In early 2016, James Farrell, then head of content at Amazon Studios for Japan, was looking for original programming to help the streamer gain a foothold in the region.
After months of searching, Farrell recently recalled that he was open to any concept, no matter how strange or unconventional. Later, over a late night dinner, Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of the country's most prominent comedians, pitched Farrell an idea that the Japanese networks would never allow. It involved 10 comedians getting together in a room and trying to make each other laugh. The last person to keep a straight face wins.
It may not seem like it. But “I thought, 'That's it, this is it,'” said Farrell, now vice president of Los Angeles-based Amazon Studios. “I knew this was the monster I was looking for.”
The resulting show, a four-episode, approximately three-hour comedy game show called Hitoshi Matsumoto Presents: Documentary, quickly became one of Japan's most popular shows on Prime Video, with a cult following. It has developed a huge fan base and has aired for the past 13 seasons. 8 years.
It also launched a vast international franchise with local versions in more than a dozen territories around the world. Although rebranded overseas as “LOL: Last One Laughing,” the format is nearly identical to the one originally proposed by Matsumoto, with each version featuring contestants from Japan's top comedians and comedy actors. are collecting. Now it has been held repeatedly in Italy, Mexico, Spain, France, Canada (in both French and English), Denmark, and Colombia, and almost without exception has found enthusiastic audiences in its home country.
“On paper, the idea of people not laughing for hours on end doesn't seem funny,” said comedian Graham Norton, host of the Irish version of LOL, which premieres on Friday. “And yet, when you watch it, you realize it's fun. It's weirdly funny.”
Comedy antics can be prepared or improvised, and are often funny. But what's really convincing are the contestants' nervous efforts to contain their laughter. They groan and scream. Their faces twitch and become violently contorted. There is a feeling of frenzied despair. Actress Anke Engelke, who appeared on “LOL Germany,” said, “I think this is like a psychological experiment, a human experiment.” “It's an intense experience.”
In the early days, the series' success seemed not guaranteed. Even after the “documentary” was a huge success, Farrell and his colleagues had trouble convincing other regional producers to give the format a try. Part of the problem was the Japanese version's style of humor, which was vulgar and scatological. Some contestants stripped naked to piss off their competitors, and the gags were sometimes wildly suggestive. “If you show this to other countries, they'll say, 'Well, you don't have to be naked, right?'” Farrell said.
German comedian Michael Brie Helbig, host of LOL Germany, was immediately removed from the show. “I thought it was too weird,” he said. The show's German production company, Constantin Entertainment, persuaded Helbig that its show would be a more family-friendly version. He ultimately agreed, mainly because he thought “LOL Germany” would be a niche show. He said: Let's try it. No one will see it anyway. ”
Instead, the series became the most streamed series on Amazon Prime Video in Germany, spanned four seasons and a Christmas special, and was recently nominated for an International Emmy Award. “No one could have imagined how successful this would be,” Helbig said. “This is the best job I've ever had.”
“LOL Germany” was made by Germans, for Germans, and despite being nominated for an Emmy, it has not found an audience in other countries. According to Farrell, the only people who watch “LOL Germany” abroad are Germans living abroad. That's true for each version of the show. “LOL France” is gaining popularity among French viewers. “LOL Mexico” is loved not only in Mexico but also in Mexico. This is specific, highly localized content completely by design.
About the only place “Last One Laughing” hasn't been a hit is the United States. Farrell said Prime Video's U.S. programming team has created a wide range of widely accessible action and fantasy films that appeal to audiences around the world, including “Reacher,” “Rings of Power” and “The Boys.” He is said to be in charge of spectacle works made with large budgets, such as blockbusters.
“But for the price of one big show in the U.S., you can make 20 versions of 'LOL.' And those 20 'LOL's, when added up, are as effective as any of the big tent poles.” There is,” Farrell said. According to Amazon, “LOL France” Season 3 had the biggest first-day launch in Prime Video history, and “LOL Italy” was the most-watched Italian show.
This allows “LOL” to freely incorporate cultural specificity. The Japanese version was overly vulgar. Germans are milder and more PG. Although the format never changes, the national flavor of humor makes each version feel unique.
“One of the things I enjoy about this show is that they didn't try to make it bland or international like a lot of modern TV is,” Norton said. said. “The Irish version is “very Irish,'' he says. “Many of the references in the show are deep references to Ireland and will not be understood by UK viewers.” (A potential British version is rumored, but not confirmed.)
Not all versions of “LOL” were hugely successful. The Australian, Hindi and Tamil versions each had only one season. But because “LOL” is so cheap and quick to produce (the series takes about a day and a half to film) and features a group of well-known comedians, “it's always at least okay,” Farrell said. . .
“It's not something you can actually bomb,” he added. “The floor is really high.”