Stand-up, comedy show... Does humor divide more than it unites?

Stand-up, comedy show… Does humor divide more than it unites?

At a time when debates quickly turn into confrontation, humor remains an outlet. The public is spoiled for choice when it comes to a comedian with whom they identify. At the risk of losing a common and unifying humor.

In the small, overheated room, the zygomatic muscles are put under severe strain. The jokes delivered by the artists who follow one another on a tiny platform follow one another, triggering bursts of laughter from the fifty or so spectators gathered in the darkness, beer in one hand, cone of fries in the other. This Thursday in February, La Scène Barbès – Comedy Club (establishment dedicated to humor on stage) in the 18th arrondissement of Paris is sold out. In this small space which also serves as a bar, emerging comedians test their sketches. Like Rodrigue, a bit itchy, who mocks the “old prostitutes in their utility vehicle” in the face of young professionals “working from home” in the digital age… “I see that that doesn’t make everyone laugh », he slips, his eyes fixed on Cécile, the only sixty-year-old in this room where the average age fluctuates between 20 and 40 years old. She remains unmoved.


Laughter is on the rise, however. The figures speak for themselves. In just four years, the number of comedy shows has increased by 5.9% to reach 19,759 dates in 2022, according to the National Music Center (CNM). Or 28% of the volume of live entertainment in France. More intimate performance venues – like “comedy clubs” – are spreading everywhere and attracting full houses: Le Point Virgule in Paris, Le Complexe in Lyon or even Le Pont de Singe, a new stage which is triumphant in Arras (Pas). -de-Calais). The most prominent comedians are no longer afraid to tackle venues with impressive capacity, such as the Accor Arena at Bercy in Paris and its 20,000 seats. After Jean-Marie Bigard and Florence Foresti, Fary, 32, was in 2019 the third French comedian to succeed in this challenge. Four years later, he became the first actor to bring together 15,600 fans on the central tennis court at Roland-Garros for a single performance. Even more ambitious is Redouane Bougheraba’s project: filling the Marseille velodrome stadium (60,000 seats) next June. Susceptible souls refrain! This comedian is renowned for his improvised mockery of the spectators’ physique or profession. Soner, in his twenties, was criticized for his baldness: “He looks like a minister who is going to commit suicide, like Bérégovoy…”

It’s understood that humor is a recipe for success. “But the success of laughter is not in itself new,” notes Matthieu Letourneux, who co-edited the work The empire of laughter – 19th -21st century (CNRS Éditions). This professor of French literature at the University of Nanterre recalls that Molière’s witticisms amused the court of the Sun King in the 17th century. During the July Monarchy (1830-1848), cartoonists shamelessly sketched King Louis-Philippe. The end of the Second Empire saw the rise of the popularity of satirical magazines with a circulation of several thousand copies. Until the rise of the Third Republic, powerful people and workers could be made fun of as much as women.

The prize for self-deprecation

Then, comic genius interfered in the culture of cinema and mass audiovisual media. With the advent of the latter, radio stations and television channels opened their channels to artists like Coluche, Thierry Le Luron or Pierre Desproges, keen on “buffoon comedy”, as Nelly Quemener, author of the book, defines them. The power of humor (Ed. Armand Colin). They make a large part of society laugh by making fun of politicians and social mores. Even if, as Matthieu Letourneux points out, “this consensual laughter at the turn of the 1980s could still be racist, misogynistic or homophobic”. Like Michel Leeb’s sketches which make a large audience laugh at the expense of people of color, without it being shocking. Élie Semoun, one of the heirs of this wave, remembers: “In my shows in the early 1990s, I made fun of the disabled, of homosexuals, without ever having a problem. The public knew that there was no contempt on my part. » The use of self-deprecation allowed him, at the time when he was in a duo with Dieudonné, to bring together a wide range of fans: “We embodied the symbol of anti-racism, me, the little Jew and him, the big Black. » Just like Les Inconnus and Les Nuls, which, on this register, made France bend in two.

But the beginning of the 2000s marked a break, with the emergence in France of stand-up (or comic monologue), which appeared across the Atlantic in the 19th century among the minorities of the American mosaic. Today, women, African-Americans and Latin-Americans are taking up humor on their own in order to fight dominant cultural hegemonies. “Civilization also involves the fact that certain racist or sexist jokes no longer make people laugh,” believes Matthieu Letourneux. The temptation of this diverse laughter in turn seduces French artists.

