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Friday, 23 June, 2000, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
The language of laughter
The UK's AbFab and Germany's Stefan Raab
The UK has been exporting comedy shows for decades. Now the Germans want us to tune in to their jokers. Are they having a laugh?

Britain may no longer be the superpower it once was, but its comedians continue to colonise small screens around the globe.

Although television schedules in the UK are fair bursting at the seams with imports from the United States, few comedies from elsewhere in the globe make the peaktime schedule.

Germany plans to change all that. After years of laughing at old British comedies such as Fawlty Towers and the Benny Hill Show, the Germans want to break into the UK market.

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty
Fawlty Towers: Replayed around the globe

Will the belly laughs cross the Channel?

According to Professor Hans-Dieter Gelfert, of the Freie University in Berlin, the Teutonic sense of humour is changing.

Mr Gelfert said young Germans now go for comedy that challenges authority figures and embraces silliness - not dissimilar to what gets a laugh in the UK.

One exponent of this new style is comedian Stefan Raab, who represented Germany in the Eurovision song contest with a nonsensical ditty entitled Wadde Hadde Dudde Da? (What Have You Got There?).

Raab fronts an Ali G-esque show in which he lampoons celebrity guests. However, as he gets laughs at home as much for his East German dialect as for his slapstick jokes, chances are that his humour will get lost in translation.

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Joerg Grabosch, the head of production company Brainpool TV, thinks German comedy can hold its own on the international stage.

"The market is ripe for it. We are setting our sights on the USA, too.

"We believe that Germany has shows the equal of Benny Hill in many of its personalities, if not better."

The company hopes Britons will tune in to performers such as Thomas Gottschalk, described as the Noel Edmonds of Germany.

Brits on screen

As the Germans gear up to sell their comedic wares abroad, British programmes - and channels - continue to attract buyers the world over.

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The rights to the ITV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? went to broadcasters in more than 20 countries, including the US, Germany, Japan, Australia and Russia.

BBC America, a cable channel screening Britcoms and dramas, is now in more than 12 million US homes.

The BBC's Alison Homewood, director of sales to Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India, says the old favourites - 'Allo 'Allo, Absolutely Fabulous, Fawlty Towers - continue to do brisk business.

"Classic comedies sell perennially. For example, Are You Being Served? is huge in Israel - yes, still."

Newer, edgier shows such as the surreal League of Gentlemen and sketch comedy Goodness Gracious Me are also proving popular, she says.

Instead of merely selling the format to successful shows - a process that resulted in the dire sanitised American versions of AbFab and One Foot in the Grave - the BBC now takes the role of executive producer when shows are remade abroad.

Not only is this more lucrative, the resulting product is more likely to be true to the spirit of the original.

The Delhi Tubbies
Goodness Gracious Me: Popular in Europe

Germany, France and India head the list of countries remaking popular comedies - an Indian Yes, Minister is in production, and a German Fawlty Towers in the pipeline.

"These are all countries where local productions are very important because the language is very important.

"France has a quota for programmes in French, and Indian viewers want to see Indians on screen."

As the British population becomes increasingly multicultural, these remakes could make the homeward journey and find an audience back in the UK.

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See also:

15 Jun 00 | Entertainment
Fawlty Towers gets German makeover
13 May 00 | Entertainment
Waxing lyrical for Europe
08 Mar 99 | Entertainment
BBC comedy in a different League
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