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December 28, 2003 - Our sense of what is funny, and what is not...

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Jerry Lewis, Monty Python and « Le Père Noël est une Ordure »

The reason we don't get along with the French?   Our sense of humor.

Which leads to why the movie Forrest Gump made the election of George Bush inevitable.  Really.

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Why can't we all just get along?   Maybe it has something to do with our sense of humor being different from that of the Brits, and both being far, far different from that of the French.

Check this out:

Very droll

The French have jokes, but do they have a sense of humour?
The Economist, Dec 18th 2003 [UK spelling as stands]

The whole item is quite long and detailed, but here are the main points.
First, this unsigned analysis does give us history:


Does humour exist in France?  Before the French revolution of 1789, the word humour was hardly known. People knew esprit (wit), farce (prank), bouffonnerie (drollery) and humeur (a state of mind, or mood), but not humour.  Only in 1878 did the French Academy, the institution that stands guard over the French language, accept humoristique as a French word.  A year later Edmond de Goncourt used humour without italics as a French word in his novel "Les Frères Zemganno", but not until 1932 did the academicians give their approval to the noun humour.

Writers and intellectuals musing about English humour searched for an equivalent in France.  François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, France's best-known writer in the 18th century, tells the Abbot d'Olivet in a letter in 1762 that the English pronounce humour yumor, and think they are the only ones to have a term to express that state of mind.  Madame de Staël, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a finance minister of Louis XVI, wrote in a discourse on literature: "The English language created a word, humour, to express a hilarity, which is in the blood almost as much as in the mind.  ... What the English depict with great talent is bizarre characters, because they have lots of those amongst them."



But things are different now:


One of the fiercest critics of the government, "Les Guignols de l'Info" ("The News Puppets"), a daily television programme similar to Britain's satirical "Spitting Image", is a huge success.  "Les Guignols" has become sharper, even crueller, since it started in 1988.  Hardly anything is taboo now.  Supermenteur ("Superliar"), President Jacques Chirac's alter ego, is a particular favourite. ... "Les Guignols" has felt obliged to apologise only a few times - once to Mr Chirac's wife, Bernadette, whom it had portrayed masturbating with her handbag.


You can watch episodes here or here (the official CanalPlus site - click on VIDEOS)

Then there are the magazines:


Le Canard enchaîné, a satirical weekly, is equally feared by politicians and public personalities because of its investigative journalism and trenchant wit.  Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Brown of the Peanuts cartoon strip was godfather to the magazine) and Hara-kiri hebdo, two satirical weeklies launched in 1969, are competing on the same ground. Hara-Kiri, which was created in 1960 as a monthly French version of Mad, an American satirical magazine, was twice censored by the government before its relaunch as a weekly.  It has absorbed La Grosse Bertha, another satirical magazine that was launched in 1991 during the first Gulf war.  Charlie Hebdo went bust in 1981, just after supporting Coluche, a comedian, in his bid for the presidency.  It was relaunched ten years later.


But the real issue is a different idea of humor.

Consider Jean Plantureux, or Plantu.  A satirical cartoon by Plantu has been on the front page of Le Monde most every day for the past 20 years.  Since ticking off his editors in 1994 he doesn't get to choose his subjects any longer, but he's pretty good.  His comment?  "We still have the naivety to believe in certain things. We do not have the detachment that characterizes English humor, we are more militant. If we have a cause to protest, however minor, we tear open our shirts, run into the street and shout 'Shoot me!'"  Cool.

The Economist gives this theory for the whole business:


If the Latin emotions of the French sit uneasily with humour, so does the French logical mind.  French children are instilled with Cartesian esprit (here meaning mind) at school and, even more, in the grandes écoles, the country's elite universities. ... A French Cartesian mind does not know what to make of a nonsensical story, such as this one. "The governor of the Bank of England began an address to an assembly of bankers with these words: There are three kinds of economists, those who can count and those who can't.'"  A joke of this kind would be met with incomprehension by French listeners.  It is not logical.

