English Humor

Seen from Paris, England does not seem like a very likable country. Parisians like to recite the long list of afflictions the old nemesis seems to have: bad weather, alcoholism, ugliness, revolting food, hooliganism. . . . There seems to be no redemption.

However, there is one aspect of the English culture Parisians look up to. Oddly enough, it is not a phenomenon but instead an actual fringe of the English society: that is upper class English people.

Parisians thrive on the mythology of the “vieux lord anglais” and its escort of enchanting adverbs and manners. This mythology feeds a tiny but indisputable inferiority complex rooted in the prestigious mystique of England’s academic institutions. It is clear to all Parisians that England shapes its elite better than France does. The legend of Eton, Cambridge and Oxford is undoubtedly more vibrant in Paris than it could ever be in the UK.

Parisians all wish they could have English humor. They revere the inherent distinction, discreet wisdom and smiley distance that come in the English humor package; add the English true gourmandise in the choice of their words and a talent for measured eccentricity and you’ll find the Parisian irremediably charmed. In good English company, the world seems to be freed from triviality.

Though Parisians proclaim as often as they can their indefectible love for English humor, most can not deal too well with absurdity. As much as reality can be disturbing, Parisians have a hard time resolving themselves to let go of it for a second. This relationship to reality explains that characters like Benny Hill or Mr. Bean do not gather unanimous support in Paris.

On the topic of English humor, Parisians rarely refrain from using the adjective pince-sans-rire.  They are somehow jealous of that trait of English culture that allows its people to be intelligent and fun at the same time. They wished they too could juggle with humor and wit and be socially rewarded for it.

But it is too late. Paris has drenched the spark in most eyes. Humor is a mental exercise the city does not foster. Thus reinforcing Parisians’ in their vision that the gap between them and upper class English simply cannot be bridged. This vaguely depressing and resignated thought satisfies the Parisian.

So much for wanting to be humorous.



Stuff Parisians Like Useful tip: Anyone down to reintroduce humor in Paris?

Sound like a Parisian: « Oh Hugh Grant j’adore; le côté très british, élégant, très fin, pince-sans-rire: excellent!»

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24 replies
  1. John Agee Paris
    John Agee Paris says:

    Ah yes, the Franco-British dynamic could be the subject of a multi-volume encyclopedia set. My experience has been that it is often the British who complain most about the French rather than the other way around. I was unaware of the French admiration for the British aristocracy, however, but I’m not too suprised: perhaps a bit of nostalgia for the Ancien Régime mixed up with all that “Liberté, Égalité, etc., etc.” stuff.

    Take heart, my dear Frenchies: your manners, food, and culture make up for the humor thing. (But a smile every once in a while wouldn’t kill you.)

  2. Expat
    Expat says:

    After living 5 years in the uk, I think the only thing the french should admire and learn from the Brits is their politeness!

  3. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Sebastiano… Indeed. Ollie is my roommate. This is him cooking :-)
    John Agee… In the name of your dear Frenchies: merci!! Who knew another people could complain more than the French!!
    Expat… The French once had a different form of politeness, based on conviviality. But this is indeed vastly gone. New form of politeness yet to be reinvented, at least in Paris. In today’s world, being polite might have become one of the most provocative things to do. C’est dire…

  4. craigkite
    craigkite says:

    If “Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie” and “La Grande Bouffe” are the best examples of french humor, I am going to have to stick with Monty Python and The Two Ronnies for the British Humor. The British take themselves so seriously, until they take NOTHING seriously. The French, on the other hand, have some amusing moments, but no reputation for hilarity.

  5. Emilie
    Emilie says:

    Dear Extraordinary Parisian,
    I just bought 2 copies of your book at Del Ducca. Simply delightful. Am planning to buy more copies for Parisians who deserve it.
    Thank you for the moments of pleasure and please write more about our City.
    Très cordialement.

  6. Athena
    Athena says:

    Let me just say for starters that this is my first time on this blog, having discovered Olivier’s book just the other day – am halfway through it and loving it!
    And having lived in a tiny country bordering France most of my life and having been around French culture, people, cuisine and all things French I can attest to the fact that French humour is alive and well and thriving! And I love it!
    craigkite – try watching La Grande Vadrouille or Le Corniaud or Le Rabbi Jacob or Oscar or the Don Camillo films – older films but among the best comedies ever made, thanks to Louis de Funès, Bourvil, Fernandel etc…

  7. Lil
    Lil says:

    since there’s mention of rugby, it sucks that france is playing ireland next month in dublin, as i’m moving in the other direction. on the other hand, yay i’ll be living in paris! my uncle has tasked me to checking out wines for shipping back to ireland for him, so i should call in to o-chateau once i settle down.

    happy new year!

  8. peter newman-legros
    peter newman-legros says:

    as painful as if is for me to see “humor” and “english” juxtaposed, this minor aberration doesn’t detract from the razor-sharp observation and wit we have become used to in your entertaining, educational and thought provoking blogs, dear Olivier. You’ll allow me one other observatio, OK two tiny ones, since it is the festive season ie giving and taking and goodwill to all, not sure about “bridging” a bridge, a gap, a divide, even a chasm, depending on the enormity of that space, and “resignated” is definitely made up!!! Bonne Année à toi et à tous les lecteurs. PS your book was hugely well received by Tatie.

  9. Thalassa
    Thalassa says:

    Olivier, please do write one in English too! I promise I will buy – I cannot describe well what I love about your writing so much but you seem to have a deft touch and are able to evoke images so well. Perhaps it is very Parisian of you, I wouldn’t know, not being French or Parisian.

    Happy Holidays and keep writing.

