“I believe that nothing separates people more than their sense of humour” (Theodore Zeldin)
There is nothing more universal than the sense of humor. What makes Americans laugh will probably be different to what makes the French, Chinese, or Canadians chukle. French humor has its own specificity. Each country has its own humour connected to its own culture, its own codes. Would it be possible that an American, a British and a French laugh about the same jokes?
The world famous Marcel Marceau and Charlie Chaplin used mime, a form of non-speaking humour, based on gestures and this form could be universally understood. But what happens when humour uses words, playing on words, sometimes untranslatable in another language, or culturally meaningless in another culture?
What can we say about the French sense of humor? (French what… ?) It seems that it is not fully understood or appreciated outside of French borders. One of the reasons may be that we love the language and a large part of the humor is based on it, which makes it difficult for non-French speakers to understand.
As a French person, I will be honest and acknowledge that France is known for gastronomy, fashion, luxury … but surely not for a strong sense of humor! Dramas, romanticism, debates, food, are definitely more associated to France than humor. Let’s be honnest, we are somehow jealous of British humor that allows people to be intelligent and fun at the same time.
If you think of England, among different things, its dry sense of humor using absurdity and self-derision comes up as an obvious humor base. The same thing applies to Belgian jokes. Despite the fact that they will not make everybody laugh, there are part of the Belgium culture.
British humor versus French humor ?
Humor is by definition an Anglo-Saxon concept, the equivalent in French of esprit, farce (prank) and humeur (a state of mind, or mood), but certainly not humor. The word humor appeared for the first time in a dictionary after 1932.
What makes the French laugh then? We adore sophisticated wit, the well-turned phrase qui tue (a killer sentence), the finely-tuned jeu de mots (play on words) but also the broadest farce, the silliest slapstick, the most basic and brutal satire.
French humour can be described by the Anglo-Saxon as Grinçant a concept typically French where the object is usually somebody else like in Le Diner de cons a movie from Patrice Leconte – 1998 The main aim of la “derision” consists in mocking someone else’s weak point or naïve attitude. In Le Diner de cons, Pierre Brochant, a Parisian publisher, attends a weekly “idiots’ dinner”, where guests, who are modish, prominent Parisian businessmen, must bring along an “idiot” who the other guests can ridicule. At the end of the dinner, the evening’s “champion idiot” is selected.
However, French humour is not just always witty, it can also be quite often under the belt en dessous de la ceinture and fairly straightforward known as l’esprit Gaulois. We could describe l’Esprit Gaulois as a peculiar form of coarse humor, often referring to sex with a tone rather downright rude, crude and realistic. L’Esprit Gaulois is a very old inheritage going back to a medieval tradition.
French humor is usually quite literal, particularly for example in the plays of Georges Feydeau, a French playright of the era known as the Belle Époque, and well known for his many lively farces. In Feydeau’s plays, many situations were based on a quiproquo, with mixed up situations : the lover being taken for the husband and the servant for the mistress.
A quick comparison with British humour will highlight the main differences. British humour has a lot to do with self-derision – which is perceived as demonstrating low self-esteem in France. British humor against French Esprit then? The French can hardly deal too long with absurdity, we are too rational for that !
According to the French humorist Pierre Desproges in Les étrangers Comment reconnaitre l’humour anglais de l’humour français? (how to recognize British humour from French humor ?), the British sense of humor underlines the despair and absurdity of the world while French humor will more easily refer to jokes about your mother in law and are more down to earth.
My personal choice would be to go for British humor for its tendency for absurdity, self-derision, humour Pince sans rire (tongue-in-cheek) with a drop of French humor for certain witty play on words.
Satirical humour : a tradition which dates back to the French Revolution
Satirical humor is another specific aspect of our culture. It can also be quite ferocious and irreverent with the government and very critical towards the different symbols of institutions and powers. Les Guignols de l’info, a puppet show mocking the French politicians known for its sharp satire, has appeared on France’s Canal+ channel since 1988. It is now closely tied to another popular Canal+ offering, a political talk show Le Grand Journal. That would be comparable to the American TV show House, with Hugh Laurie. These two TV shows are a perfect illustration of our taste for a subversive and stinging form of humor.
Before TV, the press through cartoons was already involved in satire. Mocking religion and rulers in cartoons date back to the Revolution when King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were favourite targets of cartoonists, who drew the king as a pig and his spouse as a serpent. The clergy were also pilloried in printed comic strips. But press cartoons really took off in the 19th century.
Later in the late 1960’s, among others magazines and weekly newspapers (Hara kiri, le Canard Enchaîné) the satirical Charlie Hebdo created in 1969, continued that spirit; bold, audacious, irreverent with criticism of politicians, cultural practices, and practically every major religion. It was not only political and religious satire but also social critique, from ecology to economy and finance.
After the Charlie Hebdo’s massacre in January 2015, only part of the newspapers in France and around Europe ran the cover showing the Prophet Muhammad with a tear on his cheek and holding a Je Suis Charlie. Some of the biggest media platforms in the world chose not to show the cover in its coverage. Despite the fact that all media are all concerned by the freedom of speech, our taste for satire cartoons can embarrass other cultures especially when religion is involved. Is it maybe more a question of the definition of blasphemy?
Proof maybe that humor is definitely cultural and not that easy to export.
If you are interested in learning more about French identity, French culture, French good and bad reputation, linguistic and cultural specificities; In a word if you are curious about France and the French language, just have a look at my blog