Bonjour mes amis./I am what's known as a stand-up

The shame of it! The French are getting lessons in comedy from the British.

By Jon Henley
Monday March 29, 1999

What makes the French laugh? A weighty philosophical question, to which many a tome has been devoted. They adore sophisticated wit, the well-turned phrase qui tue, the finely-tuned jeu de mots - but also the broadest farce, the silliest slapstick, the most basic and brutal satire.

What nobody thought they liked, until now, was stand-up. The French are as strict about what constitutes comedy as they are about the proper use of the subjunctive. There are countless comedians, but they tell gags or impersonate politicians; there are one-man-shows, but they are multi-character mini-plays. None of the raucous spontaneity, the feed-off-your-audience frenzy, the unacceptably Anglo-Saxon anarchy of stand-up.

So it comes as something of a surprise to find that some of the biggest names in British and American club comedy are packing out, for three shows a week, a sweaty, smoke-filled back room in a disused hotel by the Canal Saint-Martin.

Plenty of them make an effort with the language. 'At school, this is what we learned in French,' Mark Steel's set began. 'Completely bloody useless. Ou est le livre? Le livre est sous la table. Ou est le lapin? Le lapin est sous la table. Ou est le chat? Le chat est, um, sous la table.'

The audience tittered, the fumes of a hundred Rothmans and Gauloises hanging in an Anglo-French haze. 'But what I always wondered,' he continued, 'is what would happen if you ever really needed it. If, say, you were on a beach, with some French people in the water, when you saw a shark.'

They saw it coming. 'Au secours!' you might shriek. 'Danger! Un requin! Il y a un requin!' Assuming they'd ever taught you that at school. 'Mais ou est le requin?' the French would shout back. 'Le requin le requin Oh Christ! Le requin est, um, sous la table.' Steel's audience laughed a lot at that one.

Even Karel Beer smiled, although he'd heard it all the night before. This Briton's unlikely comedy club, Laughing Matters, has been a regular fixture in Paris for more than a year. He started it after spending an evening at London's Comedy Store and realising what he, the rest of Paris's 120,000-strong English-speaking community and - why not? - the French were missing out on.

In a country where the word humour was only officially admitted to the vocabulary in 1932, where English comedy means Monty Python or, if you're very well up, Absolutely Fabulous, and where most of the population speak English about as fluently as the English speak French, it did not immediately look like a winner.

But the list of award-winning stand-ups who have made the trip - including Eddie Izzard, Alan Davies, Jeff Green, Tommy Tiernan, Rich Hall, Arj Barker, Mark Thomas, Simon Munnery and Al Murray - is testimony to the fact that it has worked. Many have come more than once.

'Everyone's up for it,' says Bill Bailey, the Time Out prize-winner who will play the Hotel du Nord - famous in France as the backdrop for the 1938 film of the same name - for the first time over the Easter weekend. Two weeks later he'll be followed by another British comedian, Ian Cognito.

Bailey, who started his performing career acting in French plays and does a very funny French rip-off of Doctor Who (Docteur Qui?), is looking forward hugely to his Paris gig. 'I like performing in Europe,' he said. 'I think people's senses of humour are actually coinciding more and more. There's more of a culture gap when I perform in Australia.'

Eddie Izzard, whose English act includes a surreal routine about trying to make his way round France armed only with the words 'Mon singe est dans l'arbre' (`My monkey is in the tree') is so keen to make a go of it on the other side of the Channel that he booked himself three weeks of intensive one-to-one French lessons.

What is drawing the talent, Beer reckons, is certainly not the money - which is minimal - nor even the prospect of a few nights in a Paris hotel. It is the chance to do three two-hour shows alone on the bill, rather than with five or six others; the opportunity to try out new material; and the knowledge that you are pioneering, in France at least, a new form of humour.

'Half the crowd, the expats, are desperate for humour in their own language,' says Beer, an expat of 30 years standing. 'The other half, the French, have heard stand-up is cool and want to find out more. It means the performers can really stretch, can take risks they never would in London.'

Eager to learn, several young French comedians have become regular visitors to the Hotel du Nord. 'We're not there yet, but we're becoming more and more open to the idea,' said Sophie Forte, a comedienne with a one-woman show and a clutch of film roles behind her. 'We've always thought the British were very conventional, but in terms of humour, it's us who are the conventional ones.'

French audiences won't pay to see something that 'could go anywhere, into some absurd fantasy,' she says. 'They want something that's rehearsed, that'll give them their money's worth. And the whole idea of the audience being part of the show is unheard of for us. French comics don't talk to their audiences, they don't like them - they talk down to them.'

So strict are the confines of French humour that one French classical actor-turned-comedian, Bertrand Bossard, has taken to doing stand-up sets in English. Mixing visual humour and Anglo-French stereotypes into what he calls 'comic trash mime', his show went down well enough at last year's Edinburgh Festival to win him a dozen bookings in London clubs, with more coming the week after Easter.

'For me, we remain very two different peoples,' he said. 'The big difference is that the English can laugh at themselves, and the French can't - yet. We're changing, we're getting more cynical, but it won't be until French comedians really start to mock themselves that we'll be ready for stand-up. For the time being, I'll be working in English.'

Bill Bailey plays the Hotel du Nord, Paris, on April 4-6. Ian Cognito is on April 18-20.