By Leah Hochbaum
Even when comedians speak your own language, sometimes you just don’t get the joke. Some even say that a common language divides the U.S. and the U.K. And even in the Spanish-speaking world, the sheer multitude of pronunciations for a given word could render the same word funny in one country and downright offensive in another. When sitcoms are imported from countries with completely different languages, grasping the humor is that much harder. Local sensibilities and culture clashes can render much of the hilarity lost in translation — which makes selling comedies across borders a risky proposition. So territories across the world are increasingly picking up formats of successful comedies from other countries and tailor-making them for local audiences.
“It’s really another use of the assets we have — the scripts,” said Herb Lazarus, president, International for Carsey-Werner International The company sold the format for alien-centric sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun to Turkey, as well as the format for Grace Under Fire to Russia and Poland, and is currently in talks to do a Spanish version of That ’70s Show in Chile. “We’re using our scripts from the original series,” said Lazarus. “Certain things must be localized, but we’re using the original scripts as the basis.” He adds that the appeal of using local talent is high on broadcasters’ wish lists because viewers are more inclined to tune in to see recognizable faces.
Yet while local talent is key, sometimes it’s more about what jokes viewers will or will not get. Shane Murphy, head of Acquisitions and Development for FremantleMedia Enterprises said his company has acquired a number of sketch comedy shows, and while he believes the genre is specific to the region in which it originates, he also feels that it tends to travel best. “Sketch shows are more likely to travel widely — especially if there’s no linguistic barrier for them to cross,” said Murphy. FremantleMedia’s Comedy Inc., for example, is an Australian sketch comedy show that Murphy expects to do well in other English-speaking locales. Regardless, the company is offering two versions of the series: the full Australian original and an international version that’s been stripped of its Aussie-centric bits to make it travel better.
Other shows worry less about the language barrier and more about how well certain themes will play out in different territories. Little Mosque on the Prairie, a comedy about Muslims in Canada, premiered on the country’s CBC network in January, quickly becoming the channel’s highest-rated series in a decade. While not Canada-focused exactly, the show definitely had a Canadian feel during its first season, according to executive producer Mary Darling. She and her fellow producers are working to change that, consciously opting not to place a Canadian flag in a scene’s background, for example, so that the show will play better to foreign audiences. The program’s producers are currently in negotiation with a number of key territories that seem interested in picking up the series, said Darling. But while Canadians have welcomed Little Mosque with open arms, it remains to be seen if it will play equally as well elsewhere.
“There are situations were the Muslim community is quite different,” said Darling, before adding that in those areas she’s looking to sell a format instead of the original series.
No matter where the powers that be at Little Mosque, Fremantle or Carsey-Werner manage to sell their sitcoms, what ultimately matters isn’t just where the comedy is funny, but whether it is.
“Good programs will always do well,” said Carsey-Werner’s Lazarus.