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How France’s equivalent of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ taught me the sweet loneliness of TV in a foreign language

The jokes in ‘Kaamelott’ are fundamentally impossible to translate from French to English. Watching it in an English-speaking country makes for a strange viewing experience, writes Clémence Michallon

Clémence Michallon
New York
Sunday 14 July 2019 14:10 BST
Kaamelott - trailer

In 2005, a French actor, director, writer, composer and comedian named Alexandre Astier debuted a new series called Kaamelott (wonky spelling intentional), a spoofy retelling of King Arthur’s legend. Astier’s reimagining of Arthur as a gruff, short-tempered womaniser with relatively progressive values and an occasional soft spot was a runaway success. The series ended 10 years ago, but its popularity in France endures to this day, mainly through common references, private jokes among fans, and reaction gifs on Twitter.

As a French person who grew up in the Paris suburbs, I watched Kaamelott when it debuted as a short, humorous programme airing after the evening news. After four seasons in this format, the show grew darker, eventually experimenting with longer episodes and delivering a more tortured take on Arthur’s psyche (when you think about it, how much fun could it possibly have been to search for the Holy Grail in vain for years?). When introduced to international audiences, Kaamelott is often described as France’s equivalent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which it is, at least on the surface. But where Python’s King Arthur was an earnestly optimistic monarch who at least tried to get his hands on the Holy Grail, Astier’s Arthur wasn’t exactly pleased at having been picked by the gods to embark on this heroic quest. He was unimpressed with his own situation, with his entourage, with his wife Guinevere, and ultimately with the gods themselves. Arthur’s underwhelmed nature set the tone for the series, literally: Kaamelott is rife with French slang – not the frankly vulgar kind, but the kind you would use with, let’s say, an unhelpful teammate who has driven you to unreserved rage.

Because of this, Kaamelott is a peculiar beast, in that it’s laugh-out-loud funny for French speakers and absolutely obscure for everyone else. I don’t mean that in a traditional, “what’s-funny-in-Country-A-isn’t-funny-in-Country-B” way. I mean that on a cellular level, the humour in Kaamelott is absolutely impossible to translate. I should know: I've been known to binge-watch full seasons of Kaamelott episodically. My husband, a US native, was once mystified by this weird-looking TV show that often caused me to burst out laughing. He would turn to me, one eyebrow raised, curious as to what was causing such hilarity. I wanted to share the source of my joy with him, but every time I tried, my explanations were met with confused blinks. This is in no way my husband’s fault: what I was conveying to him gave him strictly no reason to laugh.

Allow me to demonstrate. One of the many tenets of Kaamelott’s brand of humour is the slight reinvention of well-known colloquialisms. Imagine, for example, that you want to tell someone they're “grinding your gears”, “breaking your balls” (which I realise is American English, but bear with me for a second), or “busting your nuts”. France has many straightforward equivalents to convey that sentiment, from the neutral “casser les pieds” to the vulgar “casser les couilles”. Kaamelott, however, won’t use either, but will rather re-write it as “Vous nous râpez les raisins”, in other words: “You’re grating our grapes”. French speakers will understand the meaning of that phrase immediately, and yet chances are they have never – or extremely rarely – used this specific combination, which is simply not part of the common slang répertoire in France. That’s why it’s funny: it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gem in a fast-paced dialogue, one that not only introduces slang where you’re not expecting to find it (the Arthurian legend), but also reinvents it so that it tickles your ear more than the traditional saying.

Astier’s writing sparkles pretty much every time Arthur’s knights Percival and Caradoc, who in Kaamelott are portrayed as especially daft, appear on the screen. Among other things, they love trying to use somewhat complicated words, which they misunderstand completely. The result is dialogues such as this one:

Percival and Caradoc are trying to invent their own combat techniques, even though they have failed to master traditional tactics and are famously useless in battle. Their new obsession is attempting to get into their adversary’s head so that the fight never gets physical:

Caradoc: “It’s a fight, but it’s…”

Arthur: “Psychological?”

Caradoc: “No, I mean it happens in your head.”

Percival: “Yeah, I know what he means…”

Arthur: “Psychological.”

Percival: “No, psychological means everything that happens in the countryside, no?”

Arthur: “In the countryside?”

Percival: “Yeah, cereal and all that stuff.”

Arthur: “Agricultural?”

Percival: “Ah, yes, agricultural.”

Caradoc: “But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is it’s a fight, but it happens in your head.”

Arthur: “Psychological!”

Caradoc: “Psychological, yes.”

I’d wager that you’re not rolling on the ground with laughter. Sure, part of the reason for that is that TV jokes aren’t meant to be conveyed in writing, but trust me: even if you watched Kaamelott with the above translation as subtitles, the whole thing would fall flat.

One last example:

Magician Elias de Kelliwic'h, Merlin’s competitor, is informing Arthur and his knight Lancelot that wolves might attack the castle if the powers that be don't sacrifice a woman, more specifically Queen Guinevere, whom Lancelot is secretly in love with.

Lancelot (to Arthur, impassionately): "Fear not, Sire! I will protect the Queen against the beasts of the night."

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Arthur (rolls eyes): "Oh, please, go have a drink, you’ll feel better."

Again, not super funny put this way, but on the screen (and in French), that line is killer.

In this day and age, it’s a rare and strange thing to be able to consume a TV show almost in a vacuum. Yes, Kaamelott still has its French fans and they can definitely be found on Twitter, where Astier has an impressive 778,000 followers. But the Kaamelott discourse is nothing compared to, say, the conversation surrounding shows such as Fleabag, Big Little Lies or The Handmaid’s Tale.

It makes for a lonely viewing experience, but it’s a sweet kind of loneliness: in the English-speaking world, Kaamelott belongs to me, pretty much exclusively. I decide what’s funny. I decide what’s not-so-great, or what’s problematic. Imagine watching Friends again, but in a cushy environment in which you can hear yourself think. It’s a delightful feeling. I’d recommend learning French just to experience it.

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