‘I was a tiny cog in a machine of people all named vice-president of something’: the reality of remaking UK sitcoms for US audiences

The CBS version of the BBC comedy Ghosts is one of the biggest shows on American TV. But US remakes more often than not go south. Armando Iannucci and other creators share their horror stories.

Altered states … (left to right) Ghosts, The Office, This Country and The Thick of It, all remade in the the US with varying degrees of success. Illustration: Guardian Design/BBC/Monumental/Daniel/Liam/BBC/Mike Hogan

Last modified on 2023 May 13

t was truly awful from start to finish,” says Armando Iannucci, recalling the painful process around the US remake of his satirical comedy The Thick of It back in 2007. “The pilot was so boring. There was no swearing, no improv … everything The Thick of It had, it didn’t have. I played it for the cast and people just started wandering off. It couldn’t even hold our attention.”

On paper, the US version had looked juicy. Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development, was producing, with Christoper Guest of Spinal Tap fame directing. But the BBC sold the show to ABC and the culture of US network television – compared with cable or, latterly, streaming, where there’s more freedom around language and content – proved suffocating for Iannucci. “Everything is micromanaged,” he says. “I was a tiny cog in a machine of people all named vice-president of something. I went to one meeting where they were literally discussing the color ties the cast should be wearing. There were 20 people in the room, including the network president. It was bizarre.”

Iannucci is just one beneficiary – or perhaps victim – of a seemingly endless appetite by US TV to remake UK comedies. A fifth attempt to remake Peep Show has been greenlit by the FX network, with Minnie Driver and Amandla Jahava cast as the gender-swapped leads; a US revamp of Motherland is going into production with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Ellie Kemper lined up to star; and Amazon Freevee has ordered 10 episodes of Friday Night Dinner, starring the YouTuber Daniel Thrasher and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s son Henry Hall as squabbling brothers Jonny and Adam Goodman.

the cast of the successful US Ghosts remake.
Grateful dead … the cast of the successful US Ghosts remake. Photograph: Cliff Lipson/BBC/CBS Broadcasting Inc

This sudden spate of adaptations seems curious given that, by and large, US remakes of UK shows tend to be a bit of a disaster. “The people that made it completely, utterly misread what the original was about,” Simon Pegg said of the 2008 remake of Spaced that was axed after a pilot that Pegg described as “painful to watch”. Richard Ayoade starred in the remake of The IT Crowd in 2007 but that never made it past pilot. Nor did Absolutely Fabulous or Dad’s Army or The Vicar of Dibley. If you dislike laughing and relish the feeling of wasting your life, you can watch the first Peep Show attempt – a 2005 pilot starring The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki – on YouTube.

Those that do make it past a pilot rarely last. Remakes of Skins, Gavin & Stacey and Teachers were all binned after one season. Even big-shot Hollywood director Taika Waititi couldn’t rescue The Inbetweeners, which also died after one season. Turns out replacing crass, foul-mouthed British teenagers cluelessly navigating adolescence with wholesome young men who don’t drink or swear doesn’t have the same lols. The path from UK to US has been so well-trodden – and so fraught with risk – that there has even been a sitcom about the process: Episodes, starring Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as British comedy writers struggling to adapt their Brit-com for American TV.

So why the endless remakes? Well, a huge part of that answer is simply: The Office. A vast number of these remakes have followed the 2005 workplace reboot, which has become a benchmark for adaptations after running for nine seasons and more than 200 episodes. “The Office is like a unicorn, it’s so rare,” the writer and co-creator of a hugely successful British comedy show tells me. He has asked to remain anonymous because he works in TV in LA and doesn’t want to annoy certain people, but his show was cancelled after one series and deemed a disaster. “It’s still heartbreaking,” he says. “You need a good showrunner who cares, like Greg Daniels did with the [US] Office, but ours was a lazy dickhead. I genuinely thought: it’ll go out, nobody will give a shit and I’ll never have to speak about it again, but it’s the thing I get asked about the most.”

On a very basic level, the US creates a hell of a lot of TV. In 2022 it produced 599 original scripted English-language series. So it’s constantly hungry for content, be that original series or remakes. “A lot of people get paid a lot of money to write scripts that never go beyond scripts,” says the anonymous writer. “I’ve forgotten entire scripts that I’ve written.”

