There’s an old saying that all comedy is local. But that adage flies in the face of the growing influence of British humor on the American comedy landscape.
While British comedy imports such as Sacha Baron Cohen and Russell Brand, as well as series like “Shameless” and “The Inbetweeners,” continue a long-standing appropriation of Blighty talents by Hollywood, the most stealthy aspect of the current British invasion involves the number of U.K. directors taking up position behind the camera on Stateside comedies — a post once considered the exclusive domain of Americans.
From Julian Farino (HBO’s “Entourage”) to James Bobin (Disney’s upcoming “The Muppets” movie) to Tristram Shapeero (NBC’s “Community”) to Mark Mylod (Fox’s “What’s Your Number?”), U.K. helmers are bringing to Hollywood their comic sensibility along with an ability to work fast, cheap and in control.
“When they get here, they come much better trained,” says WME lit agent , who reps Farino, Mylod and Shapeero. “They are able to adapt here so well because they are trained under harsher circumstances in England. They have less resources and know how to do more with less.”
Five years ago, a then London-based Mylod accepted an offer to direct an episode of “Entourage.” The first day of shooting involved a big party scene at the Roosevelt Hotel. During the scout, the assistant director asked Mylod how many background extras he wanted. “I tentatively asked for 100 as the space was so large and hoped we would horse trade down to 80,” he recalls. “?’Oh no,’ he said. ‘You need at least 200.’ I was in heaven.”
Mylod, who directed Cohen in 2002’s “Ali G Indahouse” — well before either found an international audience — has never looked back, graduating to pilot helming duties, including Showtime’s “Shameless,” before segueing to features.
Network execs appreciate the lean and mean approach of Shapeero, whose directing credits include NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and HBO’s “Bored to Death.”
“It does help that when things get tight with time that my experience in the U.K. has taught me how to get what we need efficiently as we are always short on time — and money — over there,” he says.
Productivity concerns notwithstanding, it would stand to reason that the comedic cultural gap might be too wide to bridge at times, something a gamble like Aardman-produced, Sony-animated “Arthur Christmas” will test, relying on helmer Sarah Smith (a vet of the Armando Iannucci stable) to sell its quirky British sense of humor to U.S. auds. Likewise, working in Hollywood, Mylod admits his lack of familiarity with American popular culture can be challenging.
“With a drama, the nuances of emotion are for the most part universal, but in comedy the laugh can be in the use of an ’80s catchphrase or a reference to a basketball icon,” he says. “Working on ‘Entourage,’ I’d prepare a list of references in the script that I didn’t understand and then get mocked mercilessly for not knowing who the Knicks’ MVP was in 1993.”
Even still, Cohen and Brand, and earlier imports like Ricky Gervais, continue to prove that Brit humor can appeal to mainstream American auds, unlike yesteryear’s Monty Python troupe or “Are You Being Served?” — which typically found traction with a more refined demo.
That’s why networks are inking deals with U.K. comics like Sharon Horgan of “Free Agents” fame (though NBC recently canceled a U.S. version of the Brit format, the London-born performer just signed a blind deal with ABC Studios to write and star in a laffer for the studio). Drew Pearce, the creator of the Brit sitcom “No Heroics” is also feeling the love in Hollywood, landing gigs to pen “Iron Man 3” and “Sherlock Holmes 3.” And every Hollywood talent agency is trying to sign Jack Whitehall, an English comedian best known for hosting “Big Brother’s Big Mouth” and “Celebrity Big Brother’s Big Mouth.”
“In the past 10-15 years, our cultures have kind of merged because of the Internet,” says “Flight of the Conchords” co-creator Bobin, who honed his comedic skills as a writer and director on “Da Ali G Show.” “A lot of things that work here work in the U.K. There’s not one monolithic British comedic sensibility. There’s a variety of comedy in England. There’s a fallacy that just because some British comedy is great, all British comedy is great. It’s like (in the U.S.). Some of it is awesome, and some of it doesn’t work very well.”