Unlocking the puzzle of French humour

Understanding comedy is another step towards fitting in, says columnist Nick Inman

Humour is a powerful force that brings people together or divides them, and foreigners can often feel left out
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The curtain goes up in our village hall. A man walks on to the stage and starts telling us about his love life. As he is doing so, he opens a cupboard and an uncountable number of garden rakes fall out. The audience erupts in laughter. 

Everyone is in hysterics except one person: me. I am baffled. 

What, I am wondering, is funny about that? It looks like a bad piece of slapstick and I’m not sure whether the spectators are laughing out of nervousness, politeness or genuine mirth. Either way, I feel left out.

Read more: Five things to know to understand the French mindset

Afterwards, a friend explains that it was a good gag – just one based on something I do not understand. 

Getting the joke is the ultimate test of integration into a new culture. It is the hardest part of Frenchness for the newcomer to master. You could say it is of secondary importance to paying taxes and finding a dentist but I think it’s more than that. 

Humour is a powerful force that brings people together or divides them. Daily life, including most jobs, would be grim without at least the occasional laugh.

Humour is an essential and instant form of human communication that bypasses or even sabotages all our carefully rehearsed forms of social interaction. 

It breaks the ice and diffuses tensions even in the most difficult situations, smooths over misunderstandings and short-circuits conflicts that could otherwise get nasty. 

It is also highly instructive… It is not the last thing a foreigner needs to be concerned with; I believe it should be given high priority.

What is French humour?

The French talk blithely about l’humour anglais (British humour), by which they mean everything from Benny Hill to Monty Python and beyond, but is there such a thing as “French humour”? 

Where do we look for the national funny bone? What do we foreigners have to understand if we are not to feel excluded?

Every country laughs at the same few targets in its own way: politics, religion, sex and so on, but what sets French humour apart is it is inward looking. 

The French are not so much concerned with universal truths and the human condition as laughing at themselves. The running joke is l’auto-dérision (self-mockery).

Paul Taylor, a British stand-up comedian based in Paris, has made a career of holding up a mirror to his audience. “The French enjoy talking about themselves, and listening to foreigners talking about them is even better.”

Read more: Films and series to watch to improve your French in July

What do French people joke about?

The favourite target of French comedians is their beloved language and its infernal complexity. Its precise rules of pronunciation comprise an endless source of material for comedians who also have fun with accents.

Verbal dexterity and the ability to deliver quick-fire puns (jeux de mots) are highly regarded in stand-up comedians and witty raconteurs who appear on the morning radio. 

The subject of much comedy is French culture and lifestyle. A society that so often lectures itself about equality, fraternity and solidarity also loves to throw snide remarks about how the other half lives. 

Social class is not nearly as evident in France as it is in the UK but it is still the source of jokes. 

More than class, it is place of residence and lifestyle that are ridiculed. Parisians make fun of provincials and provincials in turn pour scorn on the smug superiority of the capital. 

If you had to name a comedy vehicle that encapsulates the French sense of humour there would be two contenders. 

One would be the comic song, the lyrics of which are over-stuffed with tongue-twisters, double entendres and contrapèteries (spoonerisms, in which the first letters of two words are swapped to produce a suggestive “second-degree” meaning.

The other form of humour – with, it has to be said, a lot of help from Francophone Belgium – is comic art. The Asterix books are a triumph of witty words and entertaining drawings combined. 

Cartoonists for the provocative Charlie Hebdo and other publications, meanwhile, show great creativity in pushing visual-lexical jokes to the limit. 

French animators have also done well, although they don't always get the recognition they deserve. The yellow, pill-shaped minions of the Despicable Me series of films were created in a Parisian animation studio.

Laughter is part of life and it’s worth making the effort to enter into the French spirit of it if you can. As François Morel, a regular raconteur on France Inter radio station puts it: “Humour is a consolation, an inspiration… the simplest, indirect way to soften the harshness of the world and protect yourself against it.” 

Or, as a comedy actor of my acquaintance tells the audience at the end of every show, “Humour is like a set of windscreen wipers: they don’t stop the rain but they allow us to progress forward.”

Oh, and that cupboard full of rakes? The Académie Française has a helpful webpage on the subject explaining that se prendre un râteau means to be rejected in love (to get the brush off). The comedian was talking about his love life and had a cupboard full of them… Four months later, I’ve just got it!