Self-deprecation, another essential ingredient of a "detached" sense of humour, is not the forte of the French.  But if France is too emotional, too logical or too unsure of itself for humour, it can at least fall back on farce as a way of releasing the emotions.  The French love Jerry Lewis, the American they call le roi du crazy; he has even been awarded the Legion of Honour, the country's highest decoration. A nd of course France produces its own farces.  One of the best-loved of recent years is the at times heavy-handed film "Le Père Noël est une Ordure" ("Father Christmas is a Shit"), directed by Jean-Marie Poiré.  It shows Pierre and Thérèse, staffers at a charity, manning the telephones on Christmas Eve to help callers in despair.  Zézette, a pregnant woman, arrives at the office, fleeing her violent husband, Félix, who is close behind her.  Félix, still wearing his working clothes as Father Christmas, is subdued by Pierre and Thérèse and ends up in hospital. The second visitor at the office is Katia, a manic-depressive transvestite in search of Mr or Miss Right.  The ensuing series of catastrophes reaches its climax when Félix returns with a gun, a lift repairman is killed, Pierre loses his virginity to Thérèse, and Félix and Zézette dispose of the dead repairman.


Yep, I don't get it either.

And then this:

Why do French comic films not travel well when those made in Britain or America - whether by Woody Allen, John Cleese or the Monty Python team - seem to make people laugh all over the world?  One answer, perhaps, is that audiences in other countries simply do not have the French fondness of puerile farce.  Another, though, may be that the things that make the French laugh involve linguistic somersaults that only work in their own language.  Much of French humour is jeux des mots, untranslatable wordplays.

Yes, linguistic somersaults just make my fellow Americans angry.  We do plain talk.  Think Will Rogers.

Not everyone is just like us, no matter what the neoconservatives tell us.



I came across another reaction on MSNBC from an American living in France:


Name: Michael Padnos
Hometown: Vauvenargues, France

As an American living in France, I am always astonished to read the American press on the subject of the frogs. What, precisely, was the point of the article about "Do the French have a sense of Humor?" Was it to prove that the word "humor" did not exist in the French language until recently? The writer seems to think the French have never had any funny films with an int'l reputation: has he ever heard of M. Hulot? How about batches of Depardieu films, and "The Tall Blond man with One Black Shoe", just to mention a few that come to my mind in an instant. The French satirical TV program "Les Guignols," which the author does mention, is about 100 timnes funnier --and more popular -- than any American equivalent; Fench satirical magazines and newspapers, of which he mentions only a few, are VERY funny --and very popular; there is no equivalent for this massive outpouring of ha-ha anywhere in American culture.

America seems to think that the best way to view the world is through the eyes of a moron - hence Forrest Gump.  For me, one of the pleasures of living in France is things here are seen as endlessly, hilarously funny, and nothing is as funny to the French as the French themselves.  The French, in my experience, love to laugh at almost everything, starting with themselves. Indeed if you want to see the difference, just step into a restaurant in the U.S. and listen to the silences, or the pompous businessmen busy one-upping one another; and then step into any restaurant in France and listen to the level of laughter.

To a person used to living in France, the country that invested joie de vivre, America seems like a grim and terrified place, and its leader like Forrest Gump with rockets.

Please, spare us all that sniggering at the French. I find it so false, and so tiresome, and so uninformed, and so jingoistic, and so smug - I'll stop there. I trust you get the point.


Forrest Gump? The movie America loved, about how a man with no education, no experience in the world, no social skills and the intellectual capacity of s seven-year-old was somehow better than everyone else, and more worthy of our admiration and his success than those who value such silly qualities?


The simple, innocent man.

Curious.  This American living in France is onto something.

Forrest Gump may have been the movie that made the election of George Bush possible. It posited the virtues of
1.) knowing nothing, 2.) being unable to really learn anything, and 3.) being utterly incapable of seeing any complexity.  Gump was cute and endearing, and saw only simple truths.  And only good things happened to him.  We all loved Gump.  So we elected one.