Ah, those ‘had to be there’ moments, when your trying your hardest to tell a joke or story that you find completely hilarious but you’re just met with blank faces and questioning eyes. Funnily enough, these ‘had to be there’ moments occur across television shows, specifically comedies. For a television show to translate across another culture and still hold comedic value, the audience ‘has to be there’: ‘there’ implying part of the culture.
Turnbull (2008, p. 112) cites Andy Medhurst, who claims that ‘comedy plays an absolutely pivotal role in the construction of national identity.’ What classifies as ‘funny’ is therefore going to differ between cultures, as each nation has a different identity and social rules. According to Susan Purdie’s Comedy Theory 1, comedy depends on the breaking of social rules of language and behaviour. Once we recognise these breaks, we laugh. But, in order for us to recognise these breaks, we must first identity and understand what these rules are. This justifies the cultural specificity of comedy and explains why comedy is often lost in television translation. If a person had no idea of the social rules within a nation, then watching a comedy exported from that specific nation would be a very confusing and boring experience: the exact opposite of what comedy is supposed to be.
A perfect example of comedy being lost in translation is none other than our very own Kath & Kim, and the American attempt at its remake. The US Kath & Kim was met with scepticism by Australian critics and audiences, and has been dubbed as a pale imitation of the original. The first episode of the US remake was pretty much a scene-for-scene copy of the original first episode in terms of plot and structure, with significant alterations in an attempt to please its American audience. But, by copying the first episode, it was inevitable that the show would ultimately fail, as the American culture simply just doesn’t get the joke. Turnbull (2008, p.115) quotes Variety magazine’s Brian Lowry, who states that ‘if this was major hit in Australia, then something has been seriously lost in translation.’ And that something, according to Turnbull, is irony – in this case, the gap between how a character imagines him/herself to be and how they actually appear to the audience. In the Australian version, the funniest aspect of the show is the staggering difference between the way Kath & Kim view themselves to how the audience views them. Something that is lost in the US version of Kath & Kim is this difference. The fundamental joke of the Australian series is that the actors were constantly trying to exaggerate their worse features. Kim imagines herself as a size 10 ‘horn-bag’, when in reality Gina Riley is a middle-aged, size sixteen, voluptuous woman. Whilst, in the American version, Kim is played by 36-year-old, size 8, Selma Blair, a beautiful, young, slim actress. This completely removes the irony from the character, as the ‘worst features’ that the American Kim is trying to exaggerate are non-existent. As Marieke Hardy noted, it is difficult to not dislike the way that “she juts out her tiny belly and plays at being a fat person” (Turnbull 2008, p. 112). This loss of irony is the cause for the loss of comedy; the audience is just left confused as to why she is behaving the way she is.
Perhaps successful remakes are those that have been inspired by different global comedic markets and culturally adapted, instead of those just copied scene-for-scene with no consideration as to how the culture will react. Keep that in mind NBC. Better luck next time.
The US version and it’s similarities and differences with the Australian Kath & Kim
Turnbull, S 2008, ‘It’s like they threw a panther in the air and caught it in embroidery’: TELEVISION COMEDY IN TRANSLATION, The Australian Teachers of Media Inc, St Kilda, pp. 111-115.
Turnbull, S 2014, ‘Local Television in Global Context’, lecture, BCM111, University of Wollongong, delivered 10 September 2014.
Ziffer, D 2008, US take on Kath & Kim fails to amuse TV critics, image, WA Today, viewed 12 September 2014.