Laughter may be a universal language, but humor has to be translated. And it takes more than a dictionary to find out what’s funny in another culture.
The documentary, “Exporting Raymond,” which opens April 29, tells how the American show “Everybody Loves Raymond” became the Russian show “Everybody Loves Kostya.” The journey began when the show’s American writer-director, Phil Rosenthal, learned that his Russian team wasn’t fully on board with the very concept of a sitcom. A funny situation was hardly enough to base an entire show on, his overseas collaborators told him, as they sat in a television studio that was surrounded by feral dogs.
When Raymond became Kostya, he apparently overcame his position as family buffoon, becoming instead the sort of assertive master of the house Russian tastes dictated. His long-suffering wife, who, in the American version, pushes herself to the edge of sanity trying to keep her children, her husband, and her husband’s parents in line, is, in the Russian version, accustomed to blissfully cleaning house in white cashmere and heels.
“Everybody Loves Raymond” was part of my regular entertainment lineup for its entire nine-year run. As a married father of two daughters, and as someone born in the Baby Boom's peak year of 1957, I was the bull's-eye of the show’s target market. My life differed from Raymond’s; my parents lived at a safe distance, and my in-laws were lovely, reserved people. But I could always spot a few familiar threads in the show’s over-the-top situations. The strongest and most familiar of those threads was Raymond’s recurring discovery that his wife is nearly always right.
That, I think, was the main reason American men watched the show. We must be regularly reminded that father doesn’t always know best, and in fact is often three steps behind mother, who has anticipated how father will screw up and has made contingency plans. Raymond demonstrated, in terms simple enough that even we husbands could understand, that when we think our wives are wrong, we are usually mistaken. American husbands can laugh about it, and so can our spouses.
Russian men, apparently, are not ready to laugh at how they need help locating the car keys they have tossed in the sock drawer, or remembering to buy milk for the kids, or deciphering the color-coded household schedule. For the time being, the bumbling husband just isn’t funny there.
Even when the culture gap between two countries is much smaller the one that separates the U.S. and Russia, comedy can’t always cross it. In the long history of British to American adaptations, there have been plenty of programs that sunk on their way across the pond.
I was a big fan of the British sitcom “Coupling,” which was compared to the American shows “Friends” and “Seinfeld” when it came out in 2000. It seemed like a perfect transplant prospect. But the American version flopped almost immediately. The American network, NBC, found the twists and turns in the plot too confusing. NBC also worried that audiences wouldn’t connect with the characters without full backstories, which had been intentionally omitted from the British show. Sex, too, was a problem. The British show was known for its frankness, while NBC’s president was, as The New York Times put it, “badgered...about the advisability of putting jokes about oral sex on a network at 9:30 p.m.” The end result was a show that just wasn’t funny.
A Greek version of “Coupling” also failed. I can’t speak to the Greek experience, though, mainly because I can’t speak Greek.
But national barriers and differences in cultural mores are not insurmountable. “The Office” launched in Britain not long after “Coupling.” Now the American version, currently in its eighth season, has outlasted its predecessor. Adaptations of “The Office” have also been produced in France, Germany, Canada, Chile and Israel. A Chinese version is reportedly in the works. I’ve only seen the British and American versions, but my guess is that the show is so successful because it captures the daily work lives of the people of each country. The American version’s Dunder Mifflin is recognizably American and seems to draw as much from “Dilbert” and other American workplace comedies as it does from the British original. Wherever it’s set, “The Office” shows audiences something familiar, pushed to the absurd, allowing us to laugh at our own lives.
What’s funny around the world can tell us a lot about cultural differences. Even in our rapidly globalizing world, we still have different national histories, fears and expectations, which can turn a British laugh riot into an American flop.
Kostya doesn’t behave exactly the same way as Raymond, and “Le Bureau” is a different workplace than “The Office.” I may not understand how Kostya lives. I certainly wouldn’t understand what he says. But I hear that, in Russia, he’s very funny.
Edit, 4/19, 12:30 PM - The writer-director Phil Rosenthal's name has been corrected from an earlier publishing. Thanks to the readers who caught the error.