Is French Humour difficult to understand? There is nothing more universal than the sense of humour. What makes Americans laugh is quite different to what makes the French, Chinese, or Canadians chuckle. As with every country, French humour has its own quirks, connected to its own culture and its own codes. Would it be possible that an American, a Brit and a Frenchman 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 (rather then language) is 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 humour? 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 humour 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 humour! Dramas, romanticism, debates, food, are definitely more associated to France than humour. Let’s be honest, we are somewhat jealous of British humour that allows people to be intelligent, witty and fun at the same time.
If you think of England, among different things, its dry sense of humour using absurdity and self-derision comes up as an obvious humour base. John Cleese, Monty Python to name a few. Monty Python is hysterical in this video on “history of the joke”.
British humour versus French humour ?
Humour 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 humour. The word humour appeared for the first time in a dictionary after 1932.
So then, what makes the French laugh? 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 naive attitude. In it, Pierre Brochant, a Parisian publisher, attends a weekly “idiots’ dinner”, where guests, who are 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 below 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 humour, often referring to sex with a tone rather downright rude, crude and realistic.It is a very old in heritage going back to a medieval tradition.
French humour is usually quite literal, particularly for example in the plays of Georges Feydeau, a French playwright 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 humour against French Esprit then? The French can hardly handle too much 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 recognise British humour from French humour ?), the British sense of humour underlines the despair and absurdity of the world while French humour 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 humour for its tendency for absurdity, self-derision, “humour Pince sans rire” (tongue-in-cheek) with a drop of French humoUr for certain witty play on words.
Satirical humour: tradition which dates back to the French Revolution
Satirical humour 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 humour.
Before TV, the press used cartoons as a form of communicating and 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.
Charlie Hebdo describes themselves as this: “Charlie Hebdo is an angry magazine, a paper that takes the piss. It’s a weekly with a wallop, a digest with a dream. It’s a periodical that argues and a journal that thinks.”
It’s a gazette of the grotesque – because that’s what is so much of life and politics is. 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 humour 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 specificity; In a word if you are curious about France and the French language, just have a look at my blog topics.
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