Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Farting Puppets: The Terrific, Bizarre World of Danish Kids' TV

A little more than two years ago, Denmark’s absurdly well-funded public-television network DR spun off some of its children’s programming and launched a separate station just for kids. The new station was named “Ramasjang,” which means something like “hullabaloo” in Danish, and it’s amazing. I can’t get enough.

Ramasjang has everything you’d want in a children’s television network. It’s got a fake news program called "Gepetto News," starring a talking purse named Babe and a whole cast of puppets that look like drug-addled Jim Henson bizarros. It’s got earnest dance lessons meant for preteens that somehow don’t make you cringe while you’re watching them. It’s got a show called “Nørd” (nerd), about the science of sports like tennis, archery and cycling. These alone would keep me hooked to the online archives—and I don’t even speak Danish. But I haven’t even gotten to the strangely hypnotic video loops of the sleeping, farting puppets, or the political dust-up over the network’s elderly transvestite character.

Ramasjang’s programming is educational, but not exclusively. It’s often just really, really weird. Fans of “Sesame Street” and its yep-yep-nope-nope Martians will appreciate the absurdity of this next clip. What seems at first to be a Flaming Lips video from the early nineties turns out to be Ramasjang’s hit music video “Mr.Calzone,” starring a hideous, singing pizza.

It’s also wholesome as heck. One of my favorite programs is “Min Funky Familie,” a School of Rock-type conceit where kids and their families get rock n’ roll makeovers and perform a song at the end. The kids are the lead singers, and the parents and older siblings back them up on drums, bass and guitar. And the songs are often in English—from ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” to AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top”—so it’s extra entertaining. “My Funky Family” pulls on a precise combination of my heartstrings by mashing up kid-comeback, glamorous-makeover and the earnest faces of the parents who are doing this thing to support their kids even though they look pretty silly in the process. (Go to the DR website here for an archive of show clips.)

What the cast of Ramasjang lacks in ethnic diversity (about 90 percent of people living in Denmark today are of Danish descent), it makes up for in spunk and cheeriness. Here’s a TV spot for a show called “Victorious.” I don’t know what this one is about, but I do love a tiny blond hip-hopping child—always have, always will!

The DR website describes Ramasjang as “the channel that parents can safely dare send their children alone in the room to see—without having to be nervous if they see something that’s too creepy.” That (bizarre thing) being said, Ramasjang isn’t overly prudish or protective, either. The producers of the network aren’t afraid to stand up against criticism from conservative politicians; our own PBS should take note.

Last month, the Christian Democrat party in Denmark—which, true, is so far to the right that it has no representatives in Parliament at the moment—filed a complaint with DR about a segment of “Gepetto News” that its members found especially offensive. The show featured an old man (puppet) wearing women’s underwear. He comes home from work, takes off his clothes, and dances in front of a mirror while singing a song whose chorus roughly translates to “I feel most free when I wear French lingerie.” The group, which was outraged that a children's program was being used for what was termed "propaganda," argued that it was exposing children to confusing issues before they would be prepared to process them correctly.

DR rejected the criticism with a shrug. Channel editor Kirstine Vinderskov responded by saying that it was Ramasjang’s job to “celebrate the values of diversity and tolerance.” (The Transvestite Association of Denmark (TID) also weighed in; the group’s president Pernille Feline explained that the segment in question isn’t about sex, it’s about gender roles, which is a perfectly appropriate thing for children to explore. She dismissed the debate by saying “It is a fart in a horn lantern.” (Goofy translations courtesy of Google Chrome.)

Although I’ve since become a connoisseur of Ramasjang, my first introduction to it was accidental. I was flipping channels one night in a Copenhagen hotel room last fall, Carlsberg and stroopwafels in hand—and hoping for a rerun of "M*A*S*H," as I’d enjoyed in many other Scandinavian spots along my trip. I landed on a program that baffled me. It wasn’t a show, because nothing happened, and it wasn’t a commercial, because it wouldn’t end. It was a series of shots of people and puppets sleeping, in a dimly lit room, with a grandfather clock tick-tocking soothingly in the background. All of the sleepers made comically loud sleep sounds—rolling around in bed, talking through their dreams, and, well, farting. Here’s a clip:

A few days later I happened to be interviewing two DR news reporters for another story, and so I asked them what in the world was up with the sleeping, farting puppets and humans. Sabine Matz and Michael Bech explained that the sleeping figures were all hosts of the shows that played on the network throughout the day. Instead of the network going black at night, it plays this sleep-themed loop, and there’s a countdown on the top of the screen, saying, for instance, "DR Ramasjang vi vågner om 10 timer og 5 minutter" ("DR Ramasjang will wake in 10 hours and 5 minutes"). The loop plays from 8:30 at night until 6 in the morning, when regular programming resumes.

