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Fawlty Translation

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But before Cleese-a-holics do a rapid silly walk to their televisions, they should study the dismal track records of U.K. comedies remade on these shores.

When “Absolutely Fabulous,” with its outrageous dialogue and perennially soused characters, aired on Comedy Central, it became a cult classic. But it was a dud when CBS Americanized it in 1995 as “High Society,” with Mary McDonnell and Jean Smart. And while the original “Men Behaving Badly” has lasted 6 seasons in Britain, its evil U.S. twin with Rob Schneider was recently put on indefinite hiatus midway through its second season.

CBS’s “Fawlty Towers” remake will be the third American try at translating the acerbic Brit comedy, which featured Cleese as an inept hotel owner with a bossy, know-it-all wife. In 1978, Harvey Korman starred as a hotelier in ABC’s “Snavely”; the show left an instant vacancy when it was yanked after its pilot aired. Cleese was displeased by that version. “Here was a noticeable attempt to reassure the audience that the people in the show were all right,” Cleese once said. “Korman would . . . allow little moments of warmth to creep in. Disastrous.”

ABC tried again in 1983 with “Amanda’s,” starring Bea Arthur in Cleese’s role, albeit a slightly more feminine version. The show lasted just six episodes. (“Fawlty Towers” also had a very limited number of new episodes — just 6 in 1975 and 6 in 1979. But there was a good reason: Cleese took extra time to write each show.)

Despite the dreary U.S. track record with Brit-coms, “Royal Payne” isn’t doomed to failure. After all, the creators of “Cheers” Glen and Les Charles have said that their Boston-based barroom comedy hit was developed with “Fawlty Towers”‘s farcical style in mind. And the hugely successful John Ritter/Suzanne Somers comedy “Three’s Company” (1977-1984) was based on the British comedy, “Man About the House.” These two shows don’t equal a Boston Tea Party, but you take the victories where you can get them.

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