My friendship with Hortense is a little like a perfectly paired wine and cheese, a harmonious blend of diverse personality traits that mesh seamlessly when it comes to our shared passions: food, travel, and humor, particularly the kind that tickles our French funny bone. This is why we had to add a night about French humor to our Social Club meetings! For those of you who can't make it tonight, we thought we would share a few thoughts about what makes the French humor so ... French!
A sense of humor is a universally shared trait, yet what elicits laughter varies significantly across cultures. American, French, Chinese, and Canadian comedic tastes diverge due to unique cultural nuances and codes intrinsic to each nation. In the realm of French humor, its distinctiveness is intricately linked to the country's cultural idiosyncrasies.
We all remember renowned figures like Marcel Marceau and Charlie Chaplin employed mime—a non-verbal form of humor rooted in gestures that transcends language barriers. However, when humor relies on language, incorporating wordplay and expressions specific to a particular tongue, it confronts challenges in translation and may lose its cultural resonance.
The French sense of humor, deeply embedded in a love for language, occasionally struggles to resonate beyond French borders. This linguistic orientation may contribute to the perception that French humor is not universally comprehensible or appreciated. So what makes the French laugh? Their penchant for sophisticated wit, razor-sharp one-liners "phrase qui tue", and clever wordplay "jeu de mots" is evident. Yet, the French also revel in the broadest farce, the most absurd slapstick, and the most straightforward and biting satire. Let's explore these diverse forms and hopefully provide insight into the humor that captivates the French.
Double Meaning (calembours):
French humor frequently relies on calembours, where a word or phrase has two different meanings, one of which is usually risqué or humorous. This creates ambiguity and is often used for sexual or suggestive jokes. A classic example of a double entendre in French is a famous quote by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, known for his witty and risqué humor. In his play "Le Mariage de Figaro" (The Marriage of Figaro), the character Figaro says: "Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d'être obligé d'en pleurer." This can be translated to English as: "I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of having to cry about it." The double entendre here lies in the word "rire" (to laugh), which can also be interpreted as "se moquer" (to mock or make fun of). Figaro's statement can be understood as both a call for humor and a subtle critique of society and its problems.
Wit and wordplay (jeux de mots)
French humor often relies on clever wordplay, puns, and wit. French people appreciate the art of crafting a clever or humorous phrase, and they enjoy playing with the language to create humor. This might involve double meanings, homophones, or clever use of words. Here are examples of jeux de mots that make my 10 year old son chuckle:
Pourquoi le poisson déteste-t-il l'ordinateur ? Parce qu'il a peur du net !
Quel est le comble pour un électricien ? De ne pas être au courant !
Comment appelle-t-on un groupe de baleines qui chantent en harmonie ? Une "orque-estre"!
Pourquoi le livre de mathématiques était-il triste ? Parce qu'il avait trop de problèmes!
Comment appelle-t-on un chat qui est un magicien ? Un chat-pitre!
Contrepètries are also popular in French but similar forms of wordplay can be found in other languages as well. A contrepètrie is a form of wordplay where the sounds or syllables of words are deliberately rearranged to create a humorous or often obscene effect. The result is often a playful and sometimes risqué double entendre. We'll let you figure out "La cuvette est pleine de bouillons" from Joël Martin in Le petit livre des contrepèteries ;)
Satire and Sarcasm (l’ironie):
Satire is a popular form of humor in France. French humorists and comedians often use satire to criticize and make fun of various aspects of society, politics, and culture. Sarcasm, which is a form of irony, is also common and can be seen as a way of expressing humor. Here are a couple examples:
French humor sometimes embraces absurd or surreal elements. Comedians might create situations or stories that are so ridiculous that they become funny. This form of humor often requires a certain level of imagination and an appreciation for the unexpected.
French people are known for their ability to make fun of themselves. They often engage in self-deprecating humor, which means they don't take themselves too seriously and can laugh at their own quirks and shortcomings.
Dark Humor (l’humour noir):
French humor can occasionally touch on dark or taboo subjects, such as death, sex, or existential questions. It's important to note that what some might find offensive, the French may see as a way to confront uncomfortable truths with humor. Laura Laune from Belgium is a specialist:
French humor often incorporates references to French culture, history, and current events. To fully appreciate French humor, it helps to have some knowledge of these topics. This can include references to famous figures, literature, or historical events.
Playing with Regional Accents and Dialects:
France & French speaking countries are known for their rich diversity of regional accents and dialects. Humor often arises from exaggerating these accents or mixing them for comedic effect.
French humor can also be sharp and satirical, often taking on social and political issues. Comedians and satirists use humor to critique society and provoke thought.
Mockery of the Intellectual (La moquerie de l'intellectuel):
French humor sometimes targets intellectuals and their pretentious language. This involves making fun of people who use overly complicated or obscure vocabulary to sound smarter than they are.
Comedy Shows and Stand-Up:
France has a rich tradition of comedy, including stand-up comedy and comedy shows. Watching French comedians perform can give you a better understanding of their style of humor. Well-known comedians like Gad Elmaleh, Florence Foresti, and Jamel Debbouze often use various elements of French humor in their acts.
⚠ It's important to remember that humor can vary greatly from person to person, so not all French people will appreciate the same types of humor. What one person finds funny, another might not. However, understanding these key aspects of French humor should help you appreciate and engage with it :)
Want to laugh with us?
And I couldn't conclude this post about laughter without a thought for these two French ladies. Merci les copines pour toutes les rigolades !