When people ask what I miss about America, I usually say: the humor (and if she’s reading this, my mother). I spend much of my free time listening to podcasts of American comedians talking to each other.
Though this feels like a social life, technically it’s not. So I decided to explore French comedy, too. Perhaps humor is universal, like beauty. Just as a Polynesian villager and I would find the same people attractive, we’d also find the same things funny (assuming there are banana peels in Polynesia). At the very least, French comedy might tell me something about France.
The French aren’t known for being hilarious. When I told Parisians I was interested in French humor, they’d say “French what?” (“humour” is hard to pronounce; try saying eww-moour). Then they’d ask, “Does that exist?” They were joking, of course. Because they’d then launch into discourses on French comedy: “In the Middle Ages ... ” or “You must see Molière ... ”
A lot of French comedy is satire. You don’t want to be an overweight French president caught on the back of a moped, sneaking off to visit his mistress, with a helmet as your sole disguise. An entire industry is lying in wait: satirical newspapers, radio humorists, and a prime-time TV show depicting politicians as latex puppets.
As a foreigner, it’s hard to relish these takedowns when you hardly knew the people to begin with, and you can’t detect word plays or regional accents. Even for natives, French satire is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Its unspoken punch line is typically that things have gone irrevocably wrong, and the government is to blame.
I was looking for a different kind of humor: the kind in which whiny, pathetic people talk about how miserable they are, making you feel less pathetic and miserable yourself. Granted, no one in Paris even admits to being on a diet. But surely, behind their well-coiffed facades, they need to laugh at their struggles and neuroses, no?
Fortunately, when I arrived in France 10 years ago, stand-up comedy did, too. Young people who’d seen British and American comedians online wanted to do stand-up here. French comedians had traditionally played characters, but they hadn’t played themselves — wearing street clothes and speaking directly to the audience about their own lives.
I discovered that Paris has a booming stand-up scene, but it’s distinctively French. For starters, there’s much less self-revelation. Comics say audiences get uncomfortable if they’re too confessional. “We’re not used to sharing personal information quickly in relationships,” even in those with a performer, says the comedienne Blanche Gardin.
Self-deprecation isn’t a big French tradition, either. There’s little appetite for hearing about how a comedian hates his body, sabotages his romantic relationships, or can’t pass a bakery without stuffing himself. “In France, we always think about being losers, so we don’t want to hear people speaking about it. We don’t have this positive background, to say, ‘Let’s enjoy this loser thing,”’ Ms. Gardin adds.
I watched French comics dabble in self-mockery, then switch back to mocking others. Often these attacks aren’t politically correct. At one show, two comedians in a row made fun of dwarves (one joke involved using a Smart car as a hearse). A comic with Chinese roots got a big laugh with his line about the Holocaust: “Six million?” he asks. “In China, that’s a bus accident.”
Many of the new comics are the children of African or Middle Eastern immigrants, populations famously marginalized in France. But there’s little social commentary, in the vein of Americans like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. Instead, they often mock their own parents’ accents and Old World habits, or go after marginalized groups like the Roma.
These jokes seem to spring from a desire for laughs, not from malice. Stand-up is so new in France, performers are still getting the bad, easy jokes out of their systems. Dieudonné, the Frenchman who made headlines for his anti-Semitic rants, is in a different category: Under a veneer of jokiness, he appears to have a genuine political agenda.
I liked some of the French comics I saw. In his act, Yacine Belhousse jokes that French crime shows are so low-budget, policemen extract a confession by threatening to pinch a suspect on the knee; the suspect responds by threatening to shout. Another suspect strangles himself while reciting the recipe for tiramisu in reverse. “You put it in the refrigerator,” Mr. Belhousse says, clutching his own neck.
After my tour of French comedy clubs, I’m not sure that humor is universal. The compulsion to share your inner neurotic may be mostly American. The French seem content to keep their inner lives private.
But comedy might serve another social purpose here. I saw this at a show by an Iranian-born comedian named Kheiron Tabib. When a woman in the audience left for the restroom, Mr. Tabib said that when she returned he’d say “peanut,” which would be our cue to pretend this was a brilliant punch line. (In fact it was just a random word to tip us off).
When I later told an American friend about this, she said it sounded like a third-grade prank. Perhaps, but in the context it was striking. When Mr. Tabib said “peanut,” the audience first clapped, then gave him a standing ovation. Eventually he dropped to his knees with his arms in the air.
For the first time ever at a French comedy show, the stranger next to me made eye contact, and we laughed together. Maybe what the French need most are these small moments of shared joy, even if they aren’t very funny.
Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist and the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.