by Lauren Kirchner
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.