Comedy not just a laughing matter, TV execs discover
Leaders in European television seek a pan-European comedy formula to entertain viewers from Athens to Amsterdam.
LUCERNE - Is there a universal recipe for humour, or more simply, are there jokes that make not just a Finn but also a Portuguese laugh?
Some 500 heads of European public television channels met earlier in May to debate "The Boundaries of Laughter" and try to come up with a formula for comedies that would amuse residents from Reykjavik to Dubrovnik.
"We have 75 members at the EBU. Why are we not able to produce comedy for all?" lamented Eurovision TV director Bjorn Erichsen, referring to the European Broadcasting Union, which groups public broadcasters serving 650 million viewers in 56 countries.
While sports, music and news travel without difficulties not just across Europe but also around the world, television comedies often remain rooted in the countries in which they are produced.
After three hours of discussions, perhaps the only thing television executives agreed on was that comedy is one of the most challenging genres in show business.
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"What works? You don't know and you never know. Comedy is the hardest thing to get right," said Paul Jackson, who used to head the BBC's entertainment unit.
Only very few comedies have made it across national boundaries.
One such comedy is Canadian-born series "Love Bugs," which Italian director Andrea Olcese brought successfully to Italy.
Featuring a man and a woman in everyday situations, it has been exported to some 20 countries, including France, Hungary and Russia.
"The type of humour that works best are relationships of couples," concluded Olcese, the director of the production house Einstein Multimedia Group, as these are "the situations that everyone recognises."
For a comedy to travel, it must have a set format, but it must be played by local actors, he added.
Pointing to "Love Bugs," Olcese said he is convinced that formulae that guarantee laughter exist.
But the quest for successful comedies need not only be to entertain audiences; there are also other nobler causes.
Screenwriter and comedian Dan Mazer believes that humour is also a good vehicle in breaking down stereotypes.
Fabio de Luigi and Michelle Hunziker in the Italian popular comedy "Love Bugs"
"Different things make us laugh, (but) there is a thing that we all have in common, is that we all laugh at each other," he said.
"Comedy relies on stereotypes, but comedy destroys stereotypes," he added, citing as an example the film "Borat" starring British comic Sacha Baron Cohen as a Kazakh reporter crossing the United States with wildly exaggerated stereotypes.
"The vital role (of comedies) is pointing out stereotypes and breaking (them), to point out stereotypes and not to reinforce them," added Mazer.
But the question still remains, what makes a successful pan-European comedy formula?
Perhaps the internet can lend some clues, said Patrick Walker, an executive at YouTube, who said scenes of animals, children and sports are among those that have been able to make people laugh.
"Comedy does largely depend on language, but comedy on the Internet can test a concept," he said.
Text: Andre Lehmann / AFP / Expatica 2009