Exporting Laughs

Today within the Television industry we see shows being translated into numerous different languages and being shared across national borders. While many people might think this is a positive, there are actually numerous boundaries encountered when the original cultural context is changed. Within each new culture unique sets of values, beliefs, customs and interests are present, which change the way each person approaches TV shows. This is the most apparent in the genre of comedy.

For example:

Kath and Kim U.S version = FAILURE

Kath & Kim
Kath & Kim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whilst The Office U.S version = SUCCESS

The Office cast in the third season
The Office cast in the third season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The genre of comedy according to Andy Medhurst “plays an absolutely pivotal role in the construction of national identity, because it invites us to belong by sharing the joke”, which makes it an appealing form of entertainment. When directors and producers are looking to translate comedies into new audiences and cultures, they do this by either exporting the content completely as is, all over the world like the TV show F.R.I.E.N.D.S which proved a hit world-wide, or they can sell the format of the show to buyers for it to be recreated in a new culture as we see in the reality show Big Brother.

Further, Friends is an example of a TV show that was exported, unaltered, all over the world, to places like Australia, Bulgaria, France, Portugal and Russia. It’s even been popular in China, with the creation a real life, fully functional “Central Perk” cafe (see the clip below). So we can see,  even though China and the U.S have vastly different cultures, some TV shows are transferable between cultures. Perhaps, as the clip suggests, Friends is successful because it focuses on the universal theme of friendship.

What makes television work in different cultures?

Well, no one is really sure. But it is easy to tell why a TV show fails. Sue Turnbull (2008) writes about why Kath and Kim (US) failed. It seems that the most significant reason was casting. The American characters of Kath and Kim were two slim, attractive women who did not at all convey the deluded nature of the Australian originals. As Turnbull notes, the humour in Kath and Kim was derived directly from the characters’ perceptions of themselves as different from reality.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of luck involved in exporting and importing foreign television. Success or failure is dependent on a multitude of factors specific to different cultures, such as political concerns, recent local events and cultural history. What one culture ‘gets’, another doesn’t.

The good news is, with globalisation, sharing of television is occurring more and more frequently, and so we can expect to see more TV shows from all around the world. It’s quite possible the reason some shows fail is that they are simply too ‘foreign’. With increased integration, perhaps it will be easier to understand and share TV, and especially, the world’s comedies.


What foreign comdey television do you watch? Do you understand the humour?

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


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