The secret of British comedy success in the US

As John Oliver ably fills in for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, RadioTimes.com talks to the BBC’s head of comedy Shane Allen about what kind of Brit comedy is right for the US audience - and what isn't...

The British are coming! The UK comedy army is storming the US, led in the first wave by General Russell Brand and Ricky Gervais and ably supported by a raft of staff officers, from Simon Pegg to Sacha Baron Cohen.

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Brummie comedian John Oliver has just stepped up to the plate on the Daily Show, Comedy Central’s hugely popular news satire show, ably filling in for veteran host Jon Stewart while he directs a film. In fact, Oliver, the show’s Special British Correspondent for the past seven years, has done so well he is even being spoken of in the kind of hushed tones reserved for people who will be getting their own networked US programme soon. 

And it got us thinking. Why him? What kind of British comedy makes the Americans remember how much they like us and our cherished shared history? And what gets them all George Washington and keen to drive us from their shores? Why Monty Python and not, say, I dunno, Steve Coogan (at least to the same degree anyway)?

If it’s hard to discern a common thread going through these varied and remarkable British comedy conquistadores then someone who ought to know is Shane Allen, a comedy obsessive, a brilliant judge of what’s good, one of the most genuine people in TV and of course the man who runs the comedy department at the BBC.

“There are always exceptions to the rule but one thing I think rings true with John Oliver and Monty Python is that they slightly play to American’s stereotypes of Britishness, stereotypes which come out in the Simpsons/Family Guy where Britain is this old foggy place and everyone is upper-class and uptight,” Allen tells RadioTimes.com.

“John Oliver’s main function on the Daily Show was to be the typical Brit, he plays up to many of those American pre-conceptions and cleverly uses them as self-deprecating ammo.”

For Allen, Monty Python pulled off a similar trick with archetypal authority figures and portrayals of repressed Englishmen and subverting and mocking them.

“American audiences seem to like portrayals of repressed and uptight Englishmen,” he adds. “This doesn’t ring true with the rise of someone like Russell Brand, but I’ve seen him on [Jay] Leno really ham up the loquacious and florid Englishman abroad. Again he’s playing to a certain pre-conceived stereotype and it travels well.

“Ricky Gervais has created another archetypal deluded Englishman in Brent and his rose to prominence through the US chat show circuit because he’s a great guest and embraced the celebrity world.”

It’s hard not to agree with this, and to go further and suggest that something even as wonderful as Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is a little niche for US audiences. We Brits are familiar with the kind of people (and indeed celebrities and presenters) that Partridge is taking a pop at, but Americans are not; having said that, here’s hoping that the man who is highly regarded among US comedy cognoscenti will still wow America with his new Partridge film.

It’s also perhaps worth considering whether this whole notion of the US taste for Brit stereotypes stems from America’s deep-seated cultural unease with a nation, now much smaller but also once their former imperial overlords. Having us stereotyped puts us firmly in our place.

But let’s also not forget the exceptions to the rule – people like Scots comic Craig Ferguson who presents the Late Late Show on CBS in the US and whom Allen feels “plays the Scottish card very well” (although he has since become a US citizen).

“There’s probably also a point to be made about how the gap has narrowed in Transatlantic taste and styles of comedy and we get more exposed to each others work more quickly through acquisitions and re-makes,” Allen concludes thoughtfully. “Spinal Tap seems to have been hugely influential on both sides of the Atlantic.”

“But hey”, as the introduction to that oh-so-wonderful 1984 rockumentary tells us, “enough of my yakkin’. What do you say? Let’s boogie!”

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MioxgPtKbmo