Matt Lucas and David Walliams are superstars in the UK, well-known and oft-quoted for the numerous characters they've created for their hit comedy series 'Little Britain.' They've worked together as a comedy team for 12 years and started 'Little Britain' on the radio in 2001 and brought it to TV in 2003. In the all-new 'Little Britain USA,' they've imported some of their favorite British characters to the states, and created new American ones. Here, they talk about their writing process and the challenges of bringing what Out Magazine called "the funniest TV show in the world," to the U.S.
[Executive Producer and Director] Michael Patrick Jann said you really wanted to make sure that this was Season One of Little Britain USA and not Season Four of Little Britain.
We had to assume that most of the audience haven't seen Little Britain before, but at the same time we couldn't really repeat ourselves. So in a way it was Series Four and Series One at the same time. Introducing new characters was the easiest thing, because we could just start from scratch. It was harder with characters that had already been established because you want to introduce them to a new audience, but at the same time we also have an audience who's seen eighteen to twenty episodes and are familiar with them.
We spent longer writing this series than we have the other series, because we had a lot of questions to answer. Say you're doing Daffyd, the only gay in the village - is he still in a village? Or is he somewhere else? Is he now an American character with similar traits? There were lots of different ways we could've done this show.
And people give you lots of different advice. Some say, "Whatever you do, keep it exactly as it is." Someone else will say, "Well, what you need to do is make all the characters American. No one's gonna understand what you're doing." So it was quite hard to work out what to do, you know? But being British, it felt dishonest for us to come along and say, "Oh, we're gonna sum up American culture and pick on all these American archetypes." I don't think we're quite the people to do that, you know? So we just had to stay true to what we do - and I'm pleased with the balance we got between new characters who are largely American and established characters that were all British.
I would echo what David just said, except I would've used the word "predominantly," instead of "largely." But then I did go to private school.
What is your writing process? Do you each write for the characters you're going to play?
Working out who's gonna play which character usually comes towards the end of the writing process. You don't necessarily know who's gonna play who early on.
Even if we've established who's playing a character, we still write everything together. I think people always assume, "Oh, well you must've come up with that idea because you're doing it," but it's not like that. Otherwise, I think you might as well have two separate shows.
"It's quite good when you see something as shocking as Bitty, a lactating mother's milk spraying across the room, that you hear an audience expressing their enjoyment." - Matt Lucas
Is it a constant give and take, back and forth between you guys, where you're constantly fine tuning?
The writing process only ends when the show is finally edited. Dave and I would write five, six, seven hours a day, and then every six to eight weeks we'd come to the states and sit in a room with Michael Patrick Jann and read out what we had, and then we'd go away and rewrite and write new stuff. The draft you take into rehearsal might be your fifth or sixth draft. And then you rehearse a lot, and you change dialogue, and you change stuff on the day, and in the edit sometimes you re-voice stuff. Sometimes the funniest thing in the sketch is something that somebody suggested right towards the end of that process.
Hearing it out loud, with other people there, and hearing whether they laugh or not tells us a lot.
Also, you know with Michael if he really, really likes a sketch because he goes like this: "Um. That was quite good."
Where do you get the inspiration for your characters?
We went on a research trip, 'cause we hadn't seen that much of America outside of the obvious places like New York and Los Angeles. We went to Washington, Branson, Missouri. And we also went to North Carolina while we were filming and we met this sheriff who was showing his guns, you know? He didn't get an erection when he showed the guns, but...
I got an erection.
It just felt like there was something to do about that.
I remember, you actually came up with that idea while we were there meeting that sheriff.
"Wouldn't it be funny if he got an erection?" He really loved showing us all these great big guns, and they obviously are a kind of a substitute, aren't they? So that's how our minds work. I mean, it's not the subtlest idea, but we wouldn't have thought of that if we hadn't gone on this trip.
You can't predict exactly how you're going to get inspiration. Some things do just come out of your imagination without any real prompting from anything you've seen or done. Ellie Grace, actually, and her mum were inspired by a documentary I saw on TV a long time ago about a woman having an operation because she was very overweight and her daughter was saying goodbye to her before she went under and they were going, "I love you more than rainbows and I love you more than Disneyland." That kind of thing.
And at the end, she said, "You got me beat."
So years later there's an opportunity to use that. So you can't predict exactly where it's gonna come from. I think people, when they ask you about it, think that you've met all these people and that they were just unlucky, because they didn't. [laughs] But, actually, you have to kind of just use your mind and try and be creative.
When you have new characters - for example, the Gym Buddies - do the costume and makeup people bring you ideas? How does it work?
If we have very definite ideas, we put them in the script or we communicate them directly to the makeup or costume people. But, otherwise, [we] pretty much let them bring ideas to us.
With someone like Gym Buddies, we did the prosthetic bodysuits, because you can't do it without that. So if there's an effect or something, we sometimes write in how it possibly could be done.
How much do you feel like the makeup and costume affects your overall performance?
