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The Ever-Rich Britain-to-America Comedy Pipeline

For the past 20-plus years, American TV has been a major importer of the grim, sarcastic wit from across the pond

BBC/NBC/Ringer illustration

One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.

Michael Schur remembers the first time he saw the original version of The Office. It was 2001, and his fellow writers at Saturday Night Live had gotten their hands on DVD screeners. The British series hadn’t even premiered yet, but it already had a cult following.

“It was instantly the most popular and beloved comedy show amongst comedy writers, before it ever aired even on the BBC,” says Schur.

Starring cocreator Ricky Gervais as the aggressively unlikable paper company boss David Brent, the bleakly funny (and realistic) portrayal of workplace culture spared none of its soul-sucking mundanity. The mockumentary didn’t sugarcoat the truth: Many people feel bored and stuck in their ordinary corporate jobs. “It was hopelessly downtrodden, and downbeat, and it did not have any joy, or happiness, or [an] uplifting ending, or anything,” Schur says of Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom, which ran for two short seasons before ending with a two-part Christmas special. “It was relentlessly grim in a way that the Brits love and Americans, I thought, would reject out of hand.”

As good as the show was, Schur didn’t think that it could—or should—be remade. When he heard that producer Greg Daniels was adapting it for NBC, he was incredulous. “It was a terrible idea,” he says. “I thought it was a fool’s errand. It would never work, and that anyone who even tried to do it was an idiot.”

But Schur was moving to Los Angeles to be closer to his girlfriend, and he needed a new job. He landed a meeting with Daniels, and during their two-hour conversation, Schur learned that the showrunner had studied the source material intensely. “Like Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees,” he says. “Breaking it down to a molecular level and putting every aspect of it under a microscope. So it wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, this show is funny, Let’s try to do an American version.’ He got down to the DNA of the show, where he understood what it was, how it functioned, what it meant, what the relationship was among the characters, in such a granular, molecular level that I was like, ‘Well, if anyone’s going to build, break this down, and build it back up into something that retains the same DNA and has the same essence—but is a new version that is potentially palatable to Americans—this is the only guy in the world who could do it.’ And then that’s exactly what he did.”

The Office opened its doors in 2005 and became one of the most beloved sitcoms ever. How Daniels and his crew, Schur included, cracked the remake code is one of 21st-century television’s great success stories. But it’s also a version of a tale that’s been told repeatedly over the past 20-plus years: Talented writers and performers twisting distinctly British comedy into something that Americans love.

“I think it’s pretty true that most of the big, famous, award-winning American comedies of the last 20 years have some British influence in them somewhere,” says Schur, who grew up loving Monty Python and is well aware of the long history of British-turned-American sitcoms. “If for no other reason than just that those shows have become favorites amongst most of the writers out here.” The Office, Ghosts, and Shameless are all American hit shows based on British series. Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci’s Veep is an Americanized version of his political satire The Thick of It. Da Ali G Show and Catastrophe are British imports. Succession and What We Do in the Shadows also wear their English influences proudly.

It’s not surprising that Yankee comedy writers coming up in the late 1990s and early 2000s would be drawn to the era’s best British sitcoms. Shows like The Office, The Thick of It, the bleak buddy comedy Peep Show, and the soulless tech company send-up The IT Crowd tended to be more nihilistic, sarcastic, and raw than their American counterparts. When there’s less forced sincerity, there’s more room for laughs. “In the U.K. there’s a kind of cliché—which is also a myth—that Americans don’t get irony,” says English writer, producer, and director Iain Morris, who created the hit British teen comedy The Inbetweeners with his partner Damon Beesley. “If you look at any of the output of American TV shows, which are hugely successful in the U.K., that’s clearly not true.” What is true, at least in Morris’s view, is that sarcasm is far, far less prevalent in daily life in America than in England. “Every single comment that everybody makes in England all the time is steeped [in sarcasm],” he says. “Everybody, constantly. All the time. Every interaction you have to assume is sarcastic, all the time.”

Translating that sense of humor for the American palate isn’t a simple copy-and-paste, however. For the U.S. Office to work, its boss needed to evolve. Just a little bit. Michael Scott, who Steve Carell turned into an iconic character, was similar to David Brent, but deliberately more sympathetic. “David Brent and Michael Scott wanted everyone to like them. The difference between the two of them is that Michael Scott is likable,” Schur says. “David Brent has a shred, somewhere, of a soul and the ability to have empathy and compassion and all of the things that make a person likable. Michael Scott has a lot more of that stuff. He is insufferable and he’s mildly racist, and he’s certainly sexist at times. But his essential decency and goodness is much more present, I would say, episode by episode, than David Brent’s was.”

