By Pip Bulbeck
As Kath and Kim are set to take the US by storm, Pip Bulbeck talks to executive producer Rick McKenna about how the hit show is being translated for American TV audiences.
The TV ratings reports issued each morning at 8.30 are the most anticipated daily event among Australian TV executives and producers. But come October 11, a handful will be watching the US ratings with more than their usual passing interest.
That’s the day after the US version of Kath and Kim premieres on the NBC network, the first time an Australian format will be seen on prime time TV in the US.
“It’s been worth the wait. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Rick McKenna, the Australian show’s executive producer and one of four EPs on the US version alongside Michelle Nader and Kath and Kim’s local creators and stars, Jane Turner and Gina Riley, who have overseen the show’s US development over the past two years.
Kath and Kim, starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair in the title roles, will premiere at 9.30pm on October 9 as part of NBC’s Thursday night comedy night line-up. It will have lead-ins from One Hour, 30 Rock and The Office and will, in turn, provide a lead-in for the final season of long-running NBC drama ER – it’s sitting in some prime TV real estate.
It’s been a bumpy ride to get to this point, according to McKenna, with production to finally get under way this month after a myriad stops and starts, not the least of which was the intervention of the 100-day writers strike just as a pilot was set for production earlier this year.
Indeed Aussies who trekked to Los Angeles for the annual LA screenings of new season TV shows last month were disappointed not to be shown a screener of the pilot.
Nevertheless the show’s development has been championed by no less than NBC chairman and former producer Ben Silverman, who originally obtained the rights to the show for his then production company, Reveille Entertainment, more than two years ago.
NBC agreed to pilot Kath and Kim in January 2007 but casting difficulties, the hiring of new writers, and then the writers’ strike, pushed the pilot back. But when Silverman was appointed to the top position at NBC he decided to fast track the show into the network’s schedule without a pilot being shot.
With Silverman shepherding the project, Kath and Kim is being seen as something of a companion piece to The Office, the US remake of which Silverman also developed and which has grown from strength to strength for NBC.
Rather than a remake, the US version of The Office is an adaptation of the original, an approach that Reveille is also taking with Kath and Kim.
“The approach is true to the spirit and intent of the show,” says McKenna. Indeed, Riley, Turner and McKenna have been very hands on with the adaptation. “Gina and Jane have been working on the script and the characters, and have been delighted at how their input has been taken,” says McKenna. “Overall it’s been a very collaborative experience.”
What’s been surprising to the trio is how well the humour has translated to the US. Many of the jokes they thought Americans wouldn’t appreciate have actually worked – and vice versa.
That’s meant the storylines are the same but the characters, their traits and occupations are somewhat different from their Aussie counterparts. Sharon’s passion for cricket and netball of course doesn’t directly translate, so producers have decided to make Sharon neither sporty nor overweight.
A key turning point in the development of the series was the casting of Selma Blair as Kim. McKenna says Blair gave an “energy and chemistry [with Molly Shannon’s Kath] that gave the show a real lift.”
Indeed Blair’s strength necessitated a rethink of the casting of the key men’s roles, with John Michael Higgins (who co-starred in Fred Clause) and relative newcomer Mikey Day announced as Kath and Kim’s significant others in April. And while Kel may not be a purveyor of designer sausages he “racewalks every morning and gets facial peels”, according to his character’s rundown.
But just how the show’s taglines, “Look at moi” and “Noice, beautiful, different” translate is something McKenna is keeping to himself for now. And as a testament to Riley Turner Productions’ ability to retain control of their product, they will have the final say about where and when Australians get to see the remake as they’ve kept Australian and New Zealand distribution rights for the show.
This article appeared in IF #111 July 2008