But why do so few remakes work? “So many things can go wrong,” says Jenny Bicks, writer and producer of Sex and the City, who recently developed Welcome to Flatch, based on Charlie and Daisy May Cooper’s This Country. “More things can go wrong than right. Casting and tone are key. The belief about comedy here in the US is: faster is funnier, and bigger jokes and more pratfalls. That’s not what This Country was. We had to let it live in these these quiet moments and have silences.” Given the show was renewed for a second season, it is already a relative success.

The deluge of remakes is “testament to the British creative community”, says Angie Stephenson, senior vice-president of scripted development for BBC Studios, who has developed sitcoms such as Miranda and Ghosts as well as This Country, for the US. She says the Ghosts remake has become “the biggest hit comedy on a broadcast network”.

Welcome to Flatch
Welcome to Flatch, the US remake of This Country, which has been renewed for a second series. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

But such successes are rare. Iannucci says he is “suspicious” of the need to do remakes at all, “because nowadays you can access the original even if it’s not made in your country”.

Due to the glut of TV being made and shown in the US, UK originals don’t always blow up in the gargantuan US market, leaving potential for a remake – with a freshly allocated promo budget – to do that job. The anonymous writer likens the process to the oil business, with the UK a ripe site for drilling and extraction. “It’s like, let’s tap that one, then move on to the next one,” he says. “It’s business and you realize you’re disposable and that thing that you’ve crafted isn’t actually that important to them because it’s just about: is it a money producer or not?”

A common narrative around US comedy versus UK is the need to soften things up and to lean into sentimentality, so perhaps a harsher and more piss-taking British bite gets lost in translation. Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, whose show got remade back in 1996, says “If there’s one thing they do wrong [when remaking UK shows], they panic and the fallback is always sentiment.” However, he points out that it is not universal. “Only Fools and Horses is far more sentimental than Seinfeld.” Similarly, Iannucci’s template for comedy gold is the brilliant spoof US talkshow sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, a series loaded with narcissistic egomaniacs. “All the characters are deeply flawed,” he says. “So sentimentality has not been my experience.”

There are plenty of other examples to counter the sentiment narrative, from the deeply unaffectionate It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to South Park’s brutality or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s obsession with pettiness and neuroses. Still, our anonymous writer’s experience was soured by US sentiment. “Our show had a voiceover and on the remake it was really bad,” he says. “We said: don’t make it sincere, it’s not The Wonder Years. But then there’s talk about love and learning. I said, ‘If I can rewrite these voiceovers I can make it 40% funnier,’ but they said no.”

Taking a show that has a very distinctive voice, often written by a single person or duo, and translating that to a broad format created in a writers’ room with sometimes tens of people, can be an additional hurdle. As can the need to expand the size of the shows in the US. While Ghosts may be a success, it has had to navigate taking something that is six episodes per series in the UK into one that runs 22 in the US. Not all shows can survive such a vast stretching out. “The key to sitcoms is simplicity,” says Nye. “And with the American format, they’ve got so many plots because they order so many episodes.”

However, perhaps the main problem is simply that failure is pretty much inescapable in US TV. Between 2012 and 2018, the amount of pilot episodes that were ordered to series in the US varied from 6% to 36% each year. “The failure rate is an inherent part of our business,” says Stephenson. “Whether it’s an adaptation or not.” But when remakes fail, they often do so more loudly because people have higher expectations for shows that already exist.

The Office
Difficult on paper … Steve Carell in the hugely successful US Office remake. Photograph: NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

“It’s more of a public failure,” says Bicks. “More people are aware when it goes south.” The anonymous writer remembers it being a tough time when his series aired. “I got a torrent of abuse on Twitter,” he says.

While some may feel there is a scattershot approach to simply remaking seemingly anything and everything and hoping to hit the jackpot, others note a deep admiration and respect by the US for a country that constantly produces world-beating sitcoms. “We know how cynical American TV is but they are genuine enthusiasts for British comedy,” says Nye. Even Iannucci’s Thick of It nightmare meant that he got to meet HBO, which led to him making the hugely successful political satire Veep with them. “The very best thing possible came out of it,” he says. “But that initial process was like a weird out-of-body experience.”

While remakes are continuing at pace throughout 2023, there is one quintessential British comedy character who seems constantly absent from US screens so far: Alan Partridge. Are we ever going to see the don of East Anglian broadcasting transformed into a US shock jock bro? “For 20 years we’ve been having inquiries about doing an American Alan,” laughs Iannucci. “But the whole thing is just us and Steve [Coogan]. Take that away and … what is there? There’s no point.”

Ghosts US is available to stream on iPlayer.

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