Why isn’t the Koala a Real Bear?

Because it doesn’t have the right koalafications.

Sharing this joke with a group of mates in your local Aussie pub may see you escape shouting the next round of drinks, depending on how well your friends respond to the stereotypical pun. However if the same joke were to be repeated in, say Spain, you might see yourself greeted by the awkward silence of a bewildered crowd… and be lucky to escape the second coming of La Tomatina initiated by the bemused locals.

Comedy and humour are culturally specific. Whilst a person slipping on a banana peel is universally accepted as amusing, the more subtle and unique humour encapsulated within a comedy show from a specific country cannot be so easily translated across cultures. As Susan Purdie explains in her book Comedy: the Mastery of Discourse , comedy finds its niche in breaking rules of language and behaviour.  While all cultures may laugh at the same ‘rule’, such as the slapstick hilarity of the banana peel scenario, in many cases these ‘rules’ are context specific.

Kim's 'hornbag' looks were lost in translation by casting Selma Blair as Kim in the US version.

Kim’s ‘hornbag’ looks were lost in translation by casting Selma Blair as Kim in the US version.

Kath and Kim typifies a failed attempt to export a local Australian comedy series. Many key points of humour in the show fell short of laughs in the ‘copycat’ American version. For example, while self-proclaimed ‘hornbag’ Kim (played by Gina Riley) suffered constant jibes from her mother about her ‘muffin top’ in the Australian series, the irony of this situation was lost in translation by casting slender Selma Blair as Kim in the US version.

However, when the FORMAT of a comedy show, rather than the program in its entirety, is exported and adapted to suit another culture, the result can be very different.

Satirical panel game comedy show Good News Week was a huge success in Australia during both of its two runs between 1996 and 2012. Hosted by comedian Paul McDermott, the show drew its humour from Australian current affairs, topical news issues and important media and political figures.  Here is a typical example of McDermott’s opening monologue, in which he cleverly summarises the news of the week, in this case- Julia Gillard taking over leadership of the Labour Party in 2010.

With jabs and jibes specific to Australian culture, it is little wonder this show was well received, averaging a rating of 7.5/10 over its airtime.

Many people are unaware that Good News Week was originally based on British satirical panel game show Have I Got News for You which remains one of the leading television shows in British comedy to this day. Broadcast for over 40 complete series, the program was the first collective act to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 British Comedy Awards. Once again, this show drew its humour from current affairs, however in this scenario, from issues relevant to Britons.

While comedy and humour remain generally remain unique to a culture, it appears that the FORMAT of comedy is a product that, just as with many cultural forms, adheres to the modern notion of ‘glocalisation’, of fashioning a universal product to local preferences. Perhaps your safest bet in Spain would be a bull joke. They are usually well herd.

The Mixing Bowl of Modern Culture

Is MacDonalds contributing to the homogenisation of cultures around the world?

Travelling around Europe last year I was fascinated to discover that several of my friends differentiated capital cities not by their defining landmarks or historical monuments, but rather by the fond memories of the ‘golden arches’ they had visited. Rome’s colosseum was overshadowed by the stuffed ‘Pizzarotto’, The Eiffel Tower melted into the background of Paris when budgeting Australian tourists caught wind of ‘le Croque McDo’. McDonalds: the one stop fast food shop for apprehensive travellers. A universal icon, global corporation and prime example of globalisation in action.

However, while on the surface McDonalds may reflect standardised international tastes in a global mixing bowl of cultures, national menus containing products and flavours specific to each country display that societal traditions continue to defy cultural homogenisation. Cultures have merely embodied the concept of hybridisation-the mixing of the old and new, the traditional and the modern, in an attempt to make imported products relatively unique to a local place.

This cultural hybridisation extends beyond a culinary lens to encompass all aspects of popular culture; from films, to sport, music and lifestyle. Dr April Henderson’s article Dancing Between Islands: Hip Hop and the Samoan Diaspora explores the “cross-fertilisation” of hip hop from its origins in urban California to many locations where Samoans have settled. Following their original involvement in street dance and rap in California in the 80s, Henderson explains that Samoan dancers developed a calibre of “popping” equal to that of the US form. Bonnie Tamati, a young Samoan woman who took part in the female popping competition at the 2000 Aotearoa Hip Hop Summit in Christchurch, reinterpreted Samoan dance moves to the beat of a heavy bass funk.  Her performance received enthusiastic praise and recognition from the audience who appreciated how Tamati had tied both traditional and modern art forms together, breaking down cultural barriers in the process (Henderson 2006, p 189). As is the case with the global transmission of McDonalds, the hybridisation of two seemingly opposing cultures in this scenario demonstrates the coexistence of both traditional and modern culture and the intrinsic formation of new identities.

Closer to home, The Warrumpi Band were the first Indigenous musicians to release a rock song in the Luritja dialect of the Aboriginal language, marking an important step in hybridising Indigenous and modern Australian culture.

Today we all know Gurrumul as a prominent figure in Australian music. While his highly emotive songs are sung in the traditional Aboriginal languages of Galpu, Djambarrpuynu and Gumatj, they also contain an “extraordinary combination of traditional Aboriginal culture, modern and gospel church music and other musical influences” in a style that has journalist Tony Cornwell has described as having the ability to “transcend cultural barriers”.

From these examples, it is clear that globalisation is leading, not to the extinction or homogenisation of traditional cultures; but rather, just as with any process of evolution, a unique combination and mutation of both the new and old in a move that is redefining cultures and identities around the globe. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next time I visited my local McDonalds, kangaroo kebabs were at the top of the menu.