Television Comedy: Lost in Translation

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Comedy is a social and cultural practice and thus plays a pivotal role in every culture across the globe. Comedy makes us laugh, smile and most importantly, unite. As Andy Medhurst suggests, ‘comedy plays an absolutely pivotal role in the construction of national identity’ because it invites us to belong by understanding and sharing the joke (Turnbull 2010, p.159). This is understandable as comedy usually satirises the flaws and imperfections of a given society. However, these flaws and imperfections are not the same across all cultures. Therefore while humour and satire are key ingredients for comedic entertainment across all cultures, it is important to note that the forms of humour and satire are not universal across the globe as jokes and comedic representation must be culturally altered to suit an audience in a specific country. Such issues are specifically evident in television, where the practice of adapting and appropriating TV shows is very common. However, if a television comedy series is not translated properly from one national context to another, then the series will fail. A classic example of a transnational series gone wrong is Australia’s Kath and Kim.

Kath and Kim originated in Australia and proved to be a huge national success that was0-2
appreciated by Australians for its use of niche and ironic humour. The 2002 ABC series follows a dysfunctional relationship of a suburban mother and daughter. As Michelle Webb writes, ‘the humour is derived from local references, garish costuming and cringe-worthy mispronunciations to create a light-hearted parody in representation of the Australian lower middleclass’. Kath and Kim was a success because its social status-based humour appealed to most Australians. The series exaggerated and mocked middle-class suburbia and cultural stereotypes (such as ‘bogans’) which successfully resonated with Australian audiences who embrace self-ridicule. Ultimately, this success was achieved because the Australian writers and producers of the series understood the behavioural and social norms of their Australian cultural identity.

However, in 2008, America’s NBC aired their own adaption of Kath and Kim which proved to be a failure amongst the American audiences. The US version of Kath and Kim did not translate the original features of irony and satire to American audiences that made the show successful in Australia. The original humour of Australian local references did not connect to the offshore audiences as they were not culturally attuned to understanding the Australian-ized content. As Webb writes, ‘the original “spunky ladies” of Fountain Lakes, Melbourne were adapted to wealthy Los Angeles, which lost all sense of the satirical references of middle-class suburbia’. Australian phrases and slangs such as ‘crack open the Tia Maria’,  ‘barbie of commemorative sausages’, ‘manbags’, ‘Maccas’ or ‘the toot’ accentuate the show’s humour as they reflect the social and cultural identity of the Australian language. Naturally, an American audience would struggle to relate to such Australian localised content.

Another key component in the process of comic adaptation which can ‘make or break’ a television series is performance. As Mehurst suggests, comedy is never just about words on the page, comedic meaning also resides in ‘inflection, timing, nuance, gesture, the balance of sound and silence, the unexpected or wilful pronunciation of key words, the raining of eyebrows or the flipping of wrists’ (Turnbull 2010, p.112). Particularly in the Australian version of Kath and Kim, the characters’ performances are humorous because of the irony they exhibit. As Karen Brooks criticises ‘their [the American] Kath Day and her daughter Kim are not monstrous enough to be cliches, stereotypes, parodies or even brave enough to be abhorrent or funny (Turnbull 2010, p.112). It is the ridiculousness of the Australian characters that give them humorous appeal. However, this facet was removed in the US version, as Americans struggled to understand irony as form of sarcastic humour, rather than rudeness. This demonstrates the way in which irony — the gap between how a character imagines him/herself to be and how they appear to the audience — has been lost in translation ( Turnbull 2010, p.115). While Australia’s Kim imagines herself as a horn bag, ‘the actor’s embodied performance works to undercut her character’s belief and to reveal kim as foolish and self-deluded’ (Turnbull 2010, p.115). In contrast, the American Kim is young, attractive, petite and provocative enough to be a tabloid queen. Thus the irony is lost.

In closing, it is clear that practicing comedy is not necessarily universal as it is socially and culturally conditioned across the globe, depending on each society. If television does not accommodate to the cultural and social differences, then comedy will ultimately get lost in translation.

Reference List

Turnbull, S (2008) ‘It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught It in Embroidery’: Television Comedy in Translation’ Metro Magazine Issue 159 Dec

Webb, M 2013, ‘Television, Humour and Transnational Audiences’, The Artifice, 2 December, viewed 10 September 2014, < http://the-artifice.com/television-humour-and-transnational-audiences/>.

zone003 2008, Kath and Kim US Version, 8 October, video, YouTube, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUS7OcQfBwg>.

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