Opinion: British Comedy Movies v US Comedy Movies

the world's end

I'm getting increasingly excited by the prospect of The World's End coming out this summer. The trailers are tantalising, the cast is a classy roll-call of comedy's top brass and the team behind it has already made some of the few recent truly successful British comedy movies. Simon Pegg tweeted me this afternoon to say that his previous films, incluing Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, have taken around $100m each worldwide, so he is clearly doing something right.

Maybe he should start movie masterclasses and teach others how to do it (he also tweeted me to say the secret of his success was "an enslaved American writing team" but I think he might have been joking). It has been interesting to read recently that both Harry Hill and Al Murray have film plans in the pipeline. Hill has already started shooting his low-budget epic about a road trip to Blackpool with Julie Walters as his nan and co-starring Sheridan Smith as "an undersea shell person" who steals Hill's heart, and Matt Lucas as Hill's estranged Alsatian-raised twin brother Otto. Murray, meanwhile, has talked about a script he has written featuring the Pub Landlord, which he hopes to get made.

I've written before about the problems of British comedians moving from small to big screen. Keith Lemon did it last year, Alan Partridge is also due to do it this summer. But successes are few and far between. No even Russell Brand has been able to parlay his stand-up megastardom into celluloid domination so far. In fact in recent years Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais are two of the few to have made the transition reasonably smoothly and they were not really known primarily as stand-ups.

This struggle to move from one format to another seems to be a particularly British problem. I dusted off my DVD of Richard Pryor Live the other night and between laughs at his routines and admiration of his mastery I was thinking about how he managed to make the seamless transition from stage to multiplex. Pryor was a naturally charismatic comedian, a physical clown and a painfully honest anecdotalist onstage. Yet he was also able to work with scriptwriters and keep the magnetism in films such as Brewster's Millions, Stir Crazy, even The Muppet Movie.

Of course they make plenty of turkeys too – Steve Martin's cinematic slide is positively wincemaking – but in America comedians seem able to have a bona fide film career as well as a stand-up career and it surely can't just be because there is a bigger film industry over there. British comedians get to make films, they just don't seem to be very good. Yet look at Eddie Murphy or Chris Tucker, able to turn their hands to action movies as well as comedies.  Or look at Robin Williams. Are there any stand-ups currently working on the stand-up circuit who could make movies as diverse as Awakenings and Flubber?

The trouble with movie-making, of course, is that as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, "nobody knows anything". Otherwise every comedy film would be a box office smash. Even Keith Lemon's film. A few minutes ago Simon Pegg kindly sent me a few tweets about the success of his "Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy" which illuminate the predicament of the British film industry and back this up: "It's tempting to measure ourselves against the yardstick of US domestic gross because we speak English, but we are a small foreign territory to most of the US and our more parochial humour just doesn't travel. What we did was embrace a cinematic language which they could grasp, more through love than intention. It was an accident. :-)"


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