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'Little Britain USA'

Transatlantic voyage

Matt Lucas and David Walliams rub shoulders with their American cousins as they explore this New World. Hey, what's so funny?

September 14, 2008|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. — Matt LUCAS and David Walliams discussed the concept of "world famous" fudge during a break from filming in this coastal city. Seems the stars of "Little Britain USA," an offshoot of their hit British TV series "Little Britain," had, before shooting started, spent some time soaking up Americana, in Branson, Mo.

It was there that the duo attended one of those cleaner-than-the-freshly-driven-snow family shows the town is somewhat famous for, where the audience was told to traipse out to the refreshment stand and try their "world famous fudge."

This got Walliams thinking. "Well," he said, affecting one of those Middle American accents that made him sound as if he were talking through his sinuses, "I haven't heard of it in England. I'm not quite sure it's world famous. No fudge is world famous."

"You don't travel for fudge," chimed in Lucas.

Walliams, still in American mode: "There's some wonderful fudge in Branson, Mo. We should go there."

They snorted and giggled gleefully. Free-form absurdity is the Lucas-Walliams way of looking at the world. It's why HBO is taking a flier on a sketch- and character-driven series set to debut Sept. 28 that, despite its enormous fame in England, is barely known in this country, unless you've been up late watching BBC America or stumbled upon some of the bits on YouTube.

But that didn't deter Simon Fuller -- who brought "American Idol" to the States and is executive producer of "Little Britain USA" -- from pitching a U.S. version to HBO, because, he said, referencing "The Office," "Ali G" and other programs, "usually the best British comedy with that success does travel. But what swung it was when the HBO executives looked at the material, they felt the guys were stars, pedigreed comic actors."

"We followed the English format of the show, and I thought it was the state of the art," said Nancy Geller, HBO's senior vice president of entertainment. "We're always looking for these wonderful sketch shows, and these guys are the real deal; they are as talented as I've ever seen character-driven performers."

"Little Britain" began as a radio program, then morphed into a TV series and wildly successful stage show. The concept is simplicity itself -- it's a series of short comic riffs, usually less than three minutes long, populated by a rotating cast of stock characters. Think "Monty Python," except that it's all shot on film, which, said executive producer Larry Brezner, means it's "difficult to shoot, because each sketch is a mini-movie, and in a half-hour show you have 12 sketches."

Despite the show's British tone, HBO never thought of doing an Americanized version, a la "The Office." Which is where the idea of plopping some of the British characters onto American soil came into play.

"When we had our first meeting with HBO, I think we thought they'd like to make their own version of the show," said Walliams. "But they said, 'No, we want you to be in the show.' We hadn't really figured on doing that, and then we had to figure out how to do it."

Easy enough. Bring some of the characters here, then have them react to the local culture. Like today's shoot at the canary yellow, gloriously seedy Joy Lee Apartments on the Carolina coast -- where two of "Little Britain's" most famous characters, Lou and Andy, are taking in the sights. "Oh, look, Andy," says empathetic caretaker Lou as he maneuvers the wheelchair-bound Andy (who's faking the whole disabled thing) around the tiny pool, "they have a pool here, you can have a swim in there later." "Naw," says the blubbery Andy in disgust, arguing that he's sure people pee in it.

Taking off from what Walliams and Lucas saw in the U.S., they also wrote sketches with new American characters. Like the North Carolina sheriff who took them to a rifle range, where "we had a great afternoon shooting guns," said Walliams, "and we wrote a sketch about a sheriff who is showing some recruits some guns." Not just showing them weaponry, but every time the sheriff picks up a gun, he becomes tumescent, and every time he puts a gun down, the erection goes away.

"We've got a character who's an ex-astronaut; he's the eighth man on the moon," added Lucas. "It's the kind of thing we can't do in England, because we don't have any astronauts."

"These are comic characters," emphasized Walliams, "it's not a satire on America."

"We've kept the British identity at the heart of it," said Lucas.

What that means, said Walliams, is that instead of a very American sense of cool, British humor "is more cynical."

"We have more losers," said Lucas.

"We have Mr. Bean," said Walliams. "We're losers, we're nebbishes. We're the little man up against the world, the underdog. You have the Fonz."

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