"So the children know these guys, the puppets and the people," said Michael. "The one thing is, it’s saving money for the channel, and it’s also so that the parents can tell their children, 'See, you have to go to bed now; all the others are sleeping.'" Sabine told me that her five-year-old loved the network, and that it had won many awards in Denmark.

I told them that in the U.S., no channels tend to go black at night—not anymore, at least—and that when they run out of original programming in the odd hours, they just play reruns or infomercials. Then Michael said the most obvious thing in the world. "Children shouldn’t be watching television in the middle of the night," he said. "We are supposed to say, don’t switch it on—when it’s bedtime, it is not TV time."

That’s what I love most about Ramasjang, and why I think it so perfectly captures a particularly Scandinavian ethos—socially liberal, but simultaneously strict on matters of public health and well-being. It’s public television that isn’t afraid to be really weird, and it doesn’t buckle to hysterics from hyper-conservatives. Yet at the end of the day, it takes the somewhat radical step of telling its audience to turn it off.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn who has lately learned to love pickled herring.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

Cass Bugge@twitter (#228,963)

I dated a guy in college who looked a lot like that singing calzone. This article on Ramasjang made me see him in a totally different light. This Danish Muppet show feels better than cognitive therapy. How do we import it???

@Cass Bugge@twitter

That's actually not the craziest thing to come out of Denmark.

Meet Dolph the Fascist Hippopotamus:

And their talking fruit:

This tv channel is as funny and hilarious as is is strange and wird.
As a dane, I just love the way their educational programs take care of informing young kids how things are made as well as …having guys dance in woman underwear :)
This tv program have won the hearts of kids and adults all over denmark.
If you have the opportunity to experience some of the programs in a whole, i am sure you'd love it too

Greetings to all from Denmark :)

And the best thing is the kids love it.. disney channel or any other cannot compete with it in our house Osman og jeppe is one of my favourite

Is farting in one's sleep specific to the Danish people, or do we all do it?

Helge (#229,202)

You can watch Ramasjang live on the internet:

A helpful reader from Denmark just emailed me to let me know that "fart in a horn lantern" is an incorrect translation (surprise surprise). The word that Google-Translate thought meant "fart" actually means "little candle." So the phrase is something like "little candle in a big lantern," as in, the light from the little candle is not bright enough to power the lantern. Which makes a lot more sense.

Actually that it not entirely correct. The word which google translated to "fart" is actually entirely correct. That is because in danish the word "fart" also is the word used about a very small stump of a candle (tællelys). That however is such a long time ago, that I would say the most people in Denmark would know it as a fart – thus Google was actually correct – Also a horn lygte(lantern) is not just a big lantern, its actually a small lantern made to give off very little light – My guess would be that you could call it a thief's lantern and that type of lantern only used those very small candles. Nowadays the saying is used to say that something doesn't mean anything (similar to a storm in a glass of water). Final comment is that I really enjoyed reading about something well known from an Americans point of view. You should properly have watched the yearly danish charity collection who as well, if you wanted to be more surprised as well ;)

Thanks for that further clarification, Arne. So it's more like "little candle in a little lantern," insignificant all around, maybe. I'm probably still a little confused about the etymological particulars of that phrase…but luckily, I don't think I'll have the occasion to use it or quote it ever again. (Even though I'm secretly hoping that "fart in a horn lantern" becomes the new slang to catch on with all the cool kids.)

@Lauren Kirchner@twitter Arne is very correct in his explanation with one exception. The phrase doesn't mean "Nowadays the saying is used to say that something doesn't mean anything". It is used when something has very little substance, like in your article when the christian party complains to the channel, their argument holds very little substance and isn't based on any fact (like a statistic showing kids damaged by seeing this hilarious underwear wearing doll). Or like when me and my sister where kids and we would be scared of running over to the neighbor at night with the newspaper, my dad would tell us it was "Fis i en hornlygte" to be scared of that, cause yeah granted, it was dark, but that was about it with the scary stuff that could happen on the 20 second run over there.
And yeah, the phrase comes from old times, but like Arne said, today most people know Fis to mean fart, not a very small weird candle from old days…so Google was correct in it's translation. If you had asked any Dane on the street most of them would have told you it meant "A fart in a horn lantern"…except the one guy with historical expertise on old danish sayings…cause of course you run into him everywhere now a days! :)
Love the article, love Ramasjang and in general love the Awl, Thanks from Denmark :)

@Julie Sørand@facebook
True, I was trying to make a possible comparison for easier understanding ;) But yes, something that isn't really anything is closer.

