ot long ago I stumbled upon the French essayist Montaigne, a real meanderer of the mind, if ever there was one. Even his sense of humor reflects all that wandering. He opines, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”
Upon reading this, I fell into a fit of wheezing, silent laughter.
I love how slyly Montaigne lampoons the worriers and at the same time tells the truth about worry. We all worry. And, in addition, as a writer I also suffer the lives of my characters, filled with terrible misfortunes which don’t get all the way onto the page. Right now a married couple is getting better and better at fighting. I hadn’t planned on them divorcing, but this marriage may be too late to be saved. Or will reconciliation put divorce into that category of misfortunes that never happened? All their continuous bickering I have to endure, not to mention the worry about their marriage.
Now, French humor can be a bit of a conundrum, without too much wheezing laughter. For example, it appears that the French love the humor of Jerry Lewis. Can we mull that over before we turn to other French comedians showcased on Instagram?
READER: Excuse me, who?
ME: Yes, well, he has gone to the rainbow bridge. Jerry Lewis (1926-2017) was an American actor and comedian, nicknamed, “The King of Comedy,” and dubbed “Le Roi du Crazy,” in France. (That would be the King of Crazy.) Here’s what the man himself says about his work:
“From 1936 on, I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. From the time I was 21, I’ve taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean [Martin], falling into the rough. You do that and you’re gonna have problems.”
So what I take away from this is a zany, slap stick kind of approach to comedy. I don’t really get the way the French see him as an “auteur,” in which Lewis’ influence over the films he made was so compelling in front of and behind the camera that he received elevated status as a filmmaker.
Anyway, there’s that, but it seems the French admire his skill in making movies more than laughing at his humor. So let’s look elsewhere for that elusive French humor.
Born in Morocco, Gad is held in the highest regard in French-speaking countries, voted the funniest man in France, for example. He lived in Canada and France and most recently in the States. He is called France’s Seinfeld, and is credited with bringing stand-up to French comedy. He is more comfortable riffing in French, but he is very entertaining in English.
Recently I saw him on Instagram, making fun of the French bureaucracy. A low bar, admittedly, but he was funny. If you have never visited the préfecture, where you go to keep your papers in order, it is something like the DMV, only you are the car. So many photocopies are required! Utility bills, rent receipts, bank statements, paystubs, employee contracts, birth certificates— translated by an official person into French, and the translation can be no later than 3 months old! (This gives work to the French bureaucratic. There’s a whole layer of society called, “fonctionnaires,” or officials.) These fonctionnaires are ready to take a photocopy of your very body! says Elmelah. Can you imagine squeezing yourself onto a Xerox machine? I hope not too many officials have seen Gad’s skit. I fear it would give them ideas.
Elmelah’s next target was a document that I too have railed against in incredulity. It’s called “un certificat de vie,” loosely translated as a “life certificate.” It is not a testimony to a particular achievement. In fact, it is a paper testifying to the fact that you are alive. The living person, Gad points out, the human being standing before them at le prefecture is not proof that the person is alive. Only the signed certificate will do.
A gentleman whose name I did not catch on Instagram, offers us French cerebral humor. Things they tell you in school he finds funny. This comedian presented us with negative numbers. Now, we all know (ha ha) that two negative numbers multiplied together yield a positive number. So -2 X -2 = +4. When politely asked why this is so, Google responded like this: “The fact that the product of two negatives is a positive is therefore related to the fact that the inverse of the inverse of a positive number is that positive number back again.”
Well, our comedian will have none of that. He says, imagine 2 bananas. Now somebody steals them, so there are no bananas. Now imagine 2 more bananas that somebody steals. There are no bananas. Now you multiply two bananas that don’t exit times two more bananas that don’t exist. And what do you get? Four actual bananas! Voilà! Only in school.
NOTE: My sister did not wheeze silently or audibly at this performance of French humor. How can Math be funny?
You English majors among us (ha ha) may remember the name of Jacques Derrida, the father of a literary and philosophical movement called deconstruction. It argues that there’s a tug of war in a text and the critic can exploit that in interesting ways. You could write a paper only on the footnotes contained in a document, for example, overturning the hierarchy of value, which normally would hold that the text is the important focus. Of course in your paper, you would also include footnotes, so there’s a playful (useless) going round and round. American literary departments loved the man; French philosophers not quite so much. I had the pleasure of meeting him at my favorite French bookstore. And I am now reading an intellectual biography of him. (Please contact me by PM if interested in more info.)
Here’s an example of deconstruction humor: An Instagram comedian says he applies for every job he can find, whether he’s qualified or not. It’s good practice, you might think. Ah, but that’s not why he does it. Let me show you his method and then see if you can ferret out his madness. In the interview, he turns the discussion around to salary. And you know in an interview how coy they can be about that number. So, our funny guy says to the interviewer, “Well, I’d like one day to aspire to your job. I’ve done some research and I understand that the average salary for your position is 100,000 euros.” Now in an aside (ha ha), our comedian admits that he just made up that number. But the effect on the interviewer is immediate and palpable. “Really, that’s the average?” Naturally, the Interviewer is making nowhere near that amount. So what’s the goal here? It’s to ensure that the Interviewer will be out looking for a job himself by the end of the interview.
Early in the play, Waiting for Godot, Vladmir, one of the vagabonds, wonders aloud what would happen if they repented. “Repented what?” Estragon asks. Vlad doesn’t want to go into the details, but Gogo asks if they want to repent their being born. Vlad responds with “a hearty laugh which he immediately stifles.” He comments, “One daren’t even laugh any more.” Estragon offers his opinion: “Dreadful privation.” Vlad tries the alternative, “Merely smile.” He tries a smile “from ear to ear.” And then says, “It’s not the same thing. Nothing to be done.” Here’s these two are, lost, with little food, one of them recently beaten, both of them depending on a stranger who may or may not come. And what is their dreadful privation? Not laughing.
Come on, people. We can do it. Laugh. Wheeze a little. Four bananas!