Same Language, Different Humour: Translating American and British Sitcoms

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

On Friday it was announced that the most successful British comedy of all time, Only Fools & Horses, is to be adapted into an American sitcom by ABC. This classic BBC series began its life back in 1983. Its Christmas specials topped the annual audience ratings charts in 1996 and again in 2001 – the latter garnered a phenomenal 21.3m viewers on BBC1 which represented a staggering 74% audience share. That’s Royal Wedding territory!

Earlier that year, a much smaller sitcom premiered on BBC airwaves – The Office hovered around 2m viewers in its first season, and around 3.5m viewers in its second season, while at its height it managed 6.5m total viewers for the Christmas special in 2003. Given that The Office has been adapted successfully into a long-running sitcom for NBC, based on significantly lower ratings in the UK, how could a network go wrong with Only Fools & Horses? In fact, it seems remarkable that no US network has tried it in all these years. Well – that is, if one were to simply judge by the numbers.

Comedies unfortunately do not translate so literally.

The BBC series Coupling, which initially performed similarly to The Office, and aired on the same UK channel (BBC2) was a notorious failure when adapted for the same US channel (NBC). The Worst Week of My Life (BBC1) reduced down to Worst Week for CBS was a huge disappointment for the top-rated US network. Meanwhile some UK comedies have struggled so much with being adapted that the network in question has decided to drop them at the pilot stage. Fox reportedly tried shooting Absolutely Fabulous on two occasions while Peep Show went to pilot stage both with cable net Spike as well as with Fox.

It’s not just one-way traffic, either. Successful US comedies do not always work in the UK. The most famous example of this was Seinfeld, though many argue that poor scheduling in the UK led to a major lack of awareness. The same cannot, however, be said of current darling, New Girl, which Channel 4 has given plenty of promotion and a solid Friday night slot. I wrote in an earlier blog about how well the show opened for Fox in the US, consistently outperforming Glee and The X Factor in Adults 18-49. The show continues to hold up.

But on Channel 4, the opening episode was without doubt a disappointment, and the second episode dropped over 25% from the series premiere. The most recent transmission (28th Jan) underperformed the channel’s timeslot average in both male and particularly female viewers.

New Girl Audience Share on Channel 4 (UK) 28th Jan, 2012


Source: Attentional/BARB (Live + VOSDAL)

Part of the equation here is obviously the difference in the audience profile of Fox compared to Channel 4. Fox is mainstream Adult, whereas Channel 4 is Young Adult and slightly more niche. Many Channel 4 viewers most likely found the show cheesy and unrealistic, while the more mainstream audience on Fox probably found something touching and charming about how the roommates help Jess get over her ex.

So why do the ratings in one market for a comedy not necessarily correlate in the other market, given that both markets speak the same language? Clearly, comedy is a more cultural genre than drama, playing on familiar stereotypes and often reversing our expectations of them. For that to work successfully, the audience has to have a level of familiarity with the culture. Problems emerge when things get too locally specific (e.g. “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps” is an embedded part of British pub culture, but the show of the same name would struggle to gain any familiarity within an American audience).

In many ways it’s no surprise that both audiences find different things funny. They are different cultures after all. So what about when the adaptation does work?

Many, many elements go into making an effective adaptation. From a lot of the content analysis we’ve done, I would say the three most important strands that emerge are:

  1. Ensure the premise is universally identifiable.

In the case of Only Fools & Horses, the idea of two blue collar brothers trying to get rich quick is undoubtedly universal.

  1. Localize the characters even if it means changing them.

Finding local versions of Del Boy and Rodney seems like it will be a challenge. What is the U.S. equivalent of cockney working class Londoners? A good example of this element being applied effectively is Michael Scott vs. David Brent in The Office. Once Michael Scott departed from being as unsympathetic as David Brent, and reflected the slightly more upbeat and positive nature of an American boss desperate for popularity, US viewers were able to have more empathy with him. In the UK version, we have empathy with Tim, whose eyes we see David Brent through.

  1. It is generally better when the source of the humour comes from relationships between the characters, rather than snappy/witty dialogue.

When the comedy is reliant upon just the dialogue, there is a greater risk that it will be lost in translation. It is easier to replicate relationships than jokes. For instance, Del Boy and Rodney in Only Fools and Horses are constantly tired of Uncle Albert harping on about the War. This dynamic can be translated easily to the US, with the war being the Vietnam War rather than WW2.

Only Fools &Horses has an amazing archive of comedy scripts for the writing team to take advantage of, and seems a smart move for ABC. Now they just have to find the American equivalent of Del Boy bottling up tap water and calling it “Peckham Spring”!


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