Comedy can be defined as an art form that relies on culturally specific character types and references to cater to audiences taste in humour. Purdie (1993) states that comedy depends on the breaking of rules in language and behaviour, laughter signifying that we recognise these rules and know that they have been broken. Therefore comedy may be difficult to translate and not always understood, as societal rules may differ in cultures and countries.
Localising television shows may involve shifts in language, cultural norms and even a completely new cast is order to accommodate to different tastes of an international audience.
“Humour, and thus comedy formats, most drama, relying as it does on some unavoidable specificities of character and place, and of course the vast bulk of news and current affairs, remain stubbornly resistant to exploitation in a multiplicity of markets”. (Cunning ham and Jacka, 1996)
The success of the translation, however, depends not only on this cultural context translation, but also on the kinds of production deals that have been made and the expectations about audiences that have been inferred. The choices about the casting are equally important, ensuring that they embody the performance.
The original UK series of ‘The Office’ was said to be the most successful British comedy exports to date, with rights sold in 8 different countries. The changed delivered a re-cast and re-naming of many characters in attempt to reinvent the show, in particular the main characters. Turnbull (2008) discusses that the main characters were all better looking and more upbeat than the original English version, Ricky Gervais’ pudgy-faced David Brent became Steve Carrell’s clean- cut Michael Scott.
“While these superficial forms of cultural translation are of interest, the more significant and revealing instances are apparent in the rather-harder-to pin down shifts in tone and ideology conveyed through the embodied performance of the actors.” (Turnbull, 2008).
Ricky Gervais explains the reasoning behind these changes, noting that American’s don’t use sarcasm and irony as socially as British society. (Gervais, 2011)
This same success was hoped for one of Australia’s favourite sitcom, ‘Kath and Kim’. America’s NBC premiered a remake of the show due to it’s popularity in Australia and the UK.
The re-make of the show was deemed as a “comedy that goes into the record books on these shores as a contender for worst remake ever.” (Hellard, 2008)
So the question stands, why didn’t they get the joke?
Well, it seems that there were quite a few things lost through the cultural translation.
Firstly, the irony and satire involved in the Australia version depicted a lifestyle of a ‘not so glamourous’ middle class lifestyle that an American audience seemed not able to relate to. But most obviously, the difference between the Australian and American version is the so-called ‘gap’.
“What has been ‘seriously lost in translation’ is the role and place of irony: in this case, the gap between how a character imagines him/herself to be and how they appear to the audience” (Turnbull, 2008: 115).
Turnbull (2014) explains that in the Australian Kath and Kim, Kim imagines herself as a ‘horn-bag’, size 10 squashing into outfits more suitable for a 12 year old.
While she is over 40 years old,with a bad wig playing a drama-queen teenager, the American Kim is played by the pretty Selma Blair. She is a 36 year old, size 8, who could pass off as an actual tabloid queen like Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan.
Survicing cultural tranldation can be a tricky task. It can either be extremelt successful in cases like ‘The Office’, although when our girls from down under tried to make a big hit in the US, the joke just didn’t translate. It can be said that these comedy are ironed flat and moulded to the Amercian audience taste, but in this case NBC didn’t quite get it right.
Gervais, R 2009, The Difference Between American and British Humour , TIME.com, http://ideas.time.com/2011/11/09/the-difference-between-american-and-british-humour/, Accessed 3 Oct 2014
Peter, H 2008, US critic pans American Kath & Kim as ‘dreadful’, Daily Telegraph, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/us-critic-pans-american-kath-kim-as-dreadful/story-e6frexlr-1111117694643, Accessed 3 Oct 2014
Purdie, S 1993, Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York
Turnbull, Sue 2008, ‘It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught It in Embroidery’: Television Comedy in Translation, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, No. 159: 110-115
Turnbull, S 2014, ‘Local Television in Global Context’, lecture, BCM111, University of Wollongong, delivered 10 September 2014.