It’s been said that before the French revolution of 1789 the word “humor” was an anomaly in the French language. French people had words for “wit,” esprit, for “pranking,” farce, for “drollery,” bouffonnerie, and for “humeur,” with a fine distinction to the word meaning a state of mind or mood of drollery. It wasn’t until 1878 that the French Academy would finally “introduce” the word “humorisquite” as an officially French word. Even by 1932, the noun form of the word as “humour” was not officially recognized by the French Academy.
By comparison, in 18th century Great Britain, humor, known then as “yumor,” was already a fully recognized and accepted word. The British, as indicated in a letter to the French court around that time, thought they were the only land in Europe to even have a word for that particular state of mood. As a response to this, the finance minister of Louis XVI’s court responded by saying that Great Britain is “very talented with depicting bizarre characters,” adding backhandedly that, “it’s because have lots amongst them.”
What the French did have, that perhaps was alien to the British for long periods of time, was the idea behind “caricature,” and more importantly, the idea behind “satire.” It then must come as no surprise that both words in the English language have French origins. In particular, the French had something that would be called ‘l’humor engage,’ which was specifically categorized as political satire and caricature. This, in reality, was actually very well known and widespread in France even slightly before the time of the revolution. These plays relied heavily on the ideas of farce and wit rather than drollery to achieve their effect. They were dominated by rapid-fire conversations that left audiences chuckling perhaps from the inanity of the reason being used or the sheer spectacle of the speed of delivery. Wordplays were exceedingly common as well. This, in Great Britain, was a completely foreign concept. As time went on, the “political” jabbings that these plays offered became harsher and crueler, leading to an image of French humor as significantly more “mean” than its British counterpart. “Funny talk” of death, murder, and even rape were not off-putting here, but widely engaged with.
Additionally, French newspapers would be the first to conduct the practice of political cartooning – or as we would come to call it today in Anglo-Saxon culture, “caricaturing.” This practice was looked on as uncouth by the more “refined” and natured Englishman of the time period. The French viewed their English counterparts as “stuffy” and “repressed” way before the idea of “repression” would be applied to the lower classes in France. The English were considered to be far too detached from their creative work, choked by the fear of appearing “vulgar.” The French had little issue with vulgarity. They, as Plantu, a famous caricaturist once put it, “were more militant” with their humor. They were far more likely to offend and be okay with offending than the English. While the English were quite well known in continental Europe for being the “arrogant” nation, the French would often poke fun at that arrogance. The idea of a political figure being detached and arrogant was a great source of humor for French plays and stories.
The English type of humor is more likely to understand jokes that arise from “illogic” than the French one. French schoolchildren would be instilled with what the French called a “Cartesian esprit” – or a meaningful mindset. Often times, if a French student exhibited the inability to deduce things from reason or logic, they would be said to have an “Anglo-Saxon mindset,” and this was considered an offense, in some ways. Certain jokes that the English were privy to, such as jokes that end with a reversal that leads to nonsense, would be completely lost onto the mind of a French schoolchild taught with the “Cartesian esprit.”
Another staple of English humor is self-deprecation. Recalling that the French considered the British to be completely “detached” would perhaps help explain why this would be a prevalent factor in British comedy but utterly missing in the French comedy lexicon. The French were, as the British put it, way too emotional and too “logical” to understand why self-deprecation can be considered humorous. This then might explain why French film or TV comedies are not international hits in the same way that British comedies are. John Cleese seems to be considered funny around the world. Monty Python is a worldwide cultural icon. What are the French equivalents to this? They seem not to exist. One possible answer to this very touchy question is that worldwide audiences probably don’t have the type of fondness that the French do for, what they consider, “puerile farce.”
There’s a sort of childishness in French humor that maybe doesn’t appeal to a larger brand of peoples whose cultures denounce infantile behavior as just that, infantile, and not something to be made light of. Another possible answer, however, is that French humor is heavily reliant on the French language. After all, as observed in France’s history, a large swatch of their early humor originates from the ‘l’humor engage’ which relied almost entirely on linguistic “somersaulting” and “backflipping” to make an audience chuckle. It could also be said that a lot of French humor stems from something known as “jeux des mots,” or untranslatable words. This then goes without saying – if French humor is untranslatable, while English humor can be engaged worldwide because English is the lingua franca of the world – how can anyone expect French comedy to survive in an English-dominated universe?