Early in the process of adapting The Office, Schur recalls Daniels showing him a diagram that he’d sketched to illustrate Scott’s personality. It was a businessman trying to crawl his way out of a tornado. “He said to me, ‘This is the whole show,’” Schur says. “Michael Scott is a person who has this enormous blind spot about himself and the way that he’s viewed in the world. That blind spot is threatening always to suck him down into this moment of self-realization, and he’d have to confront his true essence. He subconsciously knows that that would destroy him. That if he ever really truly confronted who he is and how he’s viewed in the world and what people think of him, that it would crush him the way a tornado would crush a car that it moved over. And so what he’s doing in every episode: scrambling as fast as he can to stay just outside the cone of this tornado.”

Daniels’s drawing helped alleviate Schur’s fears about Americanizing the series: “I expected this guy to be saying things like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have to change the pilot and we’ll probably do a funny story about them finding a stray dog on the side of the road.’ I wasn’t expecting that the discussion would be at the level of this really intense kind of emotional and psychological analysis of the main character. But that’s all that he had been doing.”

Still, with Carell on board, it was hard not to make Michael Scott likable. Between the first two seasons of The Office, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was released, making Carell an endearing household name. The solution wasn’t to reject that likability, but to integrate it. Daniels understood that for the American version of the show to stand on its own, Michael Scott couldn’t be an exact clone of David Brent. “Greg came into the office and was like, we need to take 20 percent of that character and mix it in,” Schur says. “He is so likable, and he’s so sweet, and he has such a goodness about him.” But, Schur adds, “We’re not totally going to, well, upend the show, and now he’s suddenly a really good boss and he’s really smart, [and] he makes good decisions. We’re not going to do that.”

Defanging a biting show can strip it of its soul. That’s always a risk when adapting a profane British sitcom for the more sanitized world of American network television. Just ask Armando Iannucci: In 2006, news broke that he was going to executive produce an adaptation of The Thick of It for ABC. In reality, he didn’t have a big role in developing it. “My whole involvement in the project was to go to one meeting, which was a meeting to talk about the costumes and the color of the ties that the cast were going to wear, and there were 30 people in the room,” Iannucci told NPR’s Fresh Air in 2009. “And after that meeting I just thought, this is ridiculous. And the pilot itself was … it wasn’t terrible. It was just dull.”

ABC chose not to pick up the series, which starred John Michael Higgins as a freshman U.S. congressman. Iannucci’s original series portrayed the profane and absurd nature of British government; in hindsight, a traditional broadcast network probably wasn’t the ideal home for a comedy that meant to do the same to the American political system. “The problem may be the fact that BBC Worldwide sold it to the highest bidder, as opposed to the best bidder,” Iannucci told The AV Club in 2009. “And once that decision had been made, there really was nothing you could do other than watch the thing die a death.”

When the idea of an American version of The Thick of It came back to life in the early 2010s, Iannucci pointedly signed a deal to make it for the network that was home to many of TV’s boldest, most unflinching shows: HBO. Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as U.S. Vice President Selina Meyer, premiered in 2012 and won 17 Emmys across seven seasons, garnering endless praise for its uncanny combination of foul-mouthed comedy and enlightened perspective on American politics. And while Veep and The Office are very different shows—even Michael Scott never told someone that they look like “the world’s least-fucked geisha”—they share blueprints on how to make an ideal transition to American television. Both revel in dysfunction, killer insults, and idiosyncratic figures, but are also anchored by brilliant lead performances that take an objectively loathsome character and make them impossible not to root for. (Louis-Dreyfus won six Emmys for playing Selina Meyer; that Carell didn’t win any for playing Michael Scott is proof that the Emmys are less legitimate than the Dundies.)

But for every Office or Veep, there are dozens of British shows that don’t succeed in America. Despite numerous attempts, Peep Show and The IT Crowd still haven’t been fully remade in the U.S. TV executives and audiences are fickle—both here and across the pond. When Morris and Beesley began fielding offers to make The Inbetweeners for an American audience, they hoped that the new version would retain the original’s filthiness. The series’s four teenage protagonists—Will, Simon, Neil, and Jay—spend every episode saying cleverly horrible things to each other. (If you’ve never seen it: Imagine Superbad, but slightly meaner and with British penis euphemisms instead of American ones.) “We thought about the idea of how teenagers use language and how your world expands with the language you use at that age,” Morris says. “For us, the swearing was kind of intrinsic to it.”

