Hey! French Humor Is Funny!
First published in Paris Passion, 1988
Seriously now, folks, why do so many people think that the French are about as funny as a crutch?
Because the French take their army seriously? Because there is no Gallic Robin Williams hollering “Bonnnjouuurrrr Algérieeeeee!” on Parisian movie screens? Because every would-be sophisticate, from Spy on down, is satisfied with mentioning a certain brain-dead American comedian (you know who we mean) when talking about the French funny bone? Because – and this is the truth – the word humour did not officially enter the French language until 1932? Of course not: to think along these lines would be hopelessly Americanocentric, betraying a skewed world view worthy of a registered Republican.
Nor does the French reputation for belly-laughless brilliance lie solely in: (a) a failed national avoidance of looking foolish; (b) a language more suited to puns than fun; or (c) the country’s legendary social constipation. To suggest any of these theories would be to indulge in gratuitous froggy-bashing, the national sport of a certain island people (yes, we mean you) stranded off France’s northwest coast. True, French humor may stand diminished in comparison to the general hilarity, intended and otherwise, reigning in the giggling cottages of Great Britain, but then again so does the humor of all other European nations. In a deservedly obscure article published in 1927, Floris Delattre, a French scholar gamely trying to overcome an inferiority complex, accounted for the perceived comic superiority of the British by harking back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. This event resulted in the mixing of the “French joie de vivre” with “Anglo-Saxon moroseness,” from which sprang the Brits’ satiric edge.
This too misses the mark. No, the reason most foreigners consider the French unfunny is simpler: No one listens to their jokes. Inveterate Francophobes might answer, “So who would want to?” and they might have a point. But for those interested in at least getting the ghost of a chuckle out of life here, this cranky cynicism is too killjoy an attitude to take. Better to suspend your critical faculties and enjoy the unalloyed puerility of French humor.
You may run into problems, however. First, you have to persuade Parisians that by telling you a joke, they will not undermine your high esteem for their intelligence. There is a pernicious prejudice in France that holds joke-telling to be the province of the lowbrow. One is either condemned as a rigolo/rigolotte or, in very rare instances, admired as an intellectual courageous enough to be stupid. There is no middle ground. When Boris Vian, France’s great comic genius of the 1950s, stated that “humor is despair being polite,” he was simply offering a clever apology for not turning his talents to such worthier pursuits as nausea, le nouveau roman, and strafing Algiers. Guy Bedos, the country’s enduring, aggressive funnyman, confided to France-dissector Theodore Zeldin, “Gaiety is an intellectual disposition that is slowly learnt.” This intellectual approach to humor, an attitude afflicting many Parisians, may explain why French fans of Woody Allen flock to see even his dreary art films. They sympathize with his wish to be taken seriously.
Once the hurdles of I’ll-tell-you-a-joke-but-don’t-despise-me has been cleared, you may be surprised by the variety of dumb yuk-yuks circulating in France. Although a culture not yet inured to dead baby jokes and other forms of healthy sick laughter, France does have a soft spot for truly cretinous humor. Hence the perennial popularity of the Belgian joke, which, though its counterparts are found everywhere (Brits tell Irish jokes; Americans, Polish; Swedes, Norwegian; etc.), is especially appreciated in France because of its celebration of stupidity. Since intelligence is the one character trait Gallic nationalists consider quintessentially French, jokes about moronic behavior hit a comic nerve, in much the same way that squeaky-clean Germans love shit-based stories and the mere mention of knickers is enough to get them rolling in the aisles in the uptight UK. Thus, the more excruciatingly stupid the Belgian jokes is (as in: “The train to Milan will leave at 7:45; the train to Berlin will leave at 8:20; the train to Brussels will leave when the big hand is on the 5 and…”), the funnier the French will find it.
The Belgians have been further abused by having the word Belge enter common usage as a description of anyone who is not playing with a full mental deck. Thus, Californians, whose intellectual powers may Parisians find slightly less impressive than those of the family poodle, are routinely referred to as “les Belges bronzés” (“tanned Belgians”). It’s difficult who should be more insulted by this slur, although the Belgians have recently mounted a counter-attack. Last year the following riddle was making rounds in the Brussels EEC building: “How do you make money in Europe? Buy a Frenchman for what he’s worth, then sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.”
