'Borat,' Gervais help open door to U.K. shows

The Brits are invading U.S. entertainment again, this time on the comedy front with a charge led by a miscreant (or just misunderstood) middle manager and a hairy antihero in a chartreuse G-string.

Of course, that thong belongs to none other than Sacha Baron Cohen, whose “Borat” just took in $250 million in worldwide box office. Before that, fellow U.K. funnyman Ricky Gervais transitioned the format for his hugely popular British comedy “The Office” into a lynchpin for NBC’s new Thursday-night comedy block.

Combined, these two successes “have kicked the door wide open” to British comedy, says Roger Beckett, co-creator of the U.K. television series “Suburban Shootout.”

HBO purchased rights to make an American version of “Suburban Shootout,” which presents small-town housewives as gangsters in a turf war, and Beckett was commissioned to write a pilot for CBS.

“Funny is funny,” says ICM agent Michael Rizzo, who helped lure Beckett across the Atlantic. “When you find one thing, you tend to go looking for the next thing. It needs to be an original voice.”

The sensibilities between British and American comedy differ a bit.

“Americans root for the heroes,” Rizzo notes. “Americans like to look at winners. In London, it’s about the monstrous loser. It’s the downtrodden. When you pitch things, sometimes it comes from a darker place.”

The “Borat” writers readily admit their fears in pushing the envelope in America’s unpredictably offendable society. Oscar-nominated scribe Peter Baynham was responsible for the risky “Running of the Jew” bit in the film.

“When the MPAA came back and gave us the R rating, I remember being delighted and shocked,” he recalls.

But the U.S. market presents a tantalizing career challenge.

This development season, new U.S. versions of U.K. comedies include “The IT Crowd,” “The Thick of It,” “Viva Blackpool,” and Julia Davis’ “Nighty Night.” Americans adapt the formats, but the original U.K. producers are behind the scenes.

“Borat” colluder and Oscar nominee Anthony Hines predicts that the invasion of U.K. comedy talent is just beginning, and that the Brit pack will grow as new projects get under way. “There are far more opportunities here than in the U.K.,” he explains.

“What I like about Los Angeles is that if you say you want to make a sitcom in your apartment next week, nobody thinks you’re crazy,” says Jane Bussman, another U.K. comic recently nabbed by HBO to write a pilot. Her standup routine, “Bussman’s Holiday,” was purchased by Channel 4 Films to adapt into a feature, and she’s writing another feature with Hines.

Marc Wootton, a U.K. star who is virtually unknown Stateside, has likewise hired a real estate agent in Los Angeles. He plans to make his big splash this fall with a feature role in “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel,” co-starring Anna Faris of the “Scary Movie” quartet. The film was shot in Britain by HBO Films in cooperation with BBC Films and will be distributed in the U.S. by Lionsgate.

Wootton’s favorite form of comedy involves everyday citizens in longform ruses, similar in style to “Borat.” But he’s had trouble succeeding in his practical jokes lately with his high recognition factor in the U.K. “The U.S. is a whole new playground,” he says.

In the U.S., Oxygen has pioneered the trans-Atlantic partnership with BBC, running the original “Suburban Shootout” and “Nighty Night.” But “for British writers, HBO is seen as the holy grail because they’re not subject to the same (constraints). They haven’t got any advertisers to please,” Beckett says.

“I think a lot of executives at the networks are afraid to put on a British accent,” Rizzo adds. “HBO is one of the few places that’s not afraid to do it.”

While so far it’s been adaptations of U.K. concepts like “The Office” that have been successful for the broadcast networks, Rizzo believes primetime auds will soon warm to the original players.

“It’s like if you went over in the ’60s to Liverpool and you all of the sudden discover this pub band and you come back to America and say — ‘I just saw the best band ever. I want to grab it and re-create it’ — you’ll get the Monkees. But if you take them over and keep it intact, you’ve got the Beatles,” he says.

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