Transcript

Remaking Comedy with Sue Turnbull


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Matt Smith:

This is the La Trobe University podcast. I'd be your host, Matt Smith. Good morning, good afternoon and good evening; it does all depends on where you're standing. Joining me today is Dr. Susan Turnbull from the School of Media Studies, thank you for joining me, Sue.

Sue Turnbull:

It's a pleasure.

Matt Smith:

We're here to talk today about remaking television in different countries.

Sue Turnbull:

Yes, we are. And I guess I've been prompted to do quite a bit of thinking about that because of the recent American adaptation of the very successful Australian, originally ABC drama later Channel 7 drama, "Kath and Kim". And I suspect you might remember when they showed "Kath and Kim" on Channel 7 here quite recently, just before Christmas. They showed the first couple of episodes of the American series and then withdrew it very quickly because of the audience and critical response, which was that a lot of people tuned in on the first week because of course they were very interested to see what it would look like. And then didn't tune in the week after and everybody was saying, "Isn't it awful. They've lost the plot. They don't know what they're doing." And I was very interested to follow up on the story of that in terms of why they did it in the first place, why the Americans remade it in the first place. And what had they got wrong.

And the story goes back obviously a very long way. The remaking of other countries' television has gone on for a very long time. The great old Reg Grundy, you would remember who was behind "Neighbours" and ran Grundy Television. He was one of the key guys behind the whole idea of taking a format and remaking it. And he bought "Wheel of Fortune" from the Americans and then remade it and sold it to masses of countries. And then actually sold it back to the Americans. And established his fortune doing that kind of remaking of those sorts of formats.

But the idea that you would take a comedy or a drama and remake it has been a little bit more dicey. And some of them have succeeded and some of them haven't. You may not remember but back in the 60's there was a British series called "Til Death Us Do Part", starring Warren Mitchell as a very, very grumpy character called "Alf Garnett" who was a racist and a bigot and was quite, quite monstrous.

And Norman Lear in America was asked to adapt that comedy series in America and they did. But they adapted it creating a whole new range of characters. And it was in fact incredibly successful as an American series called "All in the Family". And here in Australia in fact both showed equally successfully because they were quite different.

More recently, there was a British series, which I'm sure you would remember called "Absolutely Fabulous". And that was optioned by an American writer/comedian called Roseanne. And that never got made.

Matt Smith:

We should be grateful.

Sue Turnbull:

Now you're saying, "We should be grateful," but in fact with the "Til Death Us Do Part", "All in the Family" story, that was a very successful remake. So it's not always doomed to failure. And the case of the British "The Office" is another example of a show that actually got adapted in America very successfully even though you wouldn't think it would be likely.

Now the story behind "The Office" is that of course we know the originally creators were Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. And they created this monster of a character, David Brent. And David is offensive. He is completely ignorant of his affect on others. He's racist. He's sexist. He is totally unlikeable. And he makes you very uncomfortable to watch him.

Matt Smith:

Yes.

Sue Turnbull:

Now, the British "Office" has been one of the most successful comedy show ever made. It's sold into over 80 countries. And of course it circulated in America on cable television. We're now in an environment where any TV series made anywhere in the world is likely to pop up on paid television. Because we've now got so many TV hours to fill that we're always on the look out for content. You would know that if you switch on paid television here you're likely to see television content from the 50's, 60's and 70's just filling up space. You can find everything. It's eventually going to be shown again.

So the British "Office" of course made it over to American television and was a bit of a cult success. But NBC which is one of the big networks decided to actually do a remake. And they hired a company that was run by a guy called Ben Silverman. And Ben Silverman hired a comedy writer to work with Gervais and Merchant. They worked as advisors. And they adapted this series for NBC.

Now you could make the argument that American network television is much more sensitive and much more alert to concerns about its audience being middle of the road tastes. So there might be an assumption that the audience wouldn't appreciate the British "Office".

Matt Smith:

A bit more conservative.

Sue Turnbull:

A bit more conservative and a bit less open to things that are slightly different. The other possibility is that you could argue that the Americans are in fact extremely xenophobic in that way. That they import very little television unlike Australia which as you know imports and struggles to keep its own content between six and midnight at 55%. And not all of that is drama. America has no such problems. Britain has no such problems. The Americans perhaps import about 2% and in the UK, they import about 20%, a lot of it Australian I may say.

So the network decides that it's going to commission a remake of "The Office" and they showed the first season. And it's a moderate success. It's got Steve Carell who is now quite recognized as a film star. But between the first and second season of the network, he has a huge success with a movie called "The 40-year old Virgin" which seem to be particularly popular with young men between the ages of 16 and 40. [Laughter]

Matt Smith:

I liked it.

Sue Turnbull:

You liked it. There you go. And that of course attracted a big chunk of an audience to the second season of "The Office" as it showed on network television.

