Are the French Funny?

The French have their funny moments, just like everyone else. A French laugh is like any other kind, involving spontaneous sounds, movements of the face and body, and expressions of amusement. Laughter is pretty universal, as the Renaissance humanist François Rabelais points out in the lines that open his 1535 work, Gargantua:  “rire est le propre de l’homme”. Causes of laughter can also be particular to certain linguistic or social groups, as a French teacher I once knew pointed out when she commented that French and American people always laughed at different moments during a film. Considering that humor is about so much more than the words being spoken (and that the décalage between the audio and subtitles displayed onscreen during a film can add to the time discrepancy between laughs), this makes perfect sense. Sounds, second and third and fourth meanings, cultural context, current events – all of these play a role in whether someone has that immediate reaction of laughter, or at least cracks a smile.

François Rabelais | Source: Wikipedia

The other day I was listening to reportage on France Culture concerning American trade wars with China over the presence of Huawei, 华为, in the American market. The reporting was interesting, informative, of the moment, fast-paced, and punctuated with the French pronunciation of “Huawei”, which sounded like “ouah ouais”, which made me laugh every time a reporter uttered it. I don’t think the reporters intended to be funny, but for context, “ouah ouah” is the sound made by the dog Milou in the Tintin comic book series. In fact, it is generally how a dog’s bark is represented in French.

The dog Milou | Source: Tintin

Where does the Word "Humor" Come from?

So when are the French intentionally funny? Plenty of French people have “le sens de l’humour”, although other people, including quite a few anglophones I’ve spoken with, may have a tough time seeing it. Needless to say, there are linguistic and cultural barriers that can keep non-native speakers from seeing the funnier side of the French. The word “humour” has been in French dictionaries since 1932, when academicians gave it their approval, as indicated in a December 2003 Economist article titled “Very Droll”. If this seems relatively recent, we can note that earlier observations on the English word “humour”’ by the French writers Voltaire and Mme de Staël, according to the same article, indicate its infiltration into the French consciousness before its official début ushered in by the Académie Française.

The word is, in fact, a 17th-century borrowing from English word “humour”. But the history of French humor goes back even further than that. Laugh-provoking moments appear in French farce, which is part of a long theatrical tradition. The word farce comes from the Latin farsus which, as in French, means “stuffed” (think of the French dish chou farci, or stuffed cabbage). Farces were originally performed at the entr’acte of medieval church plays, and by the 15th century the term was used to describe the elements of clowning, acrobatics, caricature, and indecency found together within a single form of entertainment, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica. La Farce de Maître Pathelin is a well-known play, dating from the latter part of the 15th century, that has provided the French language with the expression “revenons à nos moutons”, a request to return to the topic at hand.

La Farce de maître Pathelin | Source: Wikipedia

Getting to know French Humor – 3 Examples

1) Journalism, a Reflection to French Humor

Humor in France has been handed down in print media as well, and has a strong presence in social and political commentary. Weekly publications, such as Le Canard enchaîné, give satirical reactions to current events through investigative reporting. Characterized by its droll representations, its red and black drawings, and its word play, the Canard enchaîné has been a presence in French journalism since 1915. The investigation of certain questionable political actions by journalists working for this paper has brought to light enough scandals to make politicians quake in their boots at its weekly installments.

Charlie Hebdo, another hebdomadaire, also uses humor to address current events. Founded in 1970, it addresses diverse topics and is part of a tradition in France that goes back to scandal sheets denouncing Marie Antoinette in the years preceding the French Revolution, according to a BBC article on Charlie Hebdo and its place in French journalism, published in January of 2015. Its contents have not always been well received, and it has even been the target of terrorist attacks, including the 2015 attacks by militant religious gunmen who entered the headquarters with automatic rifles, shooting twelve people. Following the attack, many people marched in solidarity with the staff of Charlie Hebdo, holding signs that said “Je suis Charlie”. In response to the attack, survivors put together an edition of the paper the following week that included a revival of the cartoon image of the Prophet Muhammad that the paper had previously published, holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign, under the headline “Tout est pardonné”.

The marches in Paris | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Having a sense of humor in times of tragedy takes a lot of grit, and not everyone recovers from tragic events at the same pace. A certain amount of dexterity is required to navigate all of the different reactions, feelings, and emotions that occur, but the issue of Charlie Hebdo following the 2015 attack sold as many as 7 million copies, as opposed to its usual 30,000, as stated by a January 2015 article in L’Obs. Its appearance in 25 countries, and publication in 16 languages, according to an article in Al Jazeera, also published in January of that year, illustrates the way in which this caricature and its message reached many people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.  

2) Humor in Samuel Beckett's Play

humor is often untranslatable, laughter and grief are universal, and can be found at the borders between different languages and cultures

Although humor is often untranslatable, laughter and grief are universal, and can be found at the borders between different languages and cultures. Samuel Beckett, who translated his own works from English to French and vice versa, included many elements of humor in his plays. Krapp’s Last Tape, or La dernière bande, as it is listed in the databases of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, brings us the title character whose recordings, which he plays onstage, give us the interior musings of a man who appreciates his own company: “Avec toute cette obscurité autour de moi je me sens moins seul... J’aime à me lever pour y aller faire un tour, puis revenir ici à... moi... Krapp”. While listening to ancient recordings of himself, he alternately pulls recording tapes and bananas from the drawers of a desk that features prominently in the minimal set design.

3) Siri in France Speaks Differently

For interactive humor, France has its own version of Siri, the technology company Apple’s virtual assistant. Although her main purpose is to provide information, she will take issue with language that is too severe. “Va te faire voir, Siri !” could bring the response “On dit ‘S’il vous plaît’”. For a more diplomatic foray into Siri’s more comic moments, you could say to her: “Siri, raconte-moi une blague”, which could elicit the same response.

How to Have a Sense of Humor

As an exercise, I once had a group of Dominican friars that I was teaching create French headlines for Eye of the Tiber, the Catholic version of the satirical publication The Onion. One title we came up with was “Saint François n’avait pas d’animaux amis ; mais il avait des animaux ennemis”. While making sense of this headline requires a) an understanding of French phonetics, rhythm, and assonance b) knowledge of Saint Francis of Assisi as founder of the Franciscan religious order c) familiarity with his well-known love of animals, and d) awareness of the friendly teasing and rivalry that takes place between different orders of the Catholic church, it did make our group of people laugh, thereby being a successful pitch for our list.

Conclusion

I’m not sure there is anything more entwined with context than humor, although there are other intangible, ephemeral, spontaneous human reactions that are as inseparable from their time and place. Crying, which sounds a lot like laughing, acts in the same way. And it is possible to laugh so hard that tears begin to roll down your face. In any case, whether you book tickets for Gad Elmaleh’s stand-up comedy or slip on a banana peel, any resulting laughter will be an impromptu initiation into a certain comic arena.


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