Btw: I love how many danish people was attracted to comment on this :D

Last thing: Braceface can't be considered as part of this, since that and its other idiotic counterparts are not danish produced.

Marvin Bek@twitter (#229,215)

Found the song mentioned earlier, with translated lyrics too!

Danish man (#229,286)

Im from Denmark, and there is something wrong about this picture you all are creating, on the danish tv channal there is a serie call brace face, and there using words like horny in that show, i dont no if this is the case in the original show ( English voice ) but in danish they use words like horny an so on, i have send an email too the danish channel and they say its okay for children to lising to words like that !! my child is 10 years but she is not aloud to see this show anymore, so now you all now that the channel is not perfekt like rest off the world !!
I send you all peace from Denmark :)



Danish man (#229,286)

This is the funniest Danish children's program ever MUST SEE :)

Hey all :) Thought I would come with some corrections here. Regarding the sentence "Fis i en hornlygte" Hornlygte was actually like a small lantern, but with very thin sheets of cow's horn for glass, so it would give off a very dim orange light, when a sharp light wasn't wanted. Sleeping-light, reading-light or when trying to avoid startling animals, as it was primarily used on farms. And of course, for sheer cozyness :) So in english, the translation would more accurately be; "Little candle in a small cowhorn lantern" (Fis is a small candle, also called "tællelys" made from fat from animals. Usually cow fat)

I would also like to add, to Douglas Muth, that Dolph the Hippo is not for children. It is dark, sarcastic, ironic, morbid and very funny adult humour. Not for children!

@Danish man

Ehmm, Brace Face is not danish, and I very much doubt that you would hear words like horny, unless it is a translation fault, since the show is originally aired in english.

Finally, I'm glad to hear about a danish show from another point of view, which is not danish. Kids love the show! So do I when I watch it with the smaller family members of ours.

Danish man (#229,286)

@Michael Madsen@facebook

Episodes 14 – 18 look for yourself in Danish If you do not believe me, I have written to Jacob Stegelmann but he thinks it is okay and part of the development of children to hear words like horny, but yes it is probably wrong translated into Danish, as you say, but apart from that I've lost my respect for Jacob Stegelmann after this. He is a sickly older man.

CitizenDane (#229,405)

Thank you for a very interesting article. This blog post was mentioned at the DR web site, and as a father of two small girls I watch Ramasjang all the time. I like the channel too and it was refreshing to read an outsiders perspective. Especially when it's so well researched. One small thing: Im a godless socialist scandinavian liberal myself, but I can still recognize that the "Christian Democrat party" is not that far out on the political right. They are more of a center based party with strong christian values. The reason they are not in the parlament is probably that the political middle in Denmark is so crowded. There just isn't room for them. Plus religion is not that big a thing over here (thanks god for that, Im tempted to say). Thanks again for the article.

CitizenDane (#229,405)

@ Danish man: I admire your engagement in protecting our children, but I do believe that you are overestimating the impact of occasional words of profanity. Whether we like it or not our children experience emotions that will eventually develop into sexuality. Hearing and talking about that is all part of growing up.

Danish man (#229,286)


Think of very young children should not listen to these things, I'm not a Christian but I believe in Christian values and my daughter is a Christian, so it's not good to listen to such a language, and children should not listen to these things before they are at least 12 years in my opinion, but it's up to parents, we do not see bracefacen anymore but the other Danish programs are okay,

you have to take good care of children, just because many think it is normal for small children to use sexual words does not make it okay or right, I see it more as parents have abandoned their children at that point,it does not matter where in the world you come from, people have forgotten the right values, people only think about the power and material things and money, wake up now INFOWARS.COM,

many greetings

Danish Man

CitizenDane (#229,405)

I went to infowars. Can I have the last 15 seconds of my life back please

hoothoot (#229,570)

Great article. It's refreshing to read coverage of Denmark that doesn't concern itself with our healthcare or supposed levels of happiness.

I should point out that Alex Ahrendtsen is actually the cultural affairs spokesman for the Danish People's Party, a national-conservative party that, unlike the Christian Democrats, sports an annoyingly weighty presence in parliament.

Thanks for the correction @hoothoot – we just took out that bit.

Niels Bald@facebook (#230,890)

. . .yes Danish television are producing pretty god things for kids and youth. I have been producing for them for the last 19 years. But unfortunately they have began politically censure, as they did write the satire series H*A*S*H. A 24 episode crazy comedy series for youth – se the trailer:

Ave Niels Bald – Danish film- and television producer

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