So along comes a product like "Kath and Kim" which get shown on cable network in America and in the UK indeed. And is a minor success and again becomes a bit of a cult success. It is rumoured that in fact "Kath and Kim" was a huge cult success with gay audiences in New York because of course the women are grotesque enough to be sent up by transvestite dancers and the burlesques.

Matt Smith:

I don't know what that says for Australia really but OK.

Sue Turnbull:

Well if you think about it, "Absolutely Fabulous" was the same way. The gay Mardi Gras, had a float with Patsy and everybody was Patsy. So grotesque female characters quite often lend themselves to that camp adaptation.

Anyway, NBC decides they're going to do a remake based on the success of "The Office" of "Kath and Kim". The head of NBC at this point is Ben Silverman who of course was behind the remake of "The Office". And Ben Silverman commissions the same team that did "The Office" to do "Kath and Kim". At which point they hire Molly Shannon who's been an actress who's had a great deal of success on "Saturday Night Live".

And what they're obviously looking for is a success with a mainstream actress who has got something of a profile in America. What they're missing is of course the whole background as we had of "Kath and Kim" here in Australia, of Jane Turner and Gina Riley working their way through "Fast Forward", "Big Girl's Blouse". And in fact starting the "Kath and Kim" sketches on "Big Girl's Blouse". And then we've got a whole history of their performances and indeed of Magda Szubanski whose character is not in the American version.

Matt Smith:

Really?

Sue Turnbull:

And again, it has been said by a number of people that one of the reasons that is the case is that Szubanski actually owns her character and refused to license it for adaptation. Now I don't know to what extent that's true. I haven't been able to verify that with the production company. But that was one of the rumours that was made about that.

Anyway, they cast "Kath and Kim" and they started in America and it rates reasonably well for that network in between their two big hits, "My Name is Earl" and "The Office", on a Thursday night which is their prime comedy slot. So it's doing OK. But when it's shown here as we began, it flops terrifically. And there is therefore something else that's going on. And it is very much I think to do with matters of performance.

For example, the interesting thing about Gina Riley and Jane Turner playing Kath and Kim is that there's one year between them as actresses. And everybody in Australia is in on the joke that this is two women playing mother and daughter who are in fact the same age. The other thing is within the Australian version, everybody goes out of their way to make themselves as unattractive as possible. If you look at the American characters, they are all actually rather good looking.

And so when the young Kimmy in the American version says, "I'm a trophy wife", you look at her and you think, "Well I guess you could be." Selma Blair looks like a tabloid princess. She looks like Paris Hilton. So when she sounds off and says, "If Britney Spears is in a bad marriage, what did they do? They walked out. They left." And she is credible as a character like Britney Spears. Whereas when Gina Riley is squashing her size 14 body into size 8 miniskirts and jeans and imagining that she is like Britney Spears or Melanie Griffith it's kind of laughable.

So what's lost in the adaptation is the gap between how the characters see themselves and how the characters really are. So that in the Australian version what you have and what that gap could be called is irony. And in the American version there's no irony.

Matt Smith:

But how would they take that ingredient out? How can you not look at "Kath and Kim" and see that that's a bit part of the humour but it's not needed in the US one? How would they make that distinction?

Sue Turnbull:

I don't know why they made that distinction but they did a similar thing with "The Office" because with Steve Carell, I'll get his name right eventually. I always want to say Stephen Cannell who was a very famous television producer of "The Rockford Files" and a whole loads other series.

Matt Smith:

That's obscure.

Sue Turnbull:

That's obscure I know. I know too much about television that's the problem. And Steve Carell of course, if you compare him with Ricky Gervais, Steve Carell is actually a good looking man. And he dresses well. He is not obnoxious. He is not sleazy. Again, there's no irony in his presentation of himself as a good boss. He looks like a good boss. And in fact as the series has gone on, he's had some success with women. The Americans have actually made him more successful in business.

And apparently one of the reasons behind that is that the audience would find incredible in America that someone who was so hopeless could actually be appointed as a boss. And that's one rationale that I've read whereas in Britain and Australia, we have no problem whatsoever in believing that the least talented, most obnoxious person could actually become a boss. And we accept that as the way of life that we live, whereas in America that was regarded as no, no, no, whether it's true or not but the representation was not that.

Matt Smith:

So when they made "The Office" and "Kath and Kim", how much interaction did they have with the original creators of the shows?

Sue Turnbull:

I certainly know that Gervais and Merchant went over as advisors. And I certainly know that Riley and Turner went to the States and there was a great deal of consultation. But whether they were actually involved in the writing I don't know because of course what they would do is that they have literally sold their scripts. But of course for the American version they've had to do something about the absence of the character of Sharon. And indeed in slightly later episodes of the American version there is a best friend introduced and she's black but she's very attractive.

