Kath & Kim: Lost in Translation
When news came that I had to do a presentation on Australia’s hit comedy Kath & Kim, I felt like the bees’ knees. Talking about Kath, Kim, Sharon and the rest of the gang for five minutes felt like the best assignment ever. But when I came across the American remake starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair, I was a little sceptic. Okay, I was very sceptic. It just wasn’t working.
Sue Turnball in her text, It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught it in Embroidery: Television Comedy in Translation (2008), sums it up quite perfectly.
“Gina Riley’s forty-plus, size-sixteen Kim in a bad wig is now played by the 36-year-old, size eight, conventionally pretty Selma Blair…”
The gap between how a character imagines himself/herself to be and how they appear to be to the audience has lost its role and place.
“If this was a major hit in Australia, then something has been seriously lost in translation.”
As mentioned in her text, it seems the American Kath Day and her daughter Kim “are not monstrous enough to be clichés, stereotypes, parodies or even brave enough to be abhorrent or funny,” and even though the show was always intended to be a new imagining of the show and not a copy, is that what they did?
So what does work?
While both versions of Kath and Kim have their floral prints, mid-drifts and hairstyles in common, comic adaptation is much more than the script and how the character looks. It’s everything from their gestures, the way they raise their eyebrow, their voice – the little things that define that character as their own.
Take Ugly Betty or originally Yo Soy Betty la Fea, for example, that show has been adapted and reproduce in twenty different countries within 14 years, and no doubt a notable mention goes to the US version of Ricky Gervais’ The Office
Jade Miller in her text, Ugly Betty goes global: Global Networks of localized content in the telenova industry, (2010), argues that the production of a cultural product needs to be palatable on both a local and global level. While the universal plot of Ugly Betty stayed the same – the ugly duckling falling in love and emerging with an inner beauty for the world to see – a lot of things have been localised and that it what makes it work. These include things from the name of the show, the name of the character, where ‘Betty’ works and even the plot and style of the show.
So as Miller suggests, the formula for Ugly Betty’s succcess was combining a universally appealing story and style (theme of social divisions, love and success) with ‘localisable specifics’ (characters, location and social environment) that viewers could easily identify with in terms of their own culture.
So can humour be translated? Yes but the joke won’t be the same
What the US Kath and Kim needed to do was to make the characters their own in a way that would truly appeal to the US audience, they needed to re-contextualise the series for an American audience more effectively – finding their own features to exaggerate – and not have size eight Selma Blair walking around in midriffs as a character who’s always been loved for her muffin top.
We feel ya Sharon.