I have been trying to get to grips with the French sense of humour. Given my tenuous understanding of the language, this is something of a tall order and I’m resigned to it being a long and ultimately fruitless task. Nevertheless there should be a few laughs on the way. Here are a few general observations.
The French can be very funny. We’ve recently been watching a Netflix comedy series Dix pour cent, about the staff working at a talent agency in Paris. It’s available in the UK with the title Call my agent and I strongly recommend it. It’s cleverly written, well-acted and easily stands comparison with the best of US and UK comedy. Another excellent programme on French tv is Scènes de ménages ( a Scène de ménage is what a UK policeman would call a “domestic”). Each week we see a series of very short sketches, each featuring one of a set of six couples ranging in age from their thirties to their eighties. It’s now in it’s tenth series and the characters are all well-established. Again, its well written and acted and I’m a little surprised a UK company hasn’t picked up this simple but effective format.
On the other hand, French humour can often be very childish. When I was teaching in Paris, I was surprised by how often a group of adults could be reduced to fits of giggling by any passing mention of nudity, bodily functions or lavatories. Once I discovered this, I found a touch of the Frankie Howards was a useful way of enlivening a lesson that was beginning to sag a little.
The phrase double entendre is not used in France To get the English meaning across in France you would say double sens or sous- entendu.
The French love calambours (puns). The language lends itself well to them for two reasons. Firstly, in spoken French, the syllables in a sentence are much more evenly stressed. An English person is unlikely to misunderstand the phrase “mighty tower” as “my tea tower” but in French “les rapaces” (the birds of prey) sounds identical to “les rats passent ” (the rats are passing). Secondly French has a lot more homophones than English : sain, saint, ceint, (healthy, saint, surrounded) are all pronounced the same, as are ver, vert, vers (worm, green, towards ) and sceau, saut, seau (seal, jump and bucket). The list of homophones seems to be endless.
Puns have an honourable history in French classical literature. In the 16th Century when the dramatist Corneille wrote: Le désir s’accroît quand l’effet se recule (Desire increases when the effect recedes), he knew full well that his audience would pick up the alternative Le désir s’accroît quand les fesses reculent ( Desire increases when the buttocks recede).
A popular type of pun today is Monsieur et Madame. These are similar to English “knock knock jokes” (or the late arrivals at the ball in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – Mr & Mrs Decent-Exposure, & their son, Ian; Mr & Mrs Nutcluster, & their daughter, Hazel)
Monsieur et madame Vanbus ont une fille. Comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Mr and Mrs Vanbus have a daughter. What’s her name?
(“Hillary Vanbus” = “Il arrive en bus,” = “He’s arriving by bus.”)
Monsieur et Madame Bonbeur ont un fils, comment l’appellent-il?
Mrs and Mr Bonbeur have a son. What’s his name?
(“Jean Bonbeur” = jambon beurre = a ham sandwich)
Monsieur et Madame Diote ont une fille, comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Mr and Mrs Diote have a daughter. What’s her name?
(Kelly Diote = Quelle idiote! = what an idiot!)
The French also like spoonerisms (contrepèteries) – where two letters are switched around in a phrase to change its meaning. Again these have been around a long time – In the 15th century Rabelais gave us “Elle est folle de la messe.” ( she’s crazy about mass) and “elle est molle de la fesse,” (“she has a soft behind.” ).
Most of the modern versions I’ve come across are obscene but this poster is relatively tame.
Macron nous a dit 2 gros mois / Macron nous a mis 2 gros doigts (Macron told us two great months / Macron gave us two big fingers.)
Here’s another: Les Russes sont en fetê. / Les fesses sont en route. (The Russians are celebrating. / The buttocks are on their way). They do seem to have a thing about buttocks, don’t they?
Like all nations the French have their stereotypes. The target for national humour is Belgium, with Belgians being portrayed as uniformly thick. They are similar to Irishman jokes in England, and about as funny:
Pourquoi les Belges ont-ils arrêté la chasse au canard?”
Parce qu’ils n’arrivent pas à jeter le chien assez haut!”
Why did the Belgian stop hunting ducks?
They couldn’t throw the dog high enough.
The only Belgian joke that has made me smile doesn’t really fit the category:
“The director of Pulp Fiction is making a movie about a Belgian comic book character who gets coronavirus and has to self- isolate. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s “Tintin’s Quarantino”.
I’ll get my coat.
Within France there are numerous regional stereotypes but these very according to where you ask. Here are a few opinions I’ve picked up from some very unscientific research. As far as I am aware, there isn’t a scrap of truth in any of them:
Parisians think that everyone outside Paris lives on a farm.
People to the south of Paris (Versailles, Chartres, Orléans): are “closet monarchists”.
The rest of the country think that Parisian are rude, sulky and arrogant.
People from Normandy can’t give you a straight answer to a question and are addicted to apples.
People from Nord-Pas-de-Calais are depressive, in-bred and alcoholic.
People from Brittany are stubborn, scheming and “really alcoholic”.
People from Alsace are uncommunicative, with ridiculous accents and shitty weather.
People from the Auvergne are crafty, greedy and live on cheese.
People from Marseille are always exaggerating, and the women are the equivalent of Essex girls.
People from the south-west (Basque country) are loud, colourful and alcoholic.
People from Toulouse are always late and live on cassoulet.
People from Lyon are laid-back and have an inferiority complex towards Paris.
People from Poitou and the Loire ( i.e. us) are stubborn, boring, conservatives.
People from Bordeaux are champagne socialists (“gauche caviare” ); they either have an uncle who owns a vineyard or are pensioners living by the sea.
People from Nice are not very nice at all.
I’d be glad to hear of others or of any observations on French humour.