Big in Japan (and elsewhere): 29 American cultural entities that found greater popularity overseas
- 13 Arrested Development quotes to summarize reactions to the new episodes
- “Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money”: 20 inept magicians in pop culture
- It’s not TV—and it’s not available on HBO Go: 27-plus HBO originals unavailable from the streaming service
- The adventures of Tookie De La Crème: 13 surprising celebrity novelists
- The hand that rocks the puppet: 13 pop-culture attempts to make puppets appealing to adult audiences
1. Jerry Lewis in France
Jerry Lewis used to be one of the biggest stars in America, until America got tired of him, stopped going to his movies, and only let him appear in public once a year to host a telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In fact, Lewis’ appeal to American audiences soured to the point where his popularity in France has, for decades now, been used as a club used to assault French taste: If a country could love that guy who did the silly voices and the pratfalls, how can it be trusted to be right about anything? It’s a bit more complicated than that, though. Lewis’ best films—which combine a strong visual sense and a reckless approach to physical comedy—have stood the test of time nicely. (In short, Lewis deserves to be revered, though his toxic approach to public relations continually short-circuits attempts to rehab his reputation.) As for Lewis’ appeal in France, it’s real, though overstated. In 1999, Cecil Adams devoted a Straight Dope column responding to a French reader who didn’t understand why Americans asked him about Jerry Lewis all the time. Adams responded that his reader was a bit too young to remember when Lewis, riding a wave of highbrow French appreciation in the mid-’60s that led to a revival of his previous films, made a triumphant visit to the country. Those warm feelings persisted into the ’80s, when Lewis received both the Order Of Arts And Letters, a cultural honor, and the Legion Of Honor, for his charity work with the MDA. And for his 80th birthday in 2006, France tacked a promotion onto that honor by making Lewis a commandeur in the Legion Of Honor. In his acceptance speech, Lewis offered his own theory about his popularity: “Even if the French people cannot hear my language, they have always heard my heart.”
2. Donald Duck in Scandinavia
As one of the faces on Disney’s Mt. Rushmore, Donald Duck isn’t exactly unknown in the U.S., but he’ll always play second banana to Mickey on these shores. But in Scandinavia, Donald is king: He’s graced postage stamps in Finland and served as a perpetual write-in candidate in elections in Finland and Sweden, where he’s allegedly the country’s ninth-most-popular political party. Whether he’s Aku Ankka in Finland or Kalle Anka in Sweden, Donald’s been a weekly comics mainstay for more than six decades (Kalle Anka & C:o is Sweden’s best-selling comic magazine of all time) and remains a Christmastime tradition, with nearly half of all Swedes tuning in each year to Kalle Anka Och Hans Vänner Onskar God Jul (Donald Duck And His Friends Wish You A Merry Christmas). Donald’s popularity extends to the rest of Europe as well, especially Germany, where he’s evolved into a slightly deeper figure than the easily enraged goofball Americans know: According to The Wall Street Journal, which calls him “the Jerry Lewis of Germany,” the Donald Germans know “quotes from German literature, speaks in grammatically complex sentences, and is prone to philosophical musings.” Not bad for a duck who doesn’t wear pants—which, contrary to popular rumor, did not get Donald banned in Finland.
3. Top Cat in Mexico
Hanna-Barbera’s Top Cat didn’t enjoy a particularly long life in the United States, running in prime time from September 1961 to April 1962 for a total of 30 episodes on ABC. In Latin America, though, those same 30 episodes of Top Cat are huge, possessing popularity on par with The Flintstones. In Mexico, Don Gato Y Su Pandilla (Top Cat And His Gang) even inspired a 2011 3-D movie of the same name that became one of the most successful Mexican films ever, breaking the record for biggest opening weekend ever with a gross of nearly $3.2 million.
4. ALF in Germany
Like plenty of American pop culture, NBC’s science-fiction sitcom ALF became incredibly, inexplicably popular when it began airing in Germany. Its popularity reportedly resulted in signs posted around the German city of Alf being repeatedly stolen, resulting in the mayor autographing and selling prefab copies. Tommi Piper, who dubbed ALF’s voice for German broadcasts, even had a minor hit in 1989 with the pop single “Hallo ALF Hier Ist Rhonda” (“Hello ALF, This Is Rhonda”), which has Piper singing as ALF to his love interest.
