be hard-pressed to find it. Logic dictates that no viewer would sit down and watch Amanda’s when Fawlty Towers was probably hovering around on a PBS affiliate at the time.

Back on the plus side of the equation, the British Dear John, about a support group of divorcees, became Dear John in the U.S., with Judd Hirsch in the lead. The show had its merits, and, having lasted on the air for four seasons, could be considered a rare success among American remakes.

Some American versions of British sitcom favorites never made it on the air, and perhaps that’s just as well. In 1979, comedy director/ producer Garry Marshall attempted to turn Are You Being Served? (which was still unseen here at the time) into The Beanes of Boston. A pilot was shot, but the series didn’t sell.

In 1992 an American version of the classic sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf came close to becoming a reality. Series creators-producers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were allowed to act as creative consultants for the Hollywood version, but the pilot script proved to be in need of an overhaul. Several casting changes also took place (although one of the British cast members,Robert Llewellyn, was prepared to leave that version to continue his role as Kryten in the U.S.). Problems grew, and in the end, the pilot failed to spark interest.

And, it might be considered a blessing that Roseanne’s plans in the late 1990s to produce an American version of Absolutely Fabulous (which would have co-starred Carrie Fisher) never got off the ground. A short-lived AbFab wannabe, High Society starring Jean Smart and Mary McConnell, showed potential in its efforts to emulate AbFab’s irreverence and occasional outrageousness, but the critics were less than kind (as were the network execs who canceled it).

Then there’s the case of a British sitcom whose premise prevented it from getting very far in development talks in the U.S., and for a depressing reason. The wonderfully innovative Britcom of the late ’90s, Goodnight Sweetheart, was based on the premise of a young London TV repairman (remember them?) who makes his way down an alleyway for a house call and, upon reaching the other end, finds himself back in time, to the middle of World War II, and the frequent bombing raids over London. He discovers that he alone has the ability to walk his way back to the present, and return to the same point, and place, in London during the war. Maurice Gran, co-creator/writer of the series, said, “When we pitched Goodnight Sweetheart in the States, there was a lot of enthusiasm for it, but also a lot of head scratchers, saying, ‘Well, the trouble is, Americans don’t understand history.’ But we pitched it as a sort of Prohibition-era show, which I thought would work pretty well, and they said, sadly, ‘Well, unfortunately, people don’t remember that far back.’” It is sometimes difficult to tell, in a case such as this, whether American TV executives were accurately reflecting their audience’s ignorance of history, and therefore can’t accept a period sitcom, or if the decision-makers themselves were merely demonstrating their own shortsightedness and lack of imagination. Perhaps it’s just as well. Goodnight Sweetheart is a gem of a series that is best left in its original state.

And, not surprisingly, yet another ill-advised attempt to adapt Fawlty Towers to American sensibilities sprang up in March of 1999 with the series Payne, starring John Larroquette and JoBeth Williams. Curiously, John Cleese and Connie Booth sold their original scripts and characters to CBS the previous year for a substantial sum (although they did not relinquish the series’ name). It might have been considered a step in the right direction that this version at least retained a Basil Fawlty-like character, as opposed to his gender reassignment in Amanda’s. Despite John Larroquette’s considerable skills as a comic actor, the effect of seeing a hotel lobby closely resembling that of the familiar hotel, yet populated by different faces, was rather eerie, as if it existed in some kind of parallel universe. The result was a program that was sort of like Fawlty Towers, but simply wasn’t.

To be fair, British TV has tried to recreate some American successes as well, the results also being less than impressive. The Golden Girls, wildly popular in Britain, became, very briefly, The Brighton Belles. A pilot episode premiered on Comedy Playhouse in March of 1993, but the initial six-episode run later that year was canceled before all of the episodes aired. Veteran scriptwriter Carla Lane, who was appalled a decade earlier by the plans American TV executives once had for her own comedy-drama series Butterflies, came to learn with Brighton Belles that such adaptations, no matter how sincere the effort (or how much potential money there was to be made), inevitably lose too much of their very essence in the transatlantic transition to justify the undertaking.

One of the top American sitcoms of the 1990s, Mad about You, was transformed, more or less, into the British Loved by You (starring John Gordon-Sinclair). Of course, Paul Reiser’s comic vision and delivery wasn’t easy to get across without Paul Reiser, and Helen Hunt had proven herself to be equally irreplaceable. Also, picturing Mad about You without its unbilled co-star, New York City itself, proved a tough challenge, further supporting the contention that some creations grow and thrive from the cultures in which they were created, and sharing a common language is, on the whole, not enough to ensure transatlantic success.

The most successful Americanization of a British sitcom so far has been The Office. The NBC version of the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant breakthrough hit on British TV in 2001 premiered in its Americanized version, starring Steve Carell, as a mid-season replacement in March 2005. Perhaps one subtle reason for the American version’s success is that new characters were created for it, rather than simply transplanting the original characters to be played by an American cast. Gervais and Merchant were also careful to find just the right producer to take the reins, sitcom veteran Greg Daniels. “The one thing we noticed from all of the other failed attempts,” Merchant said, “was they often looked as though the original English creators had been very heavily involved in the re-workings. And we decided it would probably be best if we weren’t too heavily involved, becaues we worried that we’d just be trying to replicate it as opposed to let someone be inspired but do their own thing.”

And now we come to Call Me Kat, the converted, tweaked, twisted, and Americanized version of the breezy, hilarious British comedy Miranda, created and written by Miranda Hart. Call Me Kat stars Mayim Bialik as a single, 39-year-old propietor of a “cat cafe,” with Swoosie Kurtz as her mother, who has made it her mission to get Kat married off, seemingly at all costs.

Critics have already made a big deal about the series’ use of breaking the “fourth wall,” i.e., Kat often turns to the camera/audience in mid-conversation to make a remark, just for our benefit — a regular staple in every Miranda episode. These critics seem oblivious to American television’s long history of characters breaking the fourth wall, dating all the way back to George Burns and his 1950s sitcom with wife Gracie Allen,(a topic of an earlier article of mine, here at Reviewers also seem perplexed by the cast curtain call ending each episode as the credits roll, another staple of Miranda. Slapstick gags in Call Me Kat, due mostly to Kat’s clumsiness, are few and far between, whereas they were commonplace on Miranda, a much more energetic, often surreal, and funnier show — so far. Perhaps Call Me Kat will improve with time.

I always view new American versions of classic British sitcoms with great reluctance, mostly because I’ve already become so familiar with the originals, the American series come off as pale impostors. Our lesson? The same holds true when trying to adapt sitcoms going in either direction, and for either culture, across the Atlantic: the odds for success are rarely in anyone’s favor.

Until next time…

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.