Can humor travel? It's a question that keeps television executives awake at night as they fret over which shows can be successfully exported to other countries. After all, the world relies on American studio powerhouses for most of its comedy fare, and revenues from overseas are no laughing matter.
Of course, some shows are unproblematic. "Friends," with its eternal boy-meets-girl themes, appeals to people in most countries -- at least those with Western ideas about serial dating and extra-marital sex.). But what about the Manhattan-centric world of "Seinfeld"? Or Larry David's straight-faced comedy of manners "Curb Your Enthusiasm"? Will international audiences know when to laugh when there is no laugh track?
It's a question much on Markus Andorfer's mind at the moment. He's head of the German offshoot of the cult US channel Comedy Central, which will launch here in January. The Berlin-based Austrian is currently grappling with the question of which shows to import, and how to make them work in German. And he wants to make broadening Germans' taste in comedy part of the bargain.
"The sitcom is the best-known comedy format in Germany," he says. "But this will be a big chance for us to bring new kinds of comedy to the German market."
The universal appeal of 'Little Britain'
The producers of the new comedy channel are taking no chances. With a conscientiousness that Germans would commend, Comedy Central's owner MTV Networks focus-grouped shows to see what would appeal to local audiences. The surprise winner? The BBC's hit comedy "Little Britain."
"We are very confident, given the testing, that people in Germany are going to love it," says Tony Orsten, managing director of the Comedy Central's British incarnation, Paramount Comedy.
But will Germans really understand the series's merciless satire of provincial Britain? Orsten thinks they will. "Because it's actually got nothing to do with Britain," he says. "The bizarre nature of the comedy sketches appeals to the German sense of humor, from what I can tell."
His experiences setting up Comedy Central channels in Spain and, most recently, Poland have taught him that, although comedy is essentially universal, a local touch is essential. "We've learned from the very beginning that comedy is eminently transportable," he says. "But you can't take the soul of the comedy of one nation and put it into another."
"A German channel"
The new German channel will have its own national identity and home-grown programming. "We dont want to sell ourselves as a British or American channel," he says. "We are a German channel. The sensibility and the attitude will have to reflect the German sense of humor and what Germans need."
Ah yes, the German sense of humor -- a much-maligned and fabled beast. Does the chimera really exist? "As a British person, obviously I would like to think that the Germans have no sense of humor," says Orsten, tongue firmly in cheek. "But that's not true. Working with my colleagues here in Germany, I've seen there is a huge sense of humor. It's as naughty and edgy as Britain in some areas, and it's cleverer and more daring than Britain in other areas."
Linguist Alexander Brock from the Martin Luther University in Halle, who has studied British television comedy, agrees. "Unlike many people, I don't think the German sense of humor is that much different from other people's," he says. "Even in Britain, the majority of people watch formulaic sitcoms."
But one aspect of German taste means that English-speaking foreigners living in Germany who might have hoped to watch American and British shows on Comedy Central will be disappointed: Most of the programming on the new channel will be dubbed into German. It's a purely commercial decision, Andorfer explains. "MTV did experiments where they broadcast shows first with subtitles and then switched to dubbed versions," he says. "The ratings for the dubbed versions were four times higher." Dubbing can cost as much as ten times as much as subtitling, but Comedy Central says it is crucial if it wants to build a mass audience.
Of course, not every gag can be easily translated. For example, take "So Notorious," a Tori Spelling vehicle. "Tori meets a good-looking guy who works in the film industry and who introduces himself as a 'gaffer.' She misunderstands and introduces him to her friends as a 'fluffer' (porn industry lingo for the worker who ensures that male actors are always ready to 'perform')." Obviously such jokes are hard (no pun intended) to translate. "We're still working on that one," admits Andorfer.
The Daily Show in Deutschland
But those Americans who were hoping to get a nightly fix of the US Comedy Central's flagship, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," may be spared from having their favorite political satirists translated into German. Andorfer says "The Daily Show," which will be launched on the channel in April, will be a niche show in Germany and therefore shown late at night. Because the market for late-night advertising is less lucrative, dubbing becomes too expensive and subtitles more attractive.
Still, expats living in Germany shouldn't delete their YouTube bookmarks just yet -- the German Comedy Central will be showing a slimmed-down version of the flag-ship talk show. "We will have to edit it because some of the jokes are very specific to domestic US politics, and Germans won't understand them," says Andorfer. The popular "Colbert Report" may also eventually make the hop across the big pond to the German station, Andorfer says, but only after an audience is built for the better-known "Daily Show."
Orsten says he would welcome a home-grown version in the future. "I would love to see political comedy take off here, and I would love to see the current German government have trouble from Comedy Central," he says. "In the nicest possible way, of course."
He admits that comedy's inherent subjectivity means no-one can really predict which shows will be hits until the channel launches. "You just never really know what is going to work best," he says. "The thing you think is going to be most successful probably won't be."
Michael Mee, an Irish comedian who has played shows in Germany, agrees. "You might find there's a big hit on this new channel that nobody quite predicted," he says.
No matter which shows are hits and which are flops, German comedian Knacki Deuser feels that Germany is craving a 24-hour comedy channel. Deuser's show "NightWash," which features young stand-ups performing in a Cologne laundromat, will be one of the channel's homegrown mainstays.
"We Germans have to learn to be more relaxed and not always take everything so seriously," he says. "I think comedy can help a little bit towards social change."