5. Cheap Trick in Japan
Cheap Trick made three classic albums one after the other in 1977 and 1978—Cheap Trick, In Color, and Heaven Tonight—but America shrugged at the finest power-pop group Rockford, Illinois ever produced. Not so Japan, where each album proved a little more popular than the last, and the band built a steady following that turned into a fervent following by the time it toured the country behind Heaven Tonight. To understand the extent of the appeal, look no further than the 1978 live album Cheap Trick At Budokan, recorded at the Tokyo concert arena Nippon Budokan. Appreciative screams become another instrument in the songs, and rise in pitch whenever the band talks to the audience, whether it’s singer Robin Zander introducing “Surrender” (“This next one is the first song on our newwww album…”) or, on the uncut version of the concert released as The Complete Concert in 1998, guitarist Rick Nielsen praising a local product. (“The first thing I did when I got to Japan was buy a Japanese guitar.”) First released as a 10-track album strictly for the Japanese market, At Budokan became a popular import, and soon made Cheap Trick a star in its native land. Maybe not Japan-big, but pretty big.
6. Bill Hicks in the UK
Although the Texas-bred Bill Hicks styled himself like a consummate vision of outlaw Americana—a chain-smoking, black-clad nexus of Lenny Bruce and Johnny Cash—he became the toast of Britain well before his home country caught on. By 1991, Hicks had already toured the U.S. club circuit for years, appeared on several TV specials, and released his first album, but he didn’t truly become the revered cult figure he is now until an appearance at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival made him a UK sensation. It certainly helped that Hicks “debuted” overseas having already honed his act, as did the fact that his specials, particularly the London-taped Revelations, aired repeatedly on British TV in their uncensored entirety, rather than in the bite-sized, sanitized form necessitated by U.S. talk shows. Hicks himself credited his UK popularity to the country’s eagerness to laugh at America, and cynically praised the UK’s more sophisticated sense of irony. Whatever the reason (and certainly it was a combination of all those factors), being bigger overseas allowed Hicks to think of himself as something of an expatriate, and you can’t get much more “outlaw” than that.
7. Lionel Richie in Iraq
As Operation Iraqi Freedom turned from triumph to quagmire in the mid-’00s, the daily reports of sectarian violence and political instability in the country naturally led some news outlets to seek out a few lighter-side-of-the-news stories. So in May 2006, ABC News picked up on the curious fact that erstwhile R&B superstar Lionel Richie was second only to bombs as America’s hottest export in Iraq. ABC’s John Berman reported that many Iraqis who couldn’t speak a word of English knew the lyrics to Richie’s songs, and Richie was told that “All Night Long” could be heard as tanks rolled into the country in 2003. Richie himself didn’t have an answer for his popularity, outside of his extensive touring in the Middle East, but in an interview with The Guardian, he mused about the power of his songs to bring people together: “The Sunnis and the Shi’ites can’t agree on anything, but they’re all getting married and partying to my songs.” If the Iraqi people need a statue to replace Saddam Hussein’s in Firdos Square, a blind student has already taken care of the head.
8. Rodriguez in South Africa
Enigmatic Detroit protest singer Rodriguez released two albums of trippy folk, soul, and blues in the early ’70s—1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming From Reality—that flopped so spectacularly, the artist disappeared from the American music scene amid rumors he’d killed himself onstage or died of a drug overdose. But while Rodriguez’s career never took off in his home country, it flourished unexpectedly on the black market in South Africa, where his music became the soundtrack to the anti-Apartheid movement and inspired generations of rebels. The crowd-pleasing forthcoming documentary Searching For Sugar Man, which wowed audiences at Sundance, tells the story of Rodriguez’s remarkable fall and rise as he’s rediscovered, very much alive, by some of his most devoted South African fans, and travels to the country for the first time to play stadiums.
9. Who’s The Boss? in Germany and the UK
Who’s The Boss? was a popular sitcom in the United States, landing in the Nielsen top 10 for half of its run and running a respectable eight seasons. Yet the show came at a time when most of the best sitcoms on the air were workplace shows, and though it had strongly drawn characters, it also had Tony Danza as a lead, a poor starting point for any show. Oddly enough, the series became enough of a sensation in other countries that the show’s distributor took the then-unusual step of allowing foreign remakes of the program. The show was particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where it led to the long-running remake The Upper Hand, which ran for seven seasons and 95 episodes (very long by UK standards) and brought in original series star Katherine Helmond for a guest spot. And in Germany, the whimsically titled Wer Ist Hier Der Boss? was so unexpectedly popular that 15 early episodes were remade in German, though they didn’t live up to dubbed reruns of the original.
