Kath & Kim: articles

Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim go global

One of Australia’s favourite comedies has made the leap abroad. Felicity Collins and Sue Turnbull examine how the show pushes the boundaries of global humour.

Not since Bazza McKenzie arrived in London in 1972 and Crocodile Dundee tamed the New York subway in 1986 has the spirit of Australian satire been so warmly welcomed abroad. The launch of the popular ABC comedy series Kath & Kim on cable television in the UK and US earlier this year met with critical acclaim, generating a cult following as well as improving Australia’s image abroad.

In London for the launch at Australia House, the show’s foxy lady, Kath (Jane Turner), and her clackymuled, hornbag daughter, Kim (Gina Riley), enjoyed a celebrity moment of their own when they were mobbed by fans outside their hotel. Expatriate pundit Kathy Lette, taking to her role as cultural translator with aplomb, declared, “When people talk about Australia all they think of is John Howard — he’s like human musak, isn’t he? And that is our image at the moment, so Kath and Kim are like a comedic, incendiary device — I mean they have black belts in tongue-fu those girls.”

Across the Atlantic, Time Out’s New York reviewer Elizabeth Vincentelli praised the two Melbourne writer-comedians’ “delight in manhandling the Australian language” in “suburban accents so thick that ‘hi’ comes out as hoi, please as ploise”. To help New Yorkers translate the show’s suburban tongue-fu, Vincentelli included a guide to Aussie slang.

But despite the show’s warm reception by English and American reviewers, Kath & Kim has been restricted to cable-TV in the UK and US because it is “too Australian” for the parochial gatekeepers of free-to-air television in those countries.

At the 2002 MIPCOM television fair, Robyn Kershaw, executive producer of Kath & Kim , was told by an English program buyer that British audiences “simply wouldn’t get the references”.

Kershaw’s response, that “Australian audiences have no trouble getting the references in Ali G”, fell on deaf ears. Happy with endless episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away, Britain’s free-to-air television has no pressing need to get its head around the pop vernacular of an innovative Australian comedy series.

But how can a local series, fine-tuned to imported fads, fail to ring a bell with UK and US buyers? Kath & Kim’s satirical eye on lower middleclass suburbia (“crack open the Tia Maria” and bring on the “commemorative sausages”) has the capacity to provoke a familiar cringe from class-conscious Britain. And Kath’s embrace of American fitness fads, from pump and pilates to the Courtney Loves Cox O-zone Diet, would hardly be lost in translation in New York.

It is precisely the show’s focus on the minutiae of suburban life centred on the Fountain Gate shopping mall that rings a bell with international television audiences. Like Kath and Kim this audience was born to shop, spurred on by reality TV’s instant makeovers, whether of the block, the backyard, the straight guy or the imperfect body.

The reality TV format, grafted onto the flagging fortunes of the sitcom, helps to usher the show into the international sphere.

British academic Brett Mills, along with other critics, routinely includes Kath & Kim in the pantheon of the new global sitcom. This genre is defined by Mills as “the mockumentary sitcom filmed without a laugh track”, where the characters know they are being watched but don’t realise that the audience finds them uncomfortably funny. (Others of that ilk include the British series The Office, Marion and Geoff and People Like Us, and the American series Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show. )

The irony of Kath & Kim’s global appeal might be that its vacuumsealed, shopping-mall world, its aspirational mindset, and popular online lexicon reflect a new hybrid mentality. Kath & Kim is both parochial and cosmopolitan. This hybrid mindset lampoons Kylie and Danni in the Sport episode, outs kd, Martina and Ellen in the Gay episode, and workshops Nicole and Tom’s marriage problems in the Fat episode, without ever leaving the suburban confines of Fountain Lake.

In the Money episode, Kath rings a radio show desperate to win the quiz to pay for her Cinderella wedding coach. True to her shopping-mall roots, Kath is up to speed on Minnie Driver, Monica Lewinsky and Sharon Stone but the name of the Prime Minister of Australia? “I’ll have to pass on that one.”

Yet the series does offer a glimpse of a world beyond the shopping mall. Kel the butcher enjoyed his stint in the homosocial whirlpool of the navy and is comfortable carrying a man-bag and crooning along to Barbra Streisand. Sporty Sharon ends the first series returning from Bali with a grotesque monkey bite disfiguring her face, putting Szubanski ahead of Roseanne Barr, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and Two Fat Ladies in the line-up for television’s most unruly woman.

Mills argues that American and British television have defined the sitcom for 70 years, with little competition from elsewhere. By contrast Australian television has been a minor player. Hey Dad and the British re-make of the ABC’s series Mother and Son were memorable reversals of the steady flow of sitcoms from British and American networks to Australian screens.

Since In Melbourne Tonight and The Mavis Bramston Show set the tone for Australian television comedy in the 1950s and ‘60s, the nation’s appetite for local, irreverent humour has been fed by variety shows and sketch comedy.

Turner and Riley initially developed their characters, Kath and Kim (and their snobbish alter egos, Prue and Trude), in the sketch comedy series Big Girls Blouse. Predating the global sitcom, the show’s distinctive comic accent owes much to Turner and Riley’s 20-year working relationship with co-stars, Magda Szubanski (Kim’s second-best friend, Sharon Strezlecki) and Glenn Robbins (Kath’s great hunk-of-spunk, Kel Knight).

Kath & Kim’s entry into the new global sitcom’s hall of fame also stems from what Kershaw refers to as the show’s clever conceit: “Two women, clearly the same age, playing mother and daughter in a comedy of suburban aspiration, shot in a mockdocumentary style.”

Rather than label it as “too Australian” for the international market, it might be more accurate to say that it breaks out of the comfortzone of ocker comedy, embodied and exported so successfully by Bazza McKenzie and Crocodile Dundee.

Kath and Kim, together with Kel and Sharon, perform a double act, lampooning Australia’s insular suburban mentality while pushing the boundaries of the global sitcom. Australian audiences appreciate the double act and they get the joke. How far and wide the joke will travel, as Kath might say, is a matter of making a little “brazzu” go a long way in a world market requiring a lot of “huffypuffy” to last the distance.

Felicity Collins and Sue Turnbull are senior lecturers in the School of Communication and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University.

A new series of Kath & Kim will screen later this year.

By Felicity Collins and Sue Turnbull
July 26, 2004
The Age