Stand-Up Comedy: “The French Can Hold Their Own with the New Yorkers”

Stand-up comedy is an American genre par excellence, and arrived in France some 15 years ago to shake up the codes of on-stage humor.

“Have you heard the one about the guy who comes to the United States with a dollar in his pocket and works hard to make his fortune? Well, I came here with a fortune…” Peals of laughter ring out. Pacing the stage of Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, Gad Elmaleh allows himself a smile at his joke.

The Franco-Moroccan comedian is one of the rare foreigners to have become successful in the United States. Having found fame in France, where he is often compared to Jerry Seinfeld, he nevertheless went through the same paces as others before him — starting from nothing in U.S. comedy clubs where dozens of anonymous comics test out their material night after night. Welcome to the American school of comedy.

A Laboratory of Talent in New York

The term “stand-up” has no real translation in French. Armed with nothing more than a microphone, comedians take to the stage one by one at the Broadway Comedy Club, the Comedy Cellar, and the Gotham Comedy Club. This genre was born in New York in the late 1940s, and launched the careers of Woody Allen, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, and Jim Carrey.

“One year of stand-up in New York is worth ten years in any other city in the United States,” is something you hear a lot. Despite the small venues, audiences take no prisoners and competition is fierce. Each performance lasts between five and ten minutes in a relentless salvo of jokes. Every punchline has to hit home. There is also no “fourth wall,” and comics interact directly with their public.

“Stars such as Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, and Sam Morril don’t think twice about getting on stage for five minutes,” says Anthony Winszman, a French expat currently cutting his teeth in U.S. comedy clubs. “It doesn’t work in the same way in France. If someone stands out, they go pro and quickly write their own 90-minute show.”

The “Jamel” Effect

Stand-up is a recent addition to French culture. It wasn’t until Franco-Moroccan comedian Jamel Debbouze launched his show Jamel Comedy Club in 2006 and opened a theater in the Grands Boulevards neighborhood in Paris in 2008 that it really took off. “We’re all Americans,” said the comedian at the first Comedy Club performance, and his line-up helped to popularize U.S. stand-up in France with a more fluid, improvised structure than the traditional French format known as one-man show.

The artists whose careers were launched by the show include Thomas N’Gijol, Frédéric Chau, Kyan Khojandi, and Blanche Gardin, who won a Molière comedy award in 2018. In the tiny world of comedy in both France and America, minorities have also found a voice: Debbouze’s team promotes talents from the projects, while New Yorkers poke fun at their ethnic backgrounds.

This innovative format has struck a chord with the French, and the capital has seen a boom in stand-up schools and comedy clubs since 2008. Performers can take to the stage every night in Paris, and venues have also flourished in Nantes, Bordeaux, Lille, and Strasbourg.

Different Codes

In his journey to make a name for himself in Paris, New Yorker Sebastian Marx had to take new acting lessons. “In the United States, comics hone their craft by writing jokes. In France, comedians work on their stage presence,” he says. While U.S. stand-up comedy is a mainly mental exercise, French shows rely more on physical humor. The one-man show model is based more on characters, imitation, situational comedy, and longer sketches lasting several minutes.

“The text is very important in the United States,” says Anthony Wiszman. “You have to be efficient and fast. There’s no time to build a joke, you have to go straight for the punchline. The language imposes a sense of efficiency.” The approach is also different between the two countries. The French use more sarcasm and second-degree humor, while the Americans delight in clichés and self-deprecation. Few U.S. comics will get on stage without making fun of themselves within the first few sentences.

According to French comedian Michaël Sehn, who founded the French Comedy Festival in New York in 2016, “there are fewer and fewer differences between American stand-up comedians — who are the masters of their craft — and French comics, who can now really hold their own. The gap is narrowing, and the subjects they cover are increasingly similar.” As for advice for French comedians looking to make it big in the United States, he recommends “playing on the French accent without defining yourself as an outsider. Don’t fall into the trap of just being the expat!”