10. Josephine Baker in France
A dancer on Broadway and a nightclub entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance, The St. Louis-born Josephine Baker lives on as an enduring symbol of the Jazz Age—in Paris. She first performed there in 1925 at the Theatre Des Champs-Elysees, and like many celebrated black jazz musicians, was immediately won over by the acclaim and freedom from overt racial discrimination that she’d never experienced in America. In fact, she liked Paris so much, she never wanted to leave. She starred in French movies, headlined her own shows, and was celebrated by European fans who delighted in her talent and charisma, not to mention her nude dancing and pet cheetah. Her support of the French Resistance during World War II earned her official honors and cemented her legend as a heroic figure. But in America, she was mostly reviled as an opportunist who had disgraced herself by turning her back on her native land. It was only toward the end of her life that she began to earn a measure of respect here, after lending her support to the American civil-rights movement and appearing with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 march on Washington.
11. AM Gold in the Philippines
It’s well-documented that many Asian countries have a soft spot for soft rock from the West, and the inhabitants of the Philippines in particular like to fire up their lighters for big pop songs from this side of the world. Journey is probably the biggest and best example of this crossover, with the Bay Area band passing the mic once held by Steve Perry over to a Filipino named Arnel Pineda, who against all odds has been accepted with open arms by the band’s fans. The pair of Australians in Air Supply (who actually reside in America now) also remain marquee names in Manila, but perhaps the two most notable where-are-they-now?-oh-maybe-you-should-check-the-Philippines acts from the U.S. are Christopher Cross and Dennis Lambert. The former, known for such squeezably soft yacht-rock classics as “Sailing,” “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” and “Ride Like The Wind,” can’t get arrested in his homeland, but still receives significant Filipino airplay. The latter, meanwhile, has the unofficial Valentine’s Day theme of the Philippines—“Of All The Things” from Lambert’s one and only solo album, 1972’s Bags And Things—and nobody on these shores has any idea who the hell he is. Unless, of course, they’ve seen Of All The Things, the 2008 documentary directed by Lambert’s son that examines the songwriter’s improbable popularity in the Philippines and his return to the stage after he retired from music and become a Florida real-estate agent.
12. Paul Williams in the Philippines
Similarly, Stephen Kessler’s new documentary, Paul Williams: Still Alive, proceeds from the director finding out that the once ubiquitous singer-songwriter is, indeed, still alive. Kessler then goes on to follow the “Rainbow Connection” tunesmith around on tour, including a jaunt into the Philippines, where Williams is apparently still a huge draw. In one of the film’s more memorable sequences, Kessler slow-burns his way through an anxiety attack as he and the rest of Williams’ entourage tag along on a bus ride through a Filipino jungle apparently teeming with al-Qaida militants. For his part, Williams seems totally game to bask in the appreciation, even if it means travelling half a world away.
13. Samuel Fuller in Europe
“Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word—emotion.” The definitive statement of Samuel Fuller’s ethos comes not from his autobiography, A Third Face, but from his cameo appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, a tribute orchestrated by the onetime critic who dubbed Fuller the master of “cinema-fist.” By 1965, just after his twin masterpieces Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, Fuller’s career in the U.S. was almost over; he returned only for The Big Red One, which was gutted before its initial release, and White Dog, an anti-racist allegory whose “anti-” aspect was missed by contemporary viewers. But in Europe, Fuller was critically lionized, and more importantly, funded, allowing two more films: Thieves After Dark and Street Of No Return. A World War II veteran, Fuller saw his homeland’s hypocrisies as well as its greatness: The scene of a black mental patient shouting Ku Klux Klan slogans in Shock Corridor is a bracing attack on the country’s racist madness. That might not have made him popular at home, but it endeared him to foreign cinephiles who saw him as a true-blooded American.
14. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton in Africa
As country stars, wig models, and chicken roasters, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton are pretty big—insert bra-size joke here—in America. Among some country naysayers, though, they don’t garner much respect, for whatever reason. Luckily, in parts of Africa, Rogers and Parton are musical gods. For whatever reason, the countrypolitan stars of the ’70s and ’80s do especially well in countries like Kenya and Nigeria, where singers like Crystal Gayle and Don Williams are revered for their “sentimental music.” There are a lot of theories as to why, but scholars think Rogers and Parton have particular appeal because of rags-to-riches ditties like “Coat Of Many Colors,” which might be easy for the poorer citizens of African villages to identify with. Those types of ballads have even influenced popular African-produced songs, like Roger Whitaker’s “My Land Is Kenya.”
