How ‘Last One Laughing’ Took Over (Most of) the World

In early 2016, James Farrell, then the head of content at Amazon Studios for Japan, was looking for original programming that could help the streamer gain a foothold in the region.

After months of searching, Farrell recalled recently, he was open to any concept, no matter how strange or unconventional. Then, over a late night dinner, one of the country’s most prominent comedians, Hitoshi Matsumoto, suggested an idea to Farrell that he said the Japanese networks had never let him do: Ten comedians gather in a room and try to make each other laugh. The last one to keep a straight face wins.

It might not sound like much. But Farrell, who is now a vice president at Amazon Studios, based in Los Angeles, thought, “‘That’s it — that’s the one,’” he said. “I was so certain that this was the monster I was looking for.”

The resulting program, a four-episode, roughly three-hour comedy game show called “Hitoshi Matsumoto Presents: Documental,” quickly became one of the most popular shows on Prime Video in Japan, producing a rabid fan base and 13 seasons over the past eight years.

Hitoshi Matsumoto pitched “Documental” to James Farrell, then the head of content at Amazon Studios for Japan, in 2016. The show spawned 13 seasons and many spinoffs around the globe.Credit…Sports Nippon/Getty Images

It also launched a sprawling international franchise, with local versions in more than a dozen territories around the world. Rebranded abroad as “LOL: Last One Laughing,” the format remains almost exactly as Matsumoto first pitched it, with each version drawing contestants from its country’s top comedians and comedy actors. It now has iterations in Italy, Mexico, Spain, France, Canada (in both French and in English), Denmark, Colombia and more — each of which, almost without exception, has found an enthusiastic audience in its country of origin.

“On paper, the idea of people not laughing for however many hours doesn’t sound like it’s going to be entertaining,” said the comedian Graham Norton, the host of an Irish version of “LOL” that premieres Friday. “And yet when you watch it, you realize that it is fun — it is oddly entertaining.”

The comedy antics — some prepared, some improvised — are often amusing. But it’s the contestants’ strained efforts to suppress their laughter that are really compelling. They moan and scream; their faces cramp and contort wildly. There’s an air of frenzied desperation. “I think of it almost like a psychological experiment, a human experiment,” said the actress Anke Engelke, who has starred on “LOL Germany.” “It’s an intense experience.”

In its early days, the franchise’s success didn’t seem guaranteed. Even after the runaway success of “Documental,” Farrell and his colleagues had a hard time persuading producers in other territories to take a chance on the format. Part of the problem was the Japanese version’s style of humor, which skewed ribald and scatological: Some of the contestants stripped nude to make their competitors crack up, and the gags could sometimes get outrageously suggestive. “I’d show it to other countries,” Farrell said, “and they’d be like, ‘Uh, we don’t have to get naked, right?’”

Michael Bully Herbig, a German comedian who hosts “LOL Germany,” was put off immediately. “I thought it was too weird,” he said. The show’s German production company, Constantin Entertainment, convinced Herbig that theirs would be a more family-friendly version. He ultimately agreed, in large part, because he assumed “LOL Germany” would be a niche show. As he put it: “I said: ‘You know what? Let’s try it. Nobody will ever see it anyway.”

Instead, it became the most-streamed series on Amazon Prime Video in Germany, spanning four seasons and a Christmas special, and was recently nominated for an International Emmy Award. “Nobody could have ever imagined how successful this would be,” Herbig said. “It’s the best job I ever had.”

“LOL Germany” is made by Germans for Germans, and despite its Emmy nomination it has not found an audience elsewhere: Pretty much the only people watching “LOL Germany” outside of the country, according to Farrell, are Germans living abroad. That’s been the true of each version of the show. “LOL France” is a hit among French viewers; “LOL Mexico” is adored in Mexico and Mexico alone. It is specific, highly localized content, entirely by design.

Pretty much the only place “Last One Laughing” is not a hit is the United States. Prime Video’s American programming teams, Farrell said, are responsible for big-budget spectacles such as “Reacher,” “The Rings of Power” and “The Boys” — broad, widely accessible action and fantasy blockbusters that draw audiences across the world.

“But for the price of one of those big U.S. shows, I can make 20 versions of ‘LOL,’ and in aggregate those 20 ‘LOL’s will do as well as any of the big tent-poles,” Farrell said. According to Amazon, the third season of “LOL France” had the biggest day-one launch ever on Prime Video, and “LOL Italy” is its most watched Italian show.

That allows “LOL” the freedom to lean into cultural specificity. The Japanese version had its over-the-top raunchiness; the Germans are milder and more PG. Though the format never changes, each version, owing to the national character of the humor, feels unique.

“One of the things I enjoy about the show is that they didn’t try to make it bland, or international,” like so much of contemporary TV, Norton said. “The Irish version “is so Irish,” he said. “Lots of the references in the show are deep-dive Irish references, things that a U.K. audience wouldn’t even understand.” (A possible British version has been rumored, though not confirmed.)

Not every iteration of “LOL” has been a resounding success: The Australian, Hindi and Tamil versions only had one season apiece. But because “LOL” is so inexpensive and quick to produce (it takes about a day and a half to shoot a series), and because it features a group of famous comedians, “it’s always going to do at least OK,” Farrell said.

“It isn’t something that can really bomb,” he added. “The floor is really high.”

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