So once again, they've omitted that whole grotesque element. And someone commented to me and I thought it was a very interesting comment. That the Australian "Kath and Kim" very much comes out of that almost vaudeville tradition behind sketch comedy. Where characters are much larger and much more grotesque than life. Whereas the American series is much more close to a realist tradition. The Americans don't go grotesque so often. And I've been thinking about that and I've been trying to think of comedy series in which there are grotesque characters. And the only ones I can think of are of course "The Simpsons" really, where characters are more exaggerated. Homer Simpson is a fairly grotesque character. But in terms of real life grotesques I don't think you see them in American situation comedy.

Matt Smith:

"Married with Children"?

Sue Turnbull:

That's a good example. "Married with Children" I would say is yes. That's probably about the closest we could come to something like "Kath and Kim". And indeed if that's the case and they had a huge success with "Married with Children", why didn't they take that line when they did "Kath and Kim"?

Matt Smith:

Yes. Maybe times have changed too much so those sort of comedies isn't as appealing to the kind of audience in the US. I don't know. When I saw "Kath and Kim", what came to mind when I saw it is that they've tried to remake in some way bounce off the success of "Ugly Betty" as well, which is another show that I can't stand because if that's apparently an ugly girl. We'll put braces on her and glasses and that makes somebody ugly. And it seems like they've tried to remake "Kath and Kim" in name only essentially and go somewhere like that show.

Sue Turnbull:

And they've lost the major joke.

Matt Smith:

Exactly, yes.

Sue Turnbull:

I had a very interesting telephone conversation with Geoffrey Atherden who was a comedy writer, who began writing for "The Aunty Jack Show" and came out of the Sydney University Architectural Review, as did Peter Weir. And indeed Grahame Bond and several others who were stalwarts of the comedy scene in the early 70's. And Geoffrey Atherden of course is best known for creating "Mother and Son", the long running sitcom on the ABC, starring Garry McDonald and the very wonderful Ruth Cracknell as Maggie Beare.

Matt Smith:

Was that an Australian show?

Sue Turnbull:

It was an Australian show. There were many different versions made of it. The first remake was Chilean. There was a British version made. There was a Turkish version made. And Atherden said the Turkish version was hilarious because the son became a singer and they in interspersed every episode with the son singing at some point or another.

Most critically for Atherden was not the fact that when it was adapted for British television, they needed an extra two minutes per episode. So he had to go over and write another two minutes of scenes for the show. He said that wasn't a problem. He could do that. But in the Australian version the character Maggie Beare of course it's implied that she's suffering from Alzheimer's disease. So the potential for the show to be tragic was always there. How could one laugh at an old woman clearly confused and suffering from this debilitating and horrible disease.

Of course the point was it was the way Ruth Cracknell played her which was slyly. You were never quite sure if Maggie was really as confused as she made out or whether it was all a ploy to keep her son. To manipulate the hapless Arthur into doing whatever she wanted to do. And by means of sly looks at the camera and little aside glances at the son you always felt that Maggie was actually in charge. That she was a wily old woman who while she might be confused was absolutely on top of everything. Knew exactly what was going on. And used her confusion to manipulate others.

Well that was Atherden's premise anyway and he said but in the English version the title music when it started, rather than being this jaunty World War II song that they had in the Australian version. Was what he called "crisis music". And they played it as if the woman really was seriously ill with Alzheimer's. And therefore he said it was not funny. The same jokes did not work because the premise was undercut and the performance did not allow the audience to feel that the character who was suffering from Alzheimer's was actually on top and manipulating. You ended up feeling sorry for her rather than admiring and slightly horrified by her manipulative nature.

Matt Smith:

And how did the show go over in the UK?

Sue Turnbull:

It didn't do well in the UK, not surprisingly. Atherden said it wasn't funny.

Matt Smith:

That's amazing that they can miss that one element of the show that's quite important.

Sue Turnbull:

Here we go. This is what I think is missing with the American "Kath and Kim" but like "The Office" it will evolve into something else. The second season of the American "Office" diverged radically from the British one and won an Emmy. It's now I think we're up to the fourth or fifth season and it has continued to diverge and become its own thing.

Matt Smith:

And it's getting a spin off as well. So yes, it's become a…

Sue Turnbull:

It's become its own thing. And I don't know whether that will happen with the American "Kath and Kim". Clearly, that's what NBC will be hoping even before the first season of "Kath and Kim" had finished they'd commissioned a second season. They had looked at the history of "The Office" and said, "OK. First season didn't do so well. Bet the second season goes really well. Let's do the same with ‘Kath and Kim'". You got to stay with a show for at least two seasons.

Now of course you compare that with the Australian experience, which is that most shows do not get a second season. If they don't succeed in the first, they're pulled halfway through. The Australian television landscape at the moment is remarkably unforgiving on anything that's not succeeding.

Matt Smith:

Dr. Sue Turnbull, thank you for your time today.

Sue Turnbull:

Thank you.

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