Breaking Comedic Rules & How Comedy Translates

This week we had Sue Turnbull lecture us on the translatability of comedy over various cultures, exploring local television in a global context. Sue used ‘Kath and Kim” as her major case study, whilst also mentioning other comedies that have been translated over cultures; such as ‘Jonah from Tonga’ and ‘The Office’.

From the case studies used in the lecture, it soon became quite clear that there was a problem with comedy. Comedy does not translate over cultures. Especially from the US to the UK, or vice-versa. But why? Why do people in America find funny what those in England or Scotland do not?

There are two comedic theories which explore possible reasons for this. The first is Susan Purdies ‘breaking of rules’ theory, and the latter is Andy Medhurst ‘triangle’ or ‘three point’ theory.

Susan Purdie theorises that comedy depends on the breaking of rules of language and behaviour. This idea of breaking rules, completely relies on the culture or society you live in. Purdie explains, for the audience to know the rule, for the audience to notice a break in the rule.

e.g. People in Alaska may not find a joke about Tony Abbott funny.

This is known as cultural specificity, and from this derives adaptation. Adaptation, according to this rule is surely needed so that comedy can suit where it’s being played.

Here is a practical example. Think about why this gif humorous, and how it breaks ‘rules’.


It challenges stereotypes like;
Women’s clothing & colours
Long hair (generally related to women)
Feminine movement
Yet he’s a man!

However, (hypothetically) if this was seen by a culture which views cross-dressing as normal and pink as a manly colour. They would not recognise this rule as being broken.

The second theory, Sigmund Freud denotes that humour could be broken down into three elements.

The teller
The receiver
The ‘butt’ of the joke.

This means that jokes are always aimed to denote someone. Palmer explores the butt of a joke as a method of raising ourselves up in cultural society. ’jokes, told throughout the Western world, conventionally link the butt with the character traits of stupidity or stinginess [in order to create humour].’ (Palmer, 61) Relating back to cultural specificity, since cultural societies are different, the members of society send themselves up in different ways. This means that different cultures will have different ‘butts’ to their jokes, and will find different comedy funnier.

This lecture – although it seemed less academic (due to its subject matter ‘Comedy’) – provided a level of analysis which prompted several questions, and continues to prompt more. These theories have helped me understand how comedy translates into different cultures. I encourage you to explore further, asking questions like: Who is generally the ‘butt’ of the joke is your favourite programs? Is comedy the only genre that needs adaptation to be successful overseas? And are there any other theories that help you understand how comedy works, locally and internationally?

Reference List:

Palmer, Jerry. Taking Humour Seriously, London, New York: Routledge, 1994.

Further Readings.

Mulder, M.P & Nijholt, A. Humour Research: State of the Art, Netherlands, Enschede: TKI-Parlevink Research Group

  • This source explores the Superiority theory, in which states; jokes maintain the established social roles and divisions within a society. They can strengthen roles within the family, within a working environment and everywhere there exists an in-group and out-group. When [ethnic] jokes are concerned, jokers choose groups very similar to theirs as the target of the joke only to focus on the mutual differences and in that way strengthen the established divisions between the two groups. (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3)

Turnbull, S (2010) ‘The long tail of mother and son: the transnational career of an Australian situation comedy’. Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, no. 134, pp. 96.

Miller, J.L. (2010) ‘Ugly Betty goes global: Global networks of localized content in the telenovela industry’. Global Media and Communication, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 198-217.

Turnbull, S (2004) ‘Look at Moiye, Kimmie, look at moiye’: Kath and Kim and the Australian comedy of taste’. Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, no. 113, pp. 98 – 109


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