Otis Langmann once said “Humor is not universal” – a strange thing to say during a blimp crash, but absolutely true and insightful. Indeed, humor is not universal. Just like languages, traditions, or attitudes about walking around naked, humor is influenced by many factors, from geography and culture to politics, religion and even economic development.
Thus, one man’s Desperate Housewives is another man’s Shoah. It seems incredible, but if an uproarious American comedy offering like That’s So Raven found itself in Iran, you wouldn’t hear a single ululation in the audience – even if women were allowed to see it. Likewise, bring Iran’s chador-busting comedy Allah’s Fiery Nuclear Condemnation of Jews and Zionists to the U.S. and we find ourselves asking “What’s so funny about that?” before calling the U.N. and requesting an explanation and/or some sanctions.
In an effort to understand the comedy of other cultures, Banterist is setting out on a global quest to analyze some of the premier humor offerings of various countries in the hopes that some day we’ll all be on the same page – if not religiously, culturally, developmentally or intellectually, then at the very least, comedically. As Otis Langmann once said: “Understanding a national sense of humor is paramount to the hey hey hey haw.”
It doesn’t make much sense, but in his defense he was on fire.
Today’s explored country: France.
People often react to French humor the same way they react to a spaceship landing on their lawn: raised eyebrows, squinting and a certain sense of What the hell is going on here? Like the lyrics of French pop icon Johnny Hallyday, French humor is not overly complex – it is accessible from a lowly Prime Minister to a high-ranking gutterwash. That’s where its genius may or may not be: because of its simplicity, one needn’t have been brought up in France to understand French humor. One need only like poo.
Let’s look at three French comedic landmarks:
ETIENNE ET BART
France’s Dynamic Duo
It’s no suprise they’re France’s most revered comedy duo – most everyone can relate to the leering Bart’s adulterous behavior and wiry, bespectacled Etienne’s desire to not do something. People still talk about the unforgettable 1992 season which contains classic sketches like Etienne Loses His Shoe, and the award-winning Someone Has Farted. In fact, Garfield creator Jim Davis cites Etienne et Bart as one of his comedic mentors – right up there with Gallagher and sewing patterns.
Why are they so popular? Let’s analyze this scene from Etienne Needs A Lightbulb and see what makes the comedy work:
Now, the comedy here derives from the fact that Etienne really needs a lightbulb. The 12 pages preceding this scene have established that Etienne’s hallway is darker than he would like it to be – a darker hallway than normal and the urgency of needing additional wattage becomes the comedic set-up. In addition, Etienne is heavily invested in the task of getting a new lightbulb, because he had to walk down a flight of stairs to the general store underneath his apartment. Because of the serious mission he’s undertaken – diverting him from the national desire for effortless existence – the audience is very eager to see Etienne’s success in obtaining a lightbulb. Any diversion from that goal would be hilarious.
The fact that the store does not have a lightbulb is a comedic geyser as well, because the store has many things – like forks, soap and twine. It really should have lightbulbs. Most audiences are tempted to surrender with laughter at this point, but there is more. The French have come to expect Etienne’s hilarious patented response which he’s provided audiences since 1983. Imagine if Billy Crystal still said “You look mahvelous” today and you can understand the powerful comedic impact of Etienne’s secular “Ay Ya Ya.”
Il est crippled!
Laurent Pigalle is the only handicapped person in France, and coincidentally the funniest handicapped person in France. Much (all) of his comedy is predicated on the fact that 98.7% of Paris is completely inaccessible to him and his wheelchair. Episodes like I Can’t Get Into The Theatre and I Can’t Get Into The Post Office have arguably similar themes, but the locations are different. Every year Pigalle has a holiday show titled The Sidewalk Is Too Fucking Narrow where he throws chestnuts at a chorus of women blocking his way.
Looking this scene allows us to understand his comedic genius:
As in every Pigalle scene, the comedy builds when the merchant/clerk/banker/manager has invited Pigalle inside their building – which is invariably eight steps up and behind a two-foot wide door. The audience, now well aware that Pigalle can’t possibly enter, is on pins and needles. They’re unsure of what his response may be – even though it’s always the same. Pigalle, seeing the obstacle before him, rolls his eyes and states that he is unable to access the establishment. The audience realizes that’s exactly what he says every time, and starts to laugh because they had foolishly expected him to say something else. With the payoff complete, credits start to roll, and the Parisian merchant/clerk/banker/manager excuses himself and locks Pigalle out.
ZOUBIR THE TOLERABLE ALGERIAN
Please don’t torch that.
This dramedy about a popularly marginalized immigrant has slightly enamored audiences with a blend of North African and French humor. The result – political diatribes punctuated with farting – blame the French government for everything but in a playful, non-threatening way. The show’s few critics complain that one often has to work too hard to find the comedy, though it’s crystal clear in this scene:
This scene is funny for several reasons. First of all, pooting is never not hilarious. Secondly, the viewer understands that Zoubir’s family did flee their terrible little country so he could vacuum dog doo along the Seine. That resonates with the viewer, who thinks to himself: Well we certainly didn’t invite you here to cook.
Also, it’s funny that Zoubir’s argument is rewarded with money by Jacques (played with gusto by French comedian Jacques Chirac).
Fans of classic French comedic structure will notice the familiar pattern of Dog Poo reference – Fart – Subsidy.
Critics think the forced laughter track is unnecessary as most viewers are already laughing nervously at the idea of an disenfranchised immigrant getting paid to stand on a street corner and not cause trouble. Before they were set on fire by bearded militants, the producers of Zoubir The Tolerable Algerian said the forced laughter device serves only to drive the point home that Zoubir is just like us.
Next installment: Der Hilariokomedy of Germany und Austria