As actors, there's a certain delight in looking in the mirror after a long makeup process, and only seeing a tiny bit of what you normally look like. But actually, the experience of doing something like the Gym Buddies, where we shot three scenes in one day, we were probably in those outfits for twelve or fifteen hours. And there were no cooling suits so we got very hot. And, actually, you're very conscious of being careful because the suits are very intricate and fragile. So you're constantly aware of, "Oh crikey, if I sit like this, I'll rip the leg. If I do that, I'll rip the arm. I can't show that because that's all ripped now." They're brilliant, but they have a very short life. The three Bubbles scenes that we did were shot over two days and we had a separate suit for each day because you can't re-use it. So actually a lot of the experience of acting in those suits is kind of trying, it becomes a bit more of a technical exercise, doesn't it?
Yeah, just being in them a long time is tough. But I could feel just as different with just a wig on and a pair of glasses. You can't quite explain it.
For Lou and Andy we look very different, and those makeups, you can do them in less than half an hour.
Characters work on different levels. The Gym Buddies are more of a gag with the suits and effects. They're not like Lou and Andy where you could say, "Oh the backstory of this person is this or that." George and Sandra, the long-married couple, is a different type of comedy to say, Bubbles. We're taking it down to quite a minor kind of key, not really going for big laughs; they're a sort of character study. I like that there are different styles. It wouldn't be good if every character was over the top; it would be tedious.
You've got to use things like prosthetics sparingly so that they have impact when you do use them. Because they can slightly take you out of the sketch as a viewer. If there are too many technical effects, your performance can get a bit lost and the viewer just spends the whole time going, "Wow, that looks amazing!" rather than relaxing and laughing.
How did you find going to the toilet in your Gym Buddies suit?
I found it tough, but I didn't piss myself like you did.
When I did Bubbles they built a funnel with a kind of pipe attached. But because the suit was so fat, it was very hard to get it in the right place. I had two wees successfully, but the third one was unsuccessful, shall we say.
"I'd love to look better as a woman." - David Walliams
What is it about the live shows that you really find attractive? Why do you do them so much?
In front of the audience, we really do feel a pressure to make everything as absolutely funny as possible. So we won't settle for something that is not quite working. Maybe if there wasn't an audience there, you'd think, "Well, it'll be all right." But it's very embarrassing to be in front of an audience if your material is not as strong as it could be.
If you do something funny, you get that affirmation. And if you don't, you think, "Right, better change it." Secondly, you shoot with lots of cameras. When you're on location, you usually on shoot with one. So the shooting process is considerably faster in the studio which is quite nice from a comedic point of view. You don't have to do it as many times. But you have to be better rehearsed in the studio, don't you?
It's kind of tradition somehow, isn't it? It's like a form that's part TV and part theater. Our ambition, most of the time is just to be comic, and make people laugh. So that way of doing things really suits us.
It's also very important for us to have a laughter track on this show because some of the stuff we do is so shocking that if you didn't have a laughter track, it might be too uncomfortable. Laughter is an expression of relief and release in a way, isn't it? So, it's quite good when you see something as shocking as Bitty, a lactating mother's milk spraying across the room, that you hear an audience expressing their enjoyment. It helps you as a viewer at home enjoy that scene rather than going, "ugh."
It's just more fun to share humor somehow, isn't it? Sitting at home watching the TV and hearing the laughter of people is kind of nice.
Lately, a lot of our contemporaries don't use laughter tracks. That's the current vogue and so it feels like you're almost being a bit radical for having a laughter track.
Or really old-fashioned.
Who do you think makes a better lady?
Obviously, sexually, David.
I'd love to look better as a woman. I mean, it's very hard for me to go through my life [laughs] like this. I'm so tall. Whereas Matt looks more convincing as a woman, definitely.
I can see a photo of myself as a woman and get turned on.
Yeah he just looks better, I think cause there's no beard line and, eyebrows, and, male genitalia with Matt.
And I've got t*ts as well.
Some people think, "Oh God, it's too many characters who are women, who are gay," or whatever. But try as we might, it's very hard for us [laughs]. The Gym Buddies was like, "Oh, thank God, some macho characters," and what do they do? Start humping each other. Somehow, masculinity doesn't come very naturally to us, you know? But I like that we can play couples, but sometimes, maybe I can be the wife and Matt can be the husband...
Not very often, you're usually the wife.
Also because the show is quite brutal in its humor, the fact that we're playing the women in the sketch reduces the level of reality and it makes a bit more acceptable and allowable somehow, doesn't it?
Yeah. So much of being creative is instinctive. You just write characters and then when we see it all together, we go, "Oh my God, they're all women, or they're all gay, or whatever." It's just the way it turns out - it's what we do, I suppose.
We don't want to take credit for everything because both Michael Patrick Jann and David Schwimmer [director of the live audience segments] have been incredibly collaborative and had an input into scripts.
And our crew. We can be quite demanding, in that, you know, sometimes you're filming a sketch, and, something isn't working or it's the day before a sketch and you have an idea that you know will make the sketch a lot better. Something was missing and you just suddenly feel, "Oh my God, we need a character to do this." And suddenly costume and makeup both get a call, and they're told they have to come up with a new outfit or a new makeup. And we've been working with people who never said no. They always said, "OK, let's find a way to make it work." When you watch the Bitty sketch that bizarre wig I'm wearing is actually the wig that was set on fire in another sketch.
No expense spared. It's likened to being a magician in a way...When you think of something and then you turn up the set and the thing that you've asked for is sort of just there. A space suit for you to wear as Bing Gordyn or they've mocked up these photos of his life. And you think, "Wow, this is kind of great."
It's true we're not the hardest working people on the show, that's for sure.