top cx logo
cx logo
Explorearrow down
search icon

French: language of laughter

Getting the joke is one of the challenges to anyone learning French but there aremany funny comedians out there

RAPID-FIRE jokes and topical allusions make French comedian Anne Roumanoff hard for British ears to pick up but the habit is worth cultivating as she is the No1 French comedy star by a long way.

She leads a recent poll by TNS-Sofres of France’s favourite comedians.

Roumanoff has made politicians the butt of her jokes: she has no confidence in President Sarkozy’s ability to promote economic growth as, at 5ft 5 inches, he has hardly done any himself; and says when a pitbull sees Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry in the street it crosses to the other side of the road. She is the latest in a line of comedians who have transformed humour in France from the accident-prone gendarme of Louis de Funès into something more satirical and biting. While Roumanoff prefers to speak directly to audiences she has become hugely popular through TV.

In third place, but first among the men, is Dany Boon, the star and writer of massive box-office hit film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis.

Boon looks at life through a different glass, opting often to focus on the “difficult stuff” and finding humour in it.

He has told journalists: “What I like is touching on difficult subjects and making people laugh about them.

“That’s what made me different and that’s why people come to see me.”

Even native-English speakers have crossed over to have a go at stand up in France. Eddie Izzard has been known to do his rambling show in French, as well as dropping it into his English acts, and is rarely seen on TV these days as he says it uses up his material too fast.

Another British star, Mark Thomas, has performed in France – most usually at the Laughing Matters club in Paris, where owner Karel Beer has had UK-style stand-up shows for 20 years.

Comedian Marcus Brigstocke has often played here after appearing in the BBC programme Excuse My French where he had to learn the language and then do a show in French. He says the British rambling style does not work as the French prefer exaggerated performances along the lines of his ski instructors, who go “Swish, swish, swish, make love to two women, swish, swish, swish etc.”

Since the 1980s and the late Coluche, humour has become, variously, foul-mouthed, politically-charged and challenging. Coluche’s violent blue-striped salopettes, yellow T-shirt and red nose matched his violent language towards the Establishment with mouthfuls of swearwords on French TV.

He said: “God shared out; he gave food to the rich and appetite to the poor”.

It earned him the status of popular philosopher and he was tempted into running in the presidential elections in 1981 – but dropped out after polls showed he would actually take a large part of the vote.

In 1985 he launched the charity for which he has become celebrated, Restos du Cœur, which provides food and clothing for the needy.

He was nothing like Louis de Funès or Jacques Tati, the men who put a certain type of French humour on the map. Coluche owed his humour to the likes of Guy Bedos in the 1960s who put the Left-wing in centre stage and put comedy into the news.

Bedos also inspired Pierre Desproges who used his cut-glass accent to say scandalous things about the people and topics of the day, such as: “One should not give up hope on imbeciles. With a little training, you can make them into soldiers.”

Or “Bigamy is when you have two wives, monotony is when you only have one.”

TV channel Canal+ has influenced comedy – and, arguably, politics – as it launched Les Guignols de l'info who were once called the “best leader writers in France” as their Spitting Image-style latex puppets parodied life.

The show parodies President Sarkozy as a short-tempered populist obsessed with collecting Rolex watches and has actually helped rehabilitate the image of Jaques Chirac as an amicable bonhomme – he is the show’s most popular puppet.

Sarkozy came into the line of fire of Canal+ presenter Yann Barthès who fronts the satirical Le Petit Journal. His video remix of the president’s two speeches to two farmers’ meetings highlighting that it was the same speech despite starting “I have not come to give you a speech you have already heard,” made headlines on both side of the Channel.

Parodies are staple food for comedy poll number two Florence Foresti whose impressions of Madonna, Ségolène Royal and Amy Winehouse are easily understood without the language.

Fellow Moroccans Jamel Debbouze (Muslim background) and Gad Elmaleh (Jewish) are pushing the borders of humour into race, religion and culture. Debbouze tells of living in a one-bedroom flat with 15 others – when the fridge was empty his mother said they were practising for the fasting month of Ramadan.

Notorious, political, but less wholesome is Dieudonné, who is still often labelled a comedian despite several convictions for anti-semitism as a result of jokes on issues like holocaust denial.

Resident or second-home owner in France?
Benefit from our daily digest of headlines and how-to's to help you make the most of life in France
By joining the newsletter, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
See more popular articles
The Connexion Help Guides
featured helpguide
Visa and residency cards for France*
Featured Help Guide
- Visas and residency cards (cartes de séjour) for France help guide - Understand when visas and residency cards are required to move to France or come for an extended stay - Applies to Britons (post-Brexit) and to all other non-EU/non-EEA/Swiss nationalities - Useful to anyone considering a move to France, whether for work or otherwise, or wanting to spend more than three months at their French second home
Get news, views and information from France