Director Michael Patrick Jann on Bringing Little Britain Stateside
Before you came on board were you familiar with Matt and David's BBC show?
I was a little bit familiar with 'Little Britain' before I started working because I've done a lot of commercials in the U.K. and they're huge over there, so you really can't go there without hearing their name come up in comedy circles. But I didn't think anybody really knew who they were over here. Then I would mention to friends of mine that I was working on a new version of 'Little Britain,' saying "you probably never heard of it." And they're like, "Of course I've heard of it. I know every single thing they've ever done." So they [Lucas and Walliams] had a really big following amongst my core group of friends but apparently they were keeping it a secret from me.
They knew all the catch phrases?
Yeah, I had to catch up. Now I know way more than they do, though.
What was the writing process like?
Well, it went on forever because they write the whole show and there's only two of them, so it takes a long time to generate the material. And the process of writing was one of conceptualizing.
The show is still 'Little Britain' but it's not Season Four of 'Little Britain' on the BBC. It's Season One of a new show called 'Little Britain USA' and the idea was that we're bringing characters over because the characters are what 'Little Britain' is all about. The jokes are good but it's really about those guys playing those characters. That's their strength. So the question was how do we bring, say, Vicky Pollard from over there to over here and how do we contextualize her here so she's going to make sense for an American audience? But not Americanize the British characters. We're not going to say "Okay, now Vicky Pollard is a Latino girl who lives in Nebario and Matt's going to come up with this whole other version." She's funny the way she is.
So what's your role as a director, if these guys already have the characters figured out?
Okay, Vicky, for example, how is she going to sound to American ears and - just working on how fast and how slow and what words were okay to be British slang, and what words had to be turned into things that would still be funny? What cadence is going to be right for an American audience?
What's the difference between British humor and American humor?
To me, the biggest thing is language. Somehow the way that they talk is funnier. I'm not sure it comes down to too much other than that. Maybe they have a better education system. I think that American ears hear a British accent and they're like 'Wow, that's classy.' There's a very different reaction to someone who's got a really posh, classy voice. All Americans, on some level, are a little bit Anglophiliac. So when that guy is standing there with a martini, looking and talking like Noel Coward with his d**k hanging out of his pants, it's a totally different joke then when a John Belushi or Chris Farley does it.
The other thing is there's a different style of acting between British actors in general and American actors in general. American actors like Marlon Brando, your iconic actors like Pacino or De Niro - they could go, "You don't know where I'm going and that's what's exciting about this." Whereas British actors, even the classic ones, Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier, are intensely methodical - "I'm going to do exactly this. I'm going do it right here." They figure it all out beforehand.
It's even more pronounced in comedians; American comic actors in my experience are very off the cuff and very spontaneous - "We're gonna walk in the room, we don't know what's gonna happen. I'm gonna go this way, I'm gonna go this way, blah, blah, blah."
So 'Little Britain' was totally different than all the comedy experience I've had before, of being that methodical: "I'm going to have these teeth with this nose and this hair, and I'll look just like this." Not to say that they can't be spontaneous, but most of what's happening has been rigorously thought through beforehand and not in a casual way. You might as well have been building a missile. I don't think that one is better than the other. It's just a different way to approach it and a different mindset.
So of the new American characters, say the gym buddies or Mr. Doggy, or Bing Gordyn, who's your favorite?
It's hard to say. My favorite character is probably Bing Gordyn the astronaut. But Mr. Doggy is hilarious. That was something that we developed slowly through the writing process. It started out as a very different sketch. Now the abusive dog is actually her own voice of self-loathing coming out, but it came up just as we were talking about the original version of it.
What was the original version?
I honestly don't remember exactly what it was, but it had to do with a woman talking to her dog and ignoring her husband - she loved the dog a lot more than her husband. Then, in talking back and forth and being like, 'Well, maybe this doesn't really work all that great,' I think it just came up, fairly spontaneously, of the dog saying something nasty back to her even though it was her voice. And then that turned into one sketch and then one sketch turns into two, turns into three... So it was a fun process in terms of development. Seeing it all the way through like that. It starts with one little joke as you're sitting there staring out the window wondering why things aren't funny and then the next minute you're in North Carolina naked in the trash.
The shoot in North Carolina seemed like a very intense process.
Yeah, the location filming was really, really arduous because Matt and David are in everything. And they prefer to both be in everything, if at all possible. They're often wearing a lot of make-up or women's clothing or fake noses or fake teeth. Matt is always wearing a wig. An unbelievable number of hours go into just putting it together, to the way that they look. Then you have to go out and shoot two or three sketches as well, and those two or three sketches may have different looks. The first time around it took them almost three hours to put them into '40 Glorious Years.' You know, Bing Gordyn is three hours. And it's like an hour and a half to get out of it, too. So on a couple of different days he's just sitting there and then re-shooting for twelve hours in a room that's full of lights, and he's covered in prosthetic foam that looks like a face, but it's not. It's basically like being wrapped in pink insulation all day and then dumped on a hot sidewalk. Then for the second half of the day, they bathe you in ice water and dump alcohol on several paper cuts that you have, and then you do a sketch again. It's really physically difficult for them. It was for everybody but obviously more so for them.
That Bubbles costume probably weighs half as much as Matt and he's trapped inside of it like a cocoon. It's not like skin at all. There's one scene where he's supposed to be laying down on a bed, but it just so happened that the costume was so freaking heavy, he couldn't hold his head up, and he couldn't twist his body. So we devise his pose with pillows, taking twenty minutes between each take to wedge his body into position. That's twelve hours of that in a day. That's not fun. People have the mistaken notion that doing comedy is fun. It's just not. For all you kids out there, don't do it. Get involved in a good drama. Really.
Last question: who do you think makes a better lady, Matt or David?
I have to say basically it's Matt. I'm not even gonna lie about it. I'm trying to say nice things about David as a lady. What's funny about when David does ladies, it's not that they're all like Emily, but it's a guy in drag. But Matt is an awesome lady. She's real - he's, he comes out with the wigs and the clothes and there's no Matt anymore. It's just this lady who stands there. I mean Matt's ladies are very homey, and nice, and snuggly.
David is a guy. David is like six foot-four, you know, and has stubble by eleven thirty every day, and David's ladies are sort of - you'd be sad if you ran into them in a dark alley. You'd wind up with a brick-shaped bruise on the side of your head.�
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