Lost in Translation: Is Comedy a Universal Language?

Inbetweeners: A worldwide success - so why have an American version?

Inbetweeners: A worldwide success – so why have an American version?

Is comedy truly translated? Is what one culture finds humorous have the same effect on another culture?

Susan Purdie in Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse argues that comedy is about breaking the rules of language and behavior, but first we have to know what the rules are and while all cultures may laugh at the same kind of rules being broke, the rules may be different in different contexts.

Considering Purdie’s argument, it would be presumed that Australia, UK and the US (being Western countries) would be able to translate comedy easily. However, with notable exceptions (such as The Office remake) comedy has proved to translate with much difficulty.

One example on Britain’s E4 channel, which is well-known for its television successes such as The Inbetweeners, Skins, and Misfits. The Inbetweeners has so far spawned 3 seasons and a very successful movie and is very popular for its dark and awkward humor.

The TV series was then remade on US’ MTV, but was an immense failure and cancelled following its first season due to a lack of ratings, despite the massive popularity of the original. Critics of the American version argue that the actors in the US version lacked the authenticity that the UK perfected. Sue Turnbull addresses this in her article, claiming performance plays a large part into the success of comedy. So, similar to how a joke being repeated eventually loses its humour, perhaps this can be applied to television comedy as well.

As depicted in the video below, the joke isn’t anymore original or more funny (does anyone even use ‘turd’ anymore?).

So how can one predict whether a comedic television show will translate effectively? well as Turnbull states

“The successful translation of a comedy depends not only on the translation of the cultural context from one locale to another, but also on the kinds of production deals which are made and the expectations about audiences which are the inferred.”

With so many factors depending on the success of the show, it can be a large gamble to translate a show from one culture to another. Or perhaps, in the case of The Big Bang Theory, its the laughing track that makes it successful.


One thought on “Lost in Translation: Is Comedy a Universal Language?

  1. Pingback: What have I learnt so far?.. | Valid Issues No Tissues

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