April 01, 2004

The Inexplicable International Appeal of Alf and Cheburashka

Posted by Ed

When you're travelling in a foreign country, you expect to come across signs that American pop culture has been transplanted abroad. Nevertheless, it's sometimes really surprising exactly what you can find. When I spent the summer in Germany as part of a high school exchange program in 1992, I was startled to learn that the TV character Alf was really popular. (A quick look at the IMDB reveals that the show had already been off the air two years in America.) I was also amused to see that one of Russia's main TV networks presented a day-long Alf marathon when I visited Moscow in 2002 (and that the show also appeared on TV on weekday evenings.)

I've often been weirdly intrigued by seeing which examples of international pop culture carry over into other countries. During my 2002 visit, I wasn't at all surprised to see Russian-produced versions of the TV shows "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "American Idol," but I wasn't expecting the afore-mentioned "Day of Alf." Both TV shows were originally produced in Britain and were easy to translate into another language and cultural milieu, after all--but I have no idea why Russian audiences would want to watch a badly dubbed version of a run-of-the-mill American sitcom that had been off the air for ten years. Do obnoxious-but-furry space aliens have a special hold on the hearts and minds of Europeans?

What determines which pop culture phenomena are successful in which other countries? I was reminded of this question today when I saw a Moscow Times article on Cheburashka, "a cuddly, furry animal dreamed up by Soviet children's author Eduard Uspensky and brought to life in the 1960s and 1970s in a series of endearingly clunky animated films." Cheburashka has become a pop culture phenomenon in Japan, where he's known as "Chebi" and emblazoned on T-shirts and stationery. A fierce international copyright dispute might keep the Cheburashka craze from taking off overseas, but there's already another poorly-animated Soviet cartoon waiting in the wings: Varezhka, a mitten that was magically transformed into a puppy for a lonely young girl who needed a friend. Exciting, huh?

Russian children are also big fans of Karlson the Roof, a book by the Swedish children's writer Astrid Lindgren. I know several Russian-Americans who say that it was once their favorite story, and I'm told that the book's popularity in Russia rivals its popularity in Sweden; the book is out of print in America, however, with the most recent U.S. editions published in 1975 and 1985. Nevertheless, many Americans are familiar with the works of Astrid Lindgren, who's best-known in this country for Pippi Longstocking. For whatever reason, one of the best-known books of a popular Swedish novel has become a beloved children's classic in Russia, but is scarcely known in America--even by children who eagerly devour the author's other books. Popularity, it seems, is as unpredictable as it is short-lived.

Posted by Ed at April 1, 2004 05:20 PM

Swedish television made a series based on Lindgren's Emil books. It was quite popular in Denmark, but that's hardly surprising as the two countries are next to each other, and share many cultural traits. I do hear, however, that it also were popular in Lithuania (from a Lithuanian girl who grew up with the series), which surprised me.

Posted by: Kristjan Wager at April 2, 2004 06:45 AM

In the late 1980's my son and I took a trip camping on the Amazon in Peru. As we went up the tributaries every village we stopped at had a school and a soccer field, and the kids all had Alf notebooks. These were areas where travel was by dugout canoe, but Alf was there.

Posted by: Robert Avery at April 8, 2004 02:43 AM

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Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:54 PM
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