“In France, we are seeing figures like Jamel Debbouze emerge who will embody a humor carried by young people from the suburbs,” analyzes Nelly Quemener. In the wake of his appearances on television, he launched the Jamel Comedy Club, today a reference for comedians from diverse backgrounds and from which many personalities such as Thomas Ngijol, Fabrice Éboué and Blanche Gardin have emerged. “Since then,” notes Zoi Kaisarli, doctoral student at the Sorbonne – who is completing a thesis on stand-up discourse – “community laughter has worked for both artists and spectators. » This explains the lines in front of the ticket offices of these performance halls. “Audiences who did not feel concerned by jokes from Desproges or Devos find comedians who look like them, speak like them and who express their sensitivity,” maintains Matthieu Letourneux. A point of view confirmed by David Sun, doctor and comedian from Nancy, who has been performing on stage for two years. “My parents are Chinese and Cambodian. So when I get on stage, I ask how many Asians are in the room. Sometimes it’s a third of my audience,” he explains. Who appreciates this identification.

Like in this sketch about Chinese mothers: “My mother didn’t say I love you but ‘are you hungry?'”. Complicit laughter guaranteed. “At the end of my shows, spectators tell me they can relate to my jokes which remind them of their childhood. » Ditto among the 15,000 people from the popular cities of Île-de-France who converged on Roland-Garros last July to attend the show by Fary, of Cape Verdean origin. Max, one of his fans, recognizes himself in this humor which mocks the joys and sorrows encountered by these populations who sometimes feel stigmatized. Social media has played an obvious role in this compartmentalization of the laughter industry. Fary doesn’t need to go through traditional media to attract viewers. His Instagram (466,000 followers), Facebook (893,000 friends) and Tik Tok (214,000 subscribers) accounts, where he “posts” well-felt jokes, are enough for him to advertise.

The strength of oneself

An observation shared by Élie Semoun: “Society is becoming compartmentalized. Suburban guys, Jews, feminists, each viewer turns to the comedian who resembles them. I don’t like that…” “In the 1980s, we distinguished between ”intellectual”, ”left” or ”right” comedy, today artists and audiences are declined according to “other prisms: bobos, young people, Marseillais…”, nuance Matthieu Letourneux. Laughter acts as a sort of catharsis, “a social fluidifier” which allows categories of the population who feel marginalized to give voice to the dissatisfaction and injustices to which they sometimes think they are the object. Laughter as a reflection of the growing fragmentation of current society.

If community humor pleases, that does not prevent us from sharing universal archetypes. “Daily life, relationships between men and women, strikes, vacations, it speaks to everyone,” observes Zoi Kaisarli. Élie Semoun adds: “In my shows, I prefer the audience to be varied. Young, old, veiled women… The ideal! » Even if it means sacrificing sensitive sketches, which can open up controversy and destroy a career. So no more sketches around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which are only tackled by a few comedians like Naïm, who is a hit on YouTube (“Two or three years ago Netanyahu was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize ( …) But who named him? Kim Jong-un?”).

The case of Clémentine Artois, French teacher and comedian for eighteen months, is eloquent. At the beginning, this fan of feminist jokes (“We always talk about women who wear makeup, but we say nothing about men who maintain their beards…”) was told that humor is not a platform. That didn’t deter her. For her, the main thing is to convey this message: “women and men are more similar than we think”. And to continue to campaign for unifying humor: “People come to laugh but also like to be challenged in their certainties, even if they don’t necessarily agree with what I say, that opens the debate. » Once the throats are well deployed, the percussive response rises to the brain. And provokes discussion between the artist and the spectators on the sidewalk after the show.

The grimace soup

It’s no easy task to make everyone laugh all the time and everywhere. Bun Hay Mean, aka “Funny Chinese”, learned this the hard way, in July 2016, at the Poupet festival (Vendée) where, on the strength of his Parisian successes, he was responsible for making people laugh between two concerts. His retorts (“I’m criticized for being Chinese because I have small eyes (…) I’m French (…) when I ejaculate it’s crazy!”) did not attract the favor of the public who started to whistle. More than 350 years earlier, Molière had failed, but because he had hit the mark. After a single performance of Tartuffe, the king had banned the play, the court had laughed at this satire which portrayed it so well. Closer to us, in the 1980s and 1990s, Thierry Le Luron, author of a memorable parodic happening, L’Emmerdant c’est la rose, which enchanted his right-wing audience, was vilified on the left, to the point of suffering tax audits.

Nowadays, at regular intervals, poorly accepted puns cause controversy and can earn their authors suspensions from the radio or television. And when the fine line that separates the big joke from the provocation is crossed, it’s the end of the road, even the end of one’s career. This is what happened to the ex-comedian Dieudonné, convicted several times by the courts. “He crossed a limit that society was not ready to accept,” diagnoses Matthieu Letourneux. Sometimes, wanting to make people laugh doesn’t justify everything.

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