In fairness, this sort of anti-French zinger is neither new nor even solely restricted to malevolent foreigners. Indeed, French humorists, usually of the Left, have long had a field day making fun of le Français moyen (“the average Frenchman”), who is portrayed as a smug, alcoholic Neanderthal by such cartoonists as Cabu, Wolinski and, occasionally, Claire Bretécher, and by such entertainers as TV’s Les Nuls. This tradition of exuberant misanthropy, stretching at least as far back as Flaubert and his Dictionary of Received Ideas (a compilation of mindless conversational clichés), is frequently seen summed up by a familiar scrawl on French bathroom stalls: “Si les cons volaient, il ferait nuit” (“If assholes could fly, it would be night-time”). To spell it out: if every jerk, cretin and nerd suddenly took wing, the flock would be so great as to block out the sun.
This other aspect of French humor (i.e. kicking each other in the teeth) makes up the mainstay of the comic repertoire. Such hot young comedians as Smaïn and Farid Chopel now regularly remind adoring audiences just how pathetic they are, just as the late king of French comedy, Coluche, would be as gross as possible in making the same point (He popularized the notorious: “Why is the rooster France’s national symbol? Because it’s the only bird that can sing proudly while standing on a heap of manure.”). In following his credo, “The French are just Italians in a lousy mood,” Coluche and his imitators won a large following among fans of gros comique, the pipi-caca school of peasant earthiness that is never far from the mind, and certainly not the sidewalks, of even the most urbane city-dweller in France. When Coluche was at the height of his popularity, voices were raisd about the decline of decency and wit in French humor.
As is usually the case in France, those protests were in keeping with a long tradition: French commentators are fond of announcing the imminent demise of a national habit of thought or talent. The great 19th-century humorist, Alphonse Allais, lampooned this chronic insecurity in his countrymen by writing: “I do not wish to make you melancholy, but Shakespeare is dead. Molière is dead. Marivaux is dead – and I’m not feeling too well myself.” More recently, the deaths of Coluche, Reiser ( a hilarious disgusting comic strip artist) and Thierry Le Luron (a gifted impersonator) in the mid-1980s immediately gave rise to speculation that the French funny bone had suffered a mortal blow. In a fit of Gallic seriousness that proved just how fundamentally bananas a place this is, the press rushed to publish a survey showing that the daily rate of French laughing has been steadily on the decline. In 1939, a real screamer of a year, the average amount of time devoted to laughter per day was 19 minutes. Just under 40 years later, that average had been reduced to 5. Thus, the French concluded that the French were unfunny.
This, of course, is the same conclusion arrived at by uninformed foreigners with short manners. The rich vein of Surrealist humor and fin-de-siècle practical joking seems to have been forgotten, even by the most ardent Francophiles. Alfred Jarry, for example, was famous for pulling a gun on anyone who asked him directions, while much of Guillaume Apollinaire’s talent was spent staging near-pornographic hoaxes. André Breton, who popularized sick humor through his Anthologie de l’Humour Noir in 1941 – and, incidentallly, approved of his fellow Surrealists’ cult of the lobster as a totem of the absurd – gave the French a taste for savage foreign satire.
In the 1950s and ’60s, along with Vian’s jazz-powered gospel of irreverence, came the work of Jacques Tati, the amiable oaf who in such films as Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot confirmed the French love of slapstick and gentle clowning. At the same time, Louis de Funès brought middle-class nihilism to new heights (or depths, depending on how you look at things), while the relative humorlessness of the ideologically correct students of the 1960s was relieved by the pranks of the Situationists and the incomparably gross antics of Hara-Kiri, a magazine that shares the sensibilities of both Alfred E. Newman and Larry Flynt. Still popular, Hara-Kiri shows there is a large market in France for people who make fun of absolutely everything.
Yet, in spite of the great comic legacy, the critics of contemporary France may have a point. Maybe depression has set in and the country that produced such ultimately comic figures as Fernandel, Sacha Guitry and Charles de Gaulle is, indeed, as funny as a crutch. Why spend all this time talking about their obsessions – intellectualizing humor, telling stupid Belgian jokes, bashing each other over the head, lapping up pipi-caca – when they themselves have forgotten their former mastery of absurdist, surrealist and slapstick humor? Aside from a few bright spots in the movies (the consistently vulgar Jean-Pierre Mocky and the inventive Etienne Chatiliez, whose La vie est un long fleuve tranquille broke new ground in satirizing the eminently ridiculous BCBG crowd), a small number of emerging comic talents, and a handful of cartoonists, the only public person going for laughs these days is France’s chief stormtrooper, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
We can only hope the bicentennial celebrations of the Revolution will cause a renaissance of French arrogance. The current bout of timidity is not only distasteful but also anathema to the creation of self-assured, nasty humor. One day, perhaps, we will return to the good old days when French people could airily proclaim, “I speak French to my friends, German to my teacher, Italian to my lover, Spanish to my cook, and English to my horse.” However, with the French funny bone silenced these days, we can’t even whinny in approval.