The Brit who makes the French laugh... at themselves
Samantha David meets British stand-up comedian Paul Taylor, fast becoming well known in France for his hilarious commentaries on life in Paris
British Stand-up comedian Paul Taylor is a regular on TV station Canal Plus, first gaining popularity with his “What the F**k, France?” videos and now with his “What’s Up, France” series. Samantha David chatted to him about kryptonite, accents and how it all started.
Paul Taylor: “It started basically, in my last year at Queen Mary University in London. I didn’t have a lot of work to do, which was strange when you think it was my final year, but I didn’t. So I started binge-watching stand-up comedy and I really got into it. I’d always been a fan but I really started to think about doing it myself. Then there was a comedy night at the Student Union bar and I went to see it with my mates and a couple of them just weren’t that good.
They just died on stage, and I thought it really couldn’t be that difficult. I was beginning to think I wanted to do it, and started going to open mic nights in London as a audience member and it was the same story. Some of them were pretty awful and then one night, a guy bottled out. He just refused to get up on the stage and a mate said why don’t you take his spot after the break? So I ended up doing 5 minutes off the cuff and of course, it didn’t go very well, so I realised it was quite hard.”
So how did you end up doing stand-up in France?
“My day job at that time was with Apple, so I moved to Paris because they had a job going there. It involved a lot of international travelling, so I didn’t do any stand-up for about three years. I was just so busy working, and then I realised that it could work. Back in London, many of the most successful stand-ups were foreigners – all they had to do was stand on stage with their funny accents and relate all these mad experiences they’d had moving to the UK and settling down. So I thought perhaps in France I could be the funny foreigner who makes people laugh. So I made a resolution on New Year’s Eve 2013 to start doing stand-up again, and a month later I was back on stage. And then two and half years ago I gave up my day job to do it full-time. I had to really, because all the travelling with my job for Apple meant it was impossible to take the next step with my comedy. I couldn’t take on any regular gigs or anything. So it was decision time. I didn’t have a mortgage, or kids or anything so it seemed like a now-or-never moment and I didn’t want to regret not doing it so I took the plunge.
Part of your stage persona is speaking better French than the average Englishman - how did that come about?
It’s true that I speak French without an accent, partly because we lived in France for five years when I was a child, which really trained my ear to the accent, partly because my mother took care to invite French exchange students to stay every summer, and, of course, partly because my degree was in Spanish and French. Adeline, my wife, who is also now my manager, is French too, which of course helps! Also, I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve spent time in Canada, Spain, and Australia and I think I’ve just got good at doing accents.”
Do you only do stand-up in Paris?
I do work mainly in Paris, but I went to Australia in July for the French festival, which was great. The audiences were mainly French expats. I also did some gigs in Hong Kong and Shanghai which were great fun. What’s nice is that my videos have made me better known; they are massive audience-builders.”
So how did the videos come about?
It basically was me and a mate messing about. We just made this video about kissing, ‘faire la bise’ in French. It’s such a minefield, you never know which side to start or how many to do. So we made a video about it, posted it on YouTube and sent it to some mates and it went viral. Within a week the BBC were running it, and the Guardian; it was everywhere.
That was when Canal Plus contacted me and asked me to make a series of short videos about the idiosyncrasies of France, and so ‘What the F**k, France!’ was born. I was amazed how tolerant they were about swearing and the subjects that we tackled. But after 34 of them, I stopped because I didn’t want it to get stale. And now I’m making ‘What’s Up, France?’ which is about what’s going on in the news. But I’m looking at ways of keeping it fresh, the news moves on so fast.”
So the French enjoy your take on French life?
“The French enjoy talking about themselves, and listening to foreigners talking about them is even better. And because so many of them still think the Brits are all prim and proper, they also love me shouting and waving my hands about. I think it works because I actually live here, it validates what I’m saying, I know the culture well and when I laugh at things, they find themselves agreeing! I do a lot of research to make sure I’ve got the right end of the stick about the way things are, about the social security system, etc. I really want to be accurate even though I’m doing comedy not documentary. Sometimes people think my sketches are documentaries and pick me up on tiny points, but honestly, I’m doing it for laughs!”
What kind of things do you make jokes about?
Well, there’s lots to laugh about in every country. It’s observational, automatic check-outs are always funny, but how French people deal with them is even funnier. As a foreigner I see the funny side of things quicker than French people. I was surprised when I found out no-one had done anything about ‘la bise’ before. But when I stand there, and point out the funny side people laugh. It helps really. People remember me, because I’m the funny English guy.”
Your act is 50% in French 50% in English. How does that work?
Well, of course, using two languages means it’s tailored to expat Anglo/French audiences but it works pretty well in Paris where people are more used to speaking several languages. Otherwise, the word ‘English’ on the poster can be like kryptonite. It scares people away, but in fact French people always say they understand me very well. I think my Apple training comes in handy there. They taught me
to slow down and speak clearly when addressing groups of people, especially people without native English.
What’s coming up in January?
I’m starting a residency at a great venue called La Nouvelle Eve, near the Moulin Rouge in Paris, three times a week. I love the venue because it’s more like a club than a theatre; it has little chairs and tables, and you can get drinks during
the show. I’ll be performing there until March, and of course I’ll be making ‘What’s Up, France?’ videos for Canal Plus, which people will also be able to find on YouTube.
I’ve also got some dates coming up in Nantes and Bordeaux later in the year. And I’d love to play London. That’s a priority for me because there are so many French expats there.”
For more information, see paultaylorcomedy.com