Sunday, January 31, 2016

CROSS-CULTURAL COMEDY: Whose Laugh Is It, Anyway?

via MHT by email; based by him on his Facebook entry

image from

CROSS-CULTURAL COMEDY: Whose Laugh Is It Anyway? / By Mark H. Teeter
Friends/Друзья (1994 – 2004)(Channel 2x2)
Scrubs/Клиника (2001 – 2010)(FOX et al.)

--> Of the various mirrors through which the frustrating and frustrated Russian-American relationship can be examined, our common interest in TV situation comedies is probably the funniest: it involves both funny ha-ha (they’re often good sitcoms) and funny-strange (there’s a curious “values gap” in the mix). What better moment to ponder this dual funniness than today, as Moscow's Channel 2X2 begins airing one of America’s all-time most popular entries of the ha-ha variety…a mere 24 hrs. after the United States was accused in Russia’s State Duma of starting the local flu epidemic and a banner designating President Obama "KILLER" was unfurled across from the US Embassy – a gesture which surely qualifies as pretty darn strange.

All told, the ha-ha part is far better good news than the most recent examples of state-ordered bizarro-prop are bad. The latter, which comprises a 2-year media campaign of Orwellian/Kafkaesque accusations against imaginary “traitors,” “5th columnists” and similar straw men foreign and domestic, is doomed by its ever-expanding absurdity to run out of targets eventually – and possibly fairly soon, as the proffered “Syrian Banderovites” clearly didn’t take off as hoped or expected. At the same time, broadcast TV here is beginning to run “Friends” – an unpretentiously engaging show about appealing young Americans and the way they live which is probably a better message-carrier re current Western values and lifestyles than anything the now-defunct US Information Agency or the insidious flu-spreading CIA could ever come up with.

Think about it. “Friends” was not created to this end, of course, but for a Russian audience the show is nothing if not extremely well-made American propaganda. New viewers here will likely see the characters the same way the vast majority of American viewers did and do: as genuinely decent young people in genuinely amusing situations, ingredients that together make you genuinely happy to spend time regularly with them -- to be their, well, friends.

This and other kinds of surrogate friendship are common to TV viewers and the Internet faithful everywhere, of course, and becoming more so by the month and gadget-generation. Whether this brave new version of human interaction constitutes a Good Thing is for you to judge; but in a Russian environment continuously poisoned by a very black version of televised propaganda, regular doses of a very white variety are hard not to see as good medicine.

Ah, but will it really "work"? There's evidence that it already has, actually. On the Western-oriented IMDb movie/TV fan site (, “Friends” scores extremely high, as you’d expect: 9.0/10 (based on 400K + votes); yet on the analogous Russian-language site KinoPoisk (, the same “Friends” -- long available here via Internet and DVD -- scores a marginally *higher* 9.023/10 (on 135K +). Even if some % of these Russian-language voters are CIA-duped Ukrainians and/or insufficiently-indoctrinated non-RF post-Soviets, the popularity numbers are still likely to be comparable.

Which is also true for “Scrubs,” another v. successful American youth sitcom that was both edgier and less conventional than “Friends” (and probably funnier, all told: your call, but ask your kids). At IMDb “Scrubs” comes in at a v. impressive 8.4/10 – while on KinoPoisk it approaches 8.7, which is *significantly higher*. For what it’s worth, “Scrubs” has been run on a number of different TV outlets here and even spawned a serviceable Russian imitation (“Интерны,” 2010- 2016; TNT) – a cross-cultural transition that has worked at least as well as the original US-RF sitcom transplant, in which “Everybody Loves Raymond” was turned into Moscow’s mega-popular “Воронины” (and an American documentary then made about the process: "Exporting Raymond," 2010: and Moscow News, no.74, 2011 Sept 27, p.5(1) (ISSN: 0027-1306).
But transplants are another issue. What is suggested by the success of tonight's on-air debuting “Friends,” by “Scrubs” and by the other shown-in-the-"original American" sitcoms is something the current State Duma/Power Vertical/CrimeaCrazy people surely do not want to hear, much less contemplate. Correct: the punch line of the current Russian-American sitcom relationship is that Russians not only like these pleasantly-imagined surrogate Americans, they may well like them even more than Americans do.

Put otherwise, millions of younger-generation Russian viewers have been friending up with a sanitized, idealized brand of American peers whom they can empathize with. And probably a lot. Selling these Russians on the intrinsic evil of such friends/"Friends" – and on a set of Sovereign/Russian World-y values to counter and replace theirs – is a long-term task that will demand a lot more than hanging banners in front of an embassy. And the long-term taskees now available for the job are not likely, it would seem, to have a long term in which to do it.

Moscow, 28 January 2016

Mark H. Teeter served as opinion page editor and columnist for both The Moscow Times (2005-2009) and The Moscow News (2009-2014), contributing the television column TeleMost at the latter. He now edits the Moscow TV Tonite page on Facebook, where this note originally appeared.

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