Australian television series Kath and Kim is notoriously funny and on the odd occasion is a bit bizarre, yet it caters to the Australian sense of humour. This is crucial as Sue Turnball acknowledges the significance of comedy in shaping one’s sense of national identity and moreover highlights that comedy like Kath and Kim “invites us to belong by sharing the joke” (Turnball, 2008, p.111). So why was there so much backlash over the American appropriation of Kath and Kim?
In 2008, American network NBC aired its first episode of Kath and Kim, an Americanised translation of the Australian comedy starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair. The program was met with a long list of criticisms despite the episode paralleling that of the Australian series both “in terms of plot and structure” (Turnball, 2008, p.112). The lack of enthusiasm for the American version of the television comedy can only be attributed to a missing link in comedic appreciation. An Australian audience failed to value the American spin-off as it was described to have “been slimmed down, toned up and ironed flat for American network television because that is what an American audience wants and expects from a sitcom” (Turnball, 2008, p.115).
As Turnball accedes, “the successful translation of a comedy depends not only on the translation of the cultural context from one locale to another” (Turnball, 2008, p.115) but also hints at the importance of understanding the joke. The most notable failure of comedic understanding in a cross-cultural setting is attributed to Chris Lilley’s humorous and satirical work on programs such as Ja’mie: Private School Girl. Lilley’s portrayal of a self-obsessed teenager, Ja’mie, was met with admiration in Australia (I especially remember laughing about how funny and yet accurate the depiction of the Aussie teen stereotype was during lunch times at high-school) yet the jokes Lilley made about teen girls and the boy-crazed lifestyle they lead was not found to be so comical in other Western nations. This is just another obvious example of humour not crossing cultural borders, an occurrence that has happened many times before.
Should we be so quick to judge another nation’s interpretation of comedy? Is it necessary to translate comedy on a global global scale? “Comedy after all, is a cultural and social practice” (Turnball, 2008, p.111).
– Turnball, 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: December
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