The problem was that MTV, which ended up financing the The Inbetweeners remake, didn’t allow the kind of cursing that more adult-oriented networks did. So while the show had promise—Taika Waititi directed several episodes—it couldn’t live up to the British version, which also spawned two hit movies. The American series lasted only one 12-episode season before MTV canceled it.

To Morris, who recently consulted on Reservation Dogs and has worked as a producer and writer on What We Do in the Shadows, there’s no real secret to adapting a British TV show for an American audience—but passion for the original helps. “I remember talking to Gervais about The Office, which was deeply loved when it went over to America,” says Morris. “And he was like, ‘I met this guy, Greg Daniels. Wants to do it. He’s brilliant. He’s made these brilliant shows.’ I was like, ‘That sounds good.’ And Gervais was like, ‘You might be right, but I’m gonna let him do it. I’m gonna be hands off and let him do it. But I think he might be brilliant. So I think he’s gonna make something brilliant.’ And so I think that’s what it probably is. Finding the right people at the right time.”

So who does TV comedy better: America or England? Purists seem to side with the Brits. After all, British sitcoms usually have much shorter runs than U.S. shows: Veep had almost triple the amount of episodes (65) than The Thick of It (23); including the two-part Christmas special, there were only 14 episodes of the British Office, while the American version amassed 201. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but wit isn’t always the priority in American sitcoms. Things like crafting long-sustaining story arcs often take precedent over pure laughs. “Twelve episodes and an hour-long Christmas special is a very different thing than when you’re making an American show. There’s an ongoing concern that it might last as long as 200 or 250 episodes,” Schur says. In England, he adds, “They know they don’t have to dole out their flavor slowly in order to make it sustainable. They can go pedal to the metal, full bore … What’s the cooking term? The balsamic reduction. They put all these ingredients into this pot and they simmer it, simmer it, simmer it, until it’s the most concentrated possible flavor.”

That’s not to say that the English approach doesn’t work in the States. When HBO’s Succession—the brainchild of Peep Show cocreator Jesse Armstrong—premiered in 2018, the country was probably ready for a series about a media empire run by spoiled, privileged people without many redeeming qualities. The members of the British-American Roy family are—like the characters in Peep Show—immature, vindictive, and insecure. American audiences, it turns out, can handle that. “There was definitely a part of me that thought, ‘Why do I want to write about these awful, rich, evil white men who are poisoning society?’” Succession writer Georgia Pritchett told The Guardian in 2021. “But having to really dig deep into the characters to find their humanity was an exciting challenge.”

The best TV comedies, no matter what their country of origin, can find humanity lurking in unexpected places. In the British Office, it’s in the abrasive Brent showing vulnerability by begging for his job or finally getting a small bit of revenge by telling off mean-spirited sales rep Chris Finch. It’s in the subtly building romance of coworkers Tim and Dawn, a novel approach to the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic that Daniels imported for the American Office. “The network would say, ‘We need to know, at this moment, we need to understand that Jim is thinking about Pam right here,’” Schur says. “And Greg would go, ‘Yeah, absolutely, totally agree.’ And then we would go, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’ And he’d go like, ‘We’re not going to do anything. Because what’s going to happen is Jim is going to glance up at Pam with his eyes for a third of a second. The camera will catch it, we’ll whip over to Pam, we will tell them that’s what he’s looking at. And then everyone will know exactly what’s going on.”

Two decades later, Schur feels lucky to have worked on The Office. He remembers leaving his first meeting with Daniels and emailing his agent. “I said, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to offer me a job, but if he is, I’m going to take it,’” Schur says. “‘I don’t care what happens to the show, I just feel like this is the guy who’s going to teach me how to write.’” On Thanksgiving about 10 years ago, Schur forwarded the note to Daniels to say thanks for hiring him. “It’s the difference between me having the career I have,” Schur told him, “and a career that I think is far less successful and interesting.”

After The Office, Schur went on to cocreate the single-camera series Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. The three shows are more optimistic than most British comedy, but like many American sitcoms over the past 20 years, they might not exist without its influence.

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