Conversion of Comedy

I am a massive fan of British television, and what I hate most in the world is when American’s try to ‘re-create’ their shows whenever they are out of ideas.

The television shows ‘Fawlty Towers, ‘The Inbetweeners’, ‘IT Crowd, ‘Skins’ and ‘Top Gear’ are among those that Americans have attempted to re-create. They even tried three times with ‘Fawlty Towers’, with each attempt as bad as the previous one.

There is a lot of logic behind ‘translating’ a comedy series. The process of translation involves taking a popular television show and making it relatable to a national audience through culturally specific character types, recognisable actors and cultural references. However, more often than not, these adaptations are un-successful. This post will look into the foundations of comedy and how TV shows can get lost in translation.

Comedy is something out of the norm. It depends on the breaking of the basic rules of language and behaviour, with laughter being the indication of successful recognition of this break.  In order to recognise this break, we need to be aware of the rules. However, certain acts can be recognised as humorous in all cultures. An example of this is ‘Man Getting Hit By Football’ from ‘The Simpsons‘. A man being hit in the groin by a football is typically a universally humorous occurrence.

This discussion brings us to Kath & Kim, a sitcom that ran in Australia from 2002-2007. Kath and Kim was a huge hit in Australia and many overseas countries, including Great Britain. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the team who remade ‘The Office’, when they attempted to recreate Kath and Kim for an American audience. The main problem with US network television is that it is extremely parochial. They found a formula that works and have stuck to it, which is why anything remotely different to this formula fails.

The most significant reason for the failure of the American adaptation was due to the casting. Sue Turnbull states that, “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.” This is apparent in the character of Kim. In the Australian version, Kim is played by middle-aged actress Gina Riley, who sees herself as an in-shape, well-dressed ‘hornbag’, yet the audience sees her in a very different light – and therein lays the irony.  In the American version, the actress playing Kim was a slim, attractive woman who pushed her stomach out to seem fat. The American version failed to grasp the concept of irony behind the character, therefore failing to appeal to the audience.

The success or failure of a television show is dependent on a variety of culturally specific factors, including: current affairs, political concerns and cultural history. With the emergence of globalisation, sharing of television is occurring more frequently, therefore allowing the show to reach a global audience. With an increasing understanding between cultures, television shows are becoming more inter-cultural, therefore appealing to a larger audience.


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