15. David Hasselhoff in Germany
The star of Baywatch and that unfortunate drunk-cheeseburger video has never really risen above camp status in his native land. This reputation is buttressed by his supposed mega-star status in Germany, where his single “Looking For Freedom” held the No. 1 position for eight weeks in 1989 and is inextricably linked, for better or worse, with the fall of the Berlin Wall—not to mention light-up leather jackets and piano scarves. But while Americans seem to never tire of the ol’ Germans Love Hasselhoff joke, which has become a go-to trope in various media, the Hoff’s 1989 star-power has considerably cooled over the last 20-plus years in Deutschland, where he’s now mostly a nostalgic figure—as evidenced by a spotty comeback tour there in 2011.
16. Rich Hall in the UK
Comedian Rich Hall spent the ’80s bouncing from one notable gig to the next, starting as a writer/performer on ABC’s Fridays from 1980-1982, then moving over to HBO’s Not Necessarily The News in 1983 until the faux news magazine folded in 1990. But in spite of walking away from the latter experience with a lifetime’s supply of Sniglets, Hall struggled to find further success in the States. His profile in the UK, however, is substantially higher, with appearances on panel quizzes like QI and Never Mind The Buzzcocks helping earn the comedian a series of BBC programs, including Rich Hall’s Fishing Show and Rich Hall’s Cattle Drive. In addition, Hall’s stand-up has earned considerable acclaim, in no small part due to a character called Otis Lee Crenshaw, a singer-songwriter who falls somewhere between David Allan Coe and Tom Waits. In his guise as Crenshaw, Hall has recorded several albums, released a concert movie, and, perhaps most notably, was the recipient of the Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe arts festival in 2000.
17. Manowar in Germany
Germany has no shortage of its own mythically macho metal artists, but for some reason, it’s embraced New York’s Manowar as one of its own. Marauding onto the scene in the early ’80s with cartoonish, borderline Wagnerian albums like Battle Hymns and Into Glory Ride, Manowar never fit into the glam-and-thrash of the decade’s American metal scene. But in Deutschland, the group became stars, to the point where even its live DVDs consistently go gold there. Could the fact that Manowar’s founding guitarist, Ross “The Boss” Friedman, also played in the proto-punk band The Dictators (sample song: “Master Race Rock”) have anything to do with Germany’s Manowar obsession? It might be best not to ask.
18. The Runaways in Japan
Manufactured girl-group The Runaways was a little ahead of its time in terms of both the eventual mainstreaming of punk and the potential star power of two of its teenage members: Lita Ford and Joan Jett. During its brief existence in the late ’70s, the band fought in vain to find a wide audience and chart success in its native America. In Japan, though, things were different. Hailed there with a frenzy of Beatles-worthy mania, The Runaways were at one point Japan’s fourth-biggest musical import, behind ABBA, KISS, and Led Zeppelin. Accordingly, the group’s 1977 concert album, Live In Japan, was recorded in Tokyo. The screams speak for themselves.
19. Fun Lovin’ Criminals in the UK
Founded in New York City in the early ’90s, Fun Lovin’ Criminals all but fell into a record deal with EMI, but the group’s debut album, 1996’s Come Find Yourself, earned the Criminals instant recognition via its hit single, “Scooby Snacks.” Although the song remains FLC’s lone chart success in the States, where it reached No. 14 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, the UK embraced the group, which landed its next seven singles in the Top 30. Similarly, whereas only Come Find Yourself broke the album charts here (and only at No. 144), the band’s first three albums all made it into the UK Top 10, and its most recent two releases, 2005’s Livin’ In The City and 2010’s Classic Fantastic, are available only as imports in America. Although Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ success has cooled somewhat since its heyday, the band continues to tour Europe on a regular basis, with frontman Huey Morgan also carving a side career for himself as a radio host and occasional chat-show guest.
20. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in Japan and the UK
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s experimental TV series Twin Peaks enjoyed phenomenal success in America as an eight-episode midseason “event,” only to crash and burn during its second and final season. Fourteen months after the series finale, Lynch’s feature-film prequel about the events leading up to the murder of Laura Palmer was all but booed off the screen at the Cannes Film Festival, and when the movie opened in U.S. theaters during the dog days of August, it was treated as a cultural non-event and a critical and commercial disaster. However, the Twin Peaks cultists of Japan never lost the faith, and the movie was enough of a blockbuster there to make up for the losses here, where the total box-office receipts didn’t cover half the movie’s $10 million budget. Meanwhile, reviewers in England got a head start on the inevitable re-evaluating of the film, with many prominent British critics calling it a masterpiece released into the punishing gears of international backlash.