Sharing a laugh?

Klovn (Clown) is a Danish sitcom, whose protagonist Frank is a semi-retired comedian. Danish people are wild about it, as most Danish people are about most Danish things. And you know the old moniker, “When in Copenhagen…”.

The humour in Klovn is derived from everyday situations, social awkwardness and uncomfortable silences. These moments draw upon human truths and so manage to transcend language barriers and cultural differences to elicit laughter. I can’t help but wonder, though, just how much does get lost in translation. Surely nuances, euphemisms and Copenhagen slang lose something in the translation process, especially in a show whose character performances and dialogue rely upon subtleties.

Whilst the Danish culture is not as foreign to Australians as Korean or Indian might be, we are still a uniquely isolated and expansive country – the consequences of which play out in two ways: we find it hard to fathom the immediate accessibility of international travel throughout Europe on one hand, and on the other hand we have established a nation of Australians whose unique ‘Australianess’ is a result of striving to be something different to our European forefathers, a something that is often hard to summarise but easy to pick.

I really felt Australia’s isolation upon moving back here after living in Denmark, where a 20 minute train ride had you in Sweden’s second largest city. Forbrydelsen (The Killing) is a Danish murder-mystery series whose first episode deals with a Danish police officer about to move to a remote part of Sweden and continue her career within the Swedish police force. Again, the murder-mystery is the kind of genre that transcends national boundaries – criminal behaviour and law enforcement are recognisable in some form by people everywhere.

What was a little harder to understand, as an Australian, were the references and inside jokes between the Swedes and the Danes about each other’s countries. Working conditions and responsibility restraints due to nationalities were also an issue for the protagonist – which the succinct dialogue sufficiently explained, but I imagine the gravitas of the situation would’ve been more recognisable to someone who understands the visa agreements between Scandinavian countries. There were also parts of the Danish dialogue that I could understand and recognise that the subtitles did not convey what was being said accurately, in particular references to areas and suburbs within Copenhagen that relied upon demographic knowledge to understand their significance. The English subtitles had no mention of these suburbs at all.

All of this got me to thinking about Kath & Kim, a show so uniquely Australian that it struggles to resonate with transnational audiences. With over 70% of the population living in outer suburbia, Kath & Kim is a celebration of the suburbanite as the true Australian. Its wild success on home turf sparked the USA to create an American re-make, but in doing so was all the good stuff lost? The little things that Kel or Kath or Sharon do that we recognise of ourselves? The suburban environment that resonates with those of us who have grown up in similar environments?

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In response to an article on Flow, ‘Life on Mars as Seen From the United States: The Cultural Politics of Imports and Adaptations’, Jon Stratton (2009) commented:

…[in Australia] we not only get to watch the Australian, original, version of Kath and Kim but also the US version…Watching the American version of Kath and Kim in Australia is a little unsettling–perhaps I should say uncanny. The familiar is made unfamiliar but remains strangely familiar while we are so used to watching American series here that, in a disturbing way, the unfamiliar is actually almost more familiar.

The States have also made their own version of Forbrydelsen / The Killing (which I have not yet seen). It would be interesting to see if the same familiar / unfamiliar sentiment is expressed by the Danes as I’m not sure that the level of American tv infiltration is as high there as it is in our homes amongst the gum trees.