America’s affinity for U.K. comedians began long before the Ricky Gervais craze touched these shores. From Charlie Chaplin to Monty Python, Brits helped shape Hollywood’s sense of humor. But who will be the next overseas star to hit it big Stateside? And what does it take to capture this country’s imagination?
Top comedy agents agree the crucial factor is exposure — and not just in “Borat’s” naked-wrestling sense. Since a hip TV show can launch a career, new faces such as John Oliver (“The Daily Show”) and Ashley Jensen (“Extras,” “Ugly Betty”) gain enormously from regular appearances in American homes.
But even off-camera talent benefits. James Bobin, who co-scripted and directed “Da Ali G Show” for HBO in 2003 and 2004, graduated to showrunner on the net’s “Flight of the Conchords.” Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, co-creators of the U.K.’s award-winning Channel 4 sitcom “Peep Show,” are developing a U.S. version for Spike TV (they also wrote the film “Magicians”).
High-profile movie roles often provide the fastest shortcut for Brits hoping to register on the U.S. radar. Russell Brand, for instance, just appeared in the Judd Apatow comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and will appear again in December opposite Adam Sandler in “Bedtime Stories.” (Apatow also has him in mind for a Universal comedy.) And audiences may connect with standup Omid Djalili opposite Mike Meyers in “The Love Guru.” Djalili has a hit BBC series and plans to tour America this year.
Other names who’ve caught the industry’s attention include Kevin Bishop (“Star Stories”), Alexander Armstrong (“Saxondale”) and Rob Brydon (“Gavin and Stacey”).
But exposure alone does not a star make. “Writing your own material is also very important,” notes David Martin, president of the U.K.-based Avalon agency, which reps Oliver and standup comedian Lee Mack, whose new sitcom, “Not Going Out,” airs on BBC America in May. “They both write everything they perform, which is very unusual in a sitcom, and so their personalities are very invested in their performances, and their points of view come over very clearly.”
Overall, personality matters, and a novel approach — even one as potentially cringe-inducing as Gervais’ “Office” boob — can win over audiences in a major way.
As Matt Labov, senior VP of talent at BWR PR, puts it: “To me, funny is funny in any language, so it’s more about their original voice and that likability factor. And those who cross over here do so for the same reason certain American comedians cross over in other countries: because they’re appealing and they tap into something universal.”