British comedy invasion stalls

Recent TV crossovers struggle in the US

Launched several years ago with the momentum of successful crossover salvos including “The Office” and “Borat,” the latest British comedy invasion hasn’t necessarily stopped, but it has experienced some key setbacks.

On television, “The IT Crowd,” “In the Thick of It” and “Nighty Night”have failed to get a greenlight Stateside, despite the proliferation of U.K.-originating comedy formats — and their creators — across U.S. network development slates.

HBO’s “Little Britain USA” did manage to make it on air this fall, but reviews and ratings have thus far suggested that the creators’ unique brand of regional skewering doesn’t work as well on this side of the pond.

Brit talent also has found itself lost in comedic translation of late. Notable was the selection of provocative comedian Russell Brand to host MTV’s Video Music Awards — a controversial appearance that generated death threats for a performer who had been a popular MTV personality back home in Britain.

Transitioning across formats, meanwhile, has also been tough, with even “The Office” and “Extras” mastermind Ricky Gervais — in his first theatrical lead role — unable to successfully open DreamWorks’ “Ghost Town” in September.

Will all of this put an end to the wave that U.K. comics have been riding the last few years in their attempt to take their acts to America?

Not necessarily, says Michael Rizzo, who specialized in transitioning U.K. comedy talent while at ICM and now reps Brit comics including Marc Wootton through his RZO Management.

“There is a little bit of a canary in a coal mine dynamic where if something fails, everyone gets anxious about it, but I still think the format market is strong,” Rizzo says.

Rizzo cites NBC’s recent full-season order for frosh comedy “Kath & Kim” (which is actually based on an Australian format) as evidence.

He’s more bullish on the prospects of U.K. comics who don’t try to fit concepts they’ve established back home to U.S. television.

Client Wootton, for example, recently received a series order for an original concept he developed for Showtime.

Still, Rizzo believes many of the U.K. comics who have set their sights on the U.S. market in recent years may yet make noise Stateside.

“It just takes time. There’s a lot of leg work involved with crossing people over,” he says. “Rarely is it a matter of, ‘I’m going to bring you over and you’re going to have a huge hit.’ ”

Sure, he notes, Sacha Baron Cohen successfully segued the Borat character from an “Ali G” franchise he originally developed in the U.K., but that was only after spending several years in the U.S., acclimating himself to auds while working with established American comedy meisters including Larry Charles and Jay Roach.

“You need to come here, get involved in the market, and start talking to the right camps,” Rizzo explains. “The people who are most successful are those who manage to integrate in that way.”

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