  10. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Craigkite… Especially Parisians!!
    Emilie… You’re far too kind. Merci vraiment.
    Athena… So did French humor vanish 30 years ago?
    Lil… You certainly should. Well, given our pitiful our team looks these days, Ireland might actually have a chance to win this year 😉
    Peter… As you know, I truly don’t feel like my English is good enough to go British English on you. It’s pity resignated doesn’t exist. I think it should – it sounds terrific. As per the bridging issue, Thanks for pointing it out – étourderie. PS. Happy for Tatie then.
    Thalassa… Thank you for your kind encouragements. I’ll try not to disappoint. English book is coming out in a few months. You can already order it (at a discount) on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Stuff-Parisians-Like-Discovering-Quoi/dp/0425241181/ref=lh_ni_t_?tag=vglnk-c498-20

  11. Stéphan
    Stéphan says:

    so true…
    I remember when the Monty Python’s Flying Circus went on in the 90s in France. It was aired on Arte I guess.

    That was a revelation to me… but ask most of the Parisiens. Except silly “classe prépas” students, who laughs while watching it…


  12. peter newman-legros
    peter newman-legros says:

    guess I should also be resignated to “international” spelling! You’ve more than earned the right to invent. Félicitations on the sales figures, so much better than many a politician and their dull essays.

  13. Gwan
    Gwan says:

    Since you seem to take constructive criticism so well, may I suggest that you perhaps mean ‘discreet’ and not ‘discrete’? In case all these corrections are getting you down, I should add that I think you have a very accomplished and elegant writing style!

    I love British humour (although I personally wouldn’t name Mr Bean or Benny Hill as exemplars of the genre) but it’s not for everyone I suppose. As for French humour, it’s mostly totally lost on me, but that’s probably a combination of my not understanding a lot of word play etc. and not getting references. Christmas lunch at work, for example, was packed with seemingly comic references to ‘Le Pere Noel est une ordure’ – right over my head!

  14. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Stéphan… On a more recent note, I must say I’m a big fan of people like Ricky Gervais or Eddie Izzard.
    Peter… Resignatum resignatorum… I’m not sure I’ve earned any right over the English language. But thank you for this kindest remark. I wonder who buys books “written” by politicians. How bored and gullible can one be really?
    Gwan… Merci. I’m all for corrections. Thanks for pointing this one out. Oh… French people reciting “Le Père Noël est une ordure” – someone, please, shoot me!! That could be an article of its own…

  15. Marie Alix
    Marie Alix says:

    Je suis tombée avec un ami sur votre livre par hasard dans une “petite” librairie du 6e arrondissement et je voulais vous dire merci et bravo! Merci car on s’est trop marrés en le lisant et bravo car, “putain”, vous nous avez vraiment bien percés à jour!!! 😉

  16. Clementine
    Clementine says:

    I’ve got one for you. Parisians like Brooklyn. Attach the word Brooklyn to any new restaurant, club or dive bar, and you have the new Place to Be in Paris. It started with Le Pompon, I believe, and is often accompanied by ‘façon speakeasy’ ou petit coté industriel. But now it is everywhere, every unsignposted basement bar is heralding its touches of ’50s Brooklyn, it is obnoxious, and maybe if you write a post about it, it will stop! Thanks,


  17. craigkite
    craigkite says:

    You are right about Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais. I was particularly impressed with Eddie Izzard’s shows in Paris, IN FRENCH. I am not as fluent as I would like to be, but was very impressed with how well he kept the audience following his humor in his “second tongue.” I was going to site Terry Gilliam’s humor in film-making as he did so much with Monty Python. The problem with Gilliam is that is is the only Yank in Python.
    Russell Brand is another Brit that has amazing wit.

  18. Alexia
    Alexia says:

    When I was living in the UK, I did not particularly sense the english humour. I never witnessed any remarkable amount of wittiness in the orderly queues of British citizens waiting for the bus… But Hugh Grant, le côté british, très pince-sans-rire : j’adore!

  19. Athena
    Athena says:

    Olivier, noooo…. French humour did not die 30 years ago – in my opinion it is still thriving – but OK it’s true that in any culture older humour always seems to be better – funnier – more real… I guess we are always nostalgic for what “used to be”. Older comedies of many years ago always seem better and funnier don’t they?
    There will certainly never be another Fernandel, or Bourvil or Louis de Funès. But maybe I’m just too nostalgic. 😛

    As for English humour, well it has its own irreplaceable charm – I like the way Brits love to put themselves down –

  20. Athena
    Athena says:

    OOPS….I accidentally posted before finishing…

    I love English humour for sure – well, whenever I understand it… lol… ranges from very subtle to downright silly and crazy. Yep, thinking of Monty Python – doesn’t get any zanier than that! And I love Fawlty Towers! Is everyone familiar with Basil and Sybil and Manuel? If you are not, I recommend it for a good laugh.

  21. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Congratulation on the success of your book! It’s also available on amazon.ca, but for two dollars more of course, despite the fact that our dollar is worth more than the USD these days – there’s no justice. I clicked on your name and there is no profile/bio – I think it may be up to you to add that, if you are interested. And there’s a discussion forum, you could add a link to the blog probably.

    Thanks for the insight into the topic of French opinions about the English, which I find very interesting. I love reading the blogs of French expats living in London, because I can laugh at (with) the French and the English at the same time. So many clever people sharing their talents in the blogosphere – it’s wonderful.

  22. Jeremy Kent
    Jeremy Kent says:

    What pompous tosh this article was. The English are not ugly nor is our food “disgusting”. As to English humour, it is undoubtedly, quite irreverant of, well pretty much everything. The English love “taking the piss out of everything and everyone” – especially the French too bad the Frenchies don’t really understand that.

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