“Comedy is by far the most difficult genre, the one that demands the most work, the most talent, and also the most humility.’- Francois Truffaut
Despite its on-screen levity, comedy has been known for decades as a deceptively difficult genre to successfully produce. Even more so, the art of adapting comedy programs for transnational viewing has all too often fallen short of expectations. While it isn’t always the case, as seen in the US and German adaptations of hit UK comedy program, The Office; many translations seem to struggle in the international sphere.
So why do we adapt television series’, why not just show the original?
Well, for much of history television has been bound to national territory. Foreign broadcasters were not allowed to transmit in other territories, and doing so was in breach of sovereignty! Obviously, this is no longer the case, with the ties between nation and television unravelling, and cross-border TV channels reigning supreme.
Though programs can now be viewed transnationally, there are still remnants of this attitude found in the way our media is produced. The tendency for producers to adapt programs is prompted by what is known as the ‘cultural proximity principle’, whereby audiences are thought to be attracted to products that are ‘as close to them as possible in cultural content and style.’ While some tweaking is often necessary, due to the presence of cultural or political ‘in-jokes’, comedy adaptations often remove what made the program a hit in the first place!
Take the hit UK comedy The Inbetweeners for example, referred to in the New York Times as ‘filthy, hilarious and true to actual teenage life’. The original program received rave reviews from international audiences, who found the unabashedly vulgar comedy both refreshing and relatable.
Then, four years after the original, a US adaptation was released by MTV in the hope of ‘localising’ the program for an American audience. The format followed the British comedy, focused on four awkward teenage boys on their journey through adolescence, with a very similar script. The attraction of the original program was lost, however, and after suffering from low ratings the show was cancelled after just twelve episodes.
But, if the program was almost identical, how did it fail so abysmally?
This video provides a clear overview of scenes in both the US and UK versions, where it’s clear to see how the adaptation falls short.
Firstly, some of the misfortune can be blamed on stricter US television restrictions, where federal law prohibits obscene, indecent or profane content from being broadcast from 6am to 10pm. The original Inbetweeners often used colourful language and sexual references to enhance the comedy, making it truer to life. The US version had to significantly reduce this, and in doing so the program lost some of its teenage ‘charm’.
In a move that should probably be offensive to the American population, the US version often lacked the build-up and subtlety of the original, because producers believed it would ‘go over the viewer’s heads’. In localising the program, the makers effectively ‘dumbed it down’, removing story progression in favour of quick-delivered humour.
Overall, the US adaptation of The Inbetweeners underestimated the American audience, resulting in an “intolerably bland show”, as David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle put it. In repackaging the successful comedy to suit local viewing, it lost a large portion of its charm, wittiness and grit, leaving viewers disappointed.
Chalaby, JK 2005, Transnational Television Worldwide: Towards a New Media, IB Tauris & Co, New York.
Federal Communications Commission 2016, Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts, Consumer and Governmental Affairs, Washington DC.
Horton, A 2015, A Companion to Film Comedy, Wiley Publishers, West Sussex, UK.
Straubhaar JD 2007, World Television: From Global to Local, Sage Publications, London.