#Television in Translation

Tomato, Tomahto: Comedy in Translation

Professor Sue Turnbull identifies that “comedy plays an absolutely pivotal role in the construction of national identity” (Turnbull 2008). If this is the case it is interesting then to imagine nationally appreciated comedy out of context. It would be fair to assume that comedy is not so restricted as to be solely appreciated by audiences of its origin – stand-up comedians are one example of comedy successfully taken out of a national context – however Australian TV shows such as Kath and Kim or Summer Heights High have had less than successful responses overseas. Despite being hugely popular in Australia, the US adaption of Kath and Kim fell flat. Similarly, the controversial yet widely viewed series Summer Heights High either lost its meaning with foreign audiences or was too offensive.

Both these examples indicate a connection between comedy and national identity, particularly in Australia, however this is not always the case. The Office is an example of a comedy TV show which, when re-adapted by the US, rivalled the success of the original UK version, suggesting that comedy in translation is not always doomed to fail. Films have also shown success in this regard, the French film Le Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game) was adapted by Hollywood in 2010, titled Dinner for Schmucks. In this case, while the story remained relatively intact in the adaption, the nature of the humour was altered. While the original contained jokes about “casual infidelity, vinegary wine, outrageous Belgian accents and… doctors who make house calls” (Alter 2010), the US interpretation referenced “gonorrhoea, the clitoris, pompous modern artists and public humiliation” (Alter 2010).

Perhaps this is the key: conceptual comedy. In this case, while the concept of the two films were the same, it was the intricacies of the humour which were altered in the adaption. Turnbull suggests that comedy reflects national identity as it “invites us to belong… especially if we turn our attention to what the joke implies in terms of sharing and belonging” (Turnbull 2008). Comedy in translation can involve internationally appreciated concepts, but it is the detail of the comedy which appeals to national audiences and ultimately generates success in the translation.


Alter, E 2010, ‘Film Review: Dinner for Schmucks’, Film Journal International, 29 July, viewed 12 September

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 December, pp. 111-115.