Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Taskmaster returned to television this week with its tenth series, securing 1.7 million live viewers. Despite it moving from Dave to Channel 4, it remains as popular as ever. In this show, “scary task master” Greg Davies (well known for his role in the Inbetweeners) makes comedians complete silly tasks, competing against each other to become the “Taskmaster champion” of that series. Why, then, did the American version, including popular comedian contestants and the well-known Reggie Watts as the taskmaster, get cancelled after just one season?
The UK and US TV comedy scenes are incredibly different. There are a plethora of British panel shows; Mock the Week, Would I Lie To You, Have I Got News For You, QI – to name a few – and barely any in the US, why?
Is it that the UK and US comedy worlds are so different that it is impossible for shows to be replicated exactly? Or does it go deeper, and is there instead a distinct difference between the US and Britain with our humour?
The United States is instilled with the belief that that the harder you work, the more you will succeed. Therefore, for Americans, if you haven’t “succeeded”, it seems that you have instead failed. Americanism is thus inextricably linked with succeeding and goal achievement. This could be why, for example, that when American producers met with the famous UK comedian Jimmy Carr, were so perplexed that panel shows did not involve winning prizes, and indeed were not really centred around “winning” the show.
QI and Mock the Week are two shows which continue to baffle viewers with their points system. Indeed, when I attended Mock the Week live a few years ago, Dara Ó Briain, the host, explained that the points system did not exist – they would record both teams winning and use the selected one after all the editing was done. This, Carr explains on The Nerdist Podcast, was the type of thing that mystified the American producers: they could not understand the aimlessness nature of these types of shows. For the British, the journey itself is the “aim” of the show: to watch comedians play around with each other. There is no immediate physical prize to gain for the comedians, but instead the opportunity to gain public awareness, and thus success further on.
Nevertheless, that does not explain the unpopularity of the American Taskmaster, since it involves genuine prize winning. There must be a further difference; this could be found in the differing censorship levels. There is indeed much heightened censorship in the US; comedians are often “meddled with” by producers looking to gain the widest demographic possible. British comedians, meanwhile, are simply representing themselves, and it is instead up to them to try and play to their audience.
And indeed, their audiences have different tastes; this becomes clear in the eternal battle over which The Office is funnier. While they were made by the same people, Ricky Gervais (a creator) explained that in an interview, they had to adapt to attract American audiences: ‘we had to make Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy … he couldn’t be too mean’. The characters of David Brent and Michael Scott are strikingly distinct, with Michael being, despite all his flaws, a redeemable character; there are parts when you can sympathise with him, and even like him – that is near impossible with David Brent.
The UK Office was nowhere near as commercial as the American Office was. I think this defines the difference between the UK and the US: we do not need everyone to find it funny, for it to be a success. Americans, on the other hand, need shows to reach the biggest audiences, and thus humour has to be appealing to wide audiences, and “family friendly”. Niche shows never last long, and that is why My So Called Life and Freaks and Geeks got cancelled after one season, whilst Friends ran for ten. It is also why panel shows, which inevitably involve criticising the government and the country, are unpopular in America; shows must remain cheery, family friendly, and “light” to succeed.