A Charming French Touch in TV “Infotainment”

I usually stay away from French television programs entirely but one show I love to watch is called “Quotidien,” which means “daily.”  And, as you might have guessed, it’s a French, modified version of America’s The Daily Show. It is presented by Yann Barthès, a charming, classy 40-something Frenchman who excels in the business of conversation.  “Quotidien” is a relatively new show on prime-time TV but Yann is not new to television.

Yann Barthes, the charming presenter of the “Quotidien.”

From 2011-2016, he was the impertinent, controversial presenter of “Le Petit Journal,” a satirical news program on Canal Plus.  Due to internal differences, he ultimately left that network and, along with Laurent Bon, co-founded a production company called Bangumi. (“Bangumi” is the Japanese word for TV program.)  The pressure was on for him to succeed in this daily venture and, so far, he has done quite well.  I recently had the opportunity to be part of the live studio audience of “Quotidien” and I jumped at the chance to see how French TV works.  It was interesting, amusing…and oh, so French.

First of all, the formalities for entry into the studio were even more stringent than a visit to the Prefecture of Paris when applying for French citizenship.  Before you could step foot in the building, you had to sign a disclaimer in which you promised to give up your passport or identity card, cell phone and handbag to the Bangumi production

Waiting in the first of many lines at the TV studio.

company for the time you were in the studio.  You also gave permission to the company to make a copy of your passport.  You agreed to actively participate in the “Quotidien” (meaning applauding when they tell you to); not get paid for it and, especially important, you agreed to behave.  Any sign of trouble and you were out the door, facing a possible civil lawsuit.

French administrative inefficiency began in earnest as you waited in line to give up your passport to one person (the one who was most likely photocopying it during the show.)  Then, there was another line to surrender all your earthly belongings and cell phone to another person who was stocking them in the coat room.  That’s right, one person only was taking care of about 120 people who would be part of the audience – how efficient is that? Then there was the metal detector passage.  And, finally, you could “hurry up and wait” in the downstairs, sectioned-off lobby.  At least there were restrooms available, a coffee machine and a couple of benches for a lucky few who got there first.

After about a thirty-minute wait in the brouhaha of anticipation, we were finally shuttled in to the real television studio and placed on the rock-hard, grandstand seats.  We had a coach, a friendly-enough guy with a hat who explained how to laugh and when to applaud.  We practiced clapping with him and then he went around reprimanding the gum chewers.  It was a relaxed, summer-camp ambiance – until I heard a camera man yell at an apprentice for not having anything on hand to clean his camera lens.

The set of the French TV show, “Quotidien.”

The young man was 17 at the most and ran off the set embarrassed as hell as his mentor loudly complained about how “stupid” the kid was.  Ah, the joys of the French teaching approach of shaming students.  Even outside of the classroom.

When Yann Barthès came on the set, everyone applauded spontaneously (although we had been told before only to applaud on cue).  You could see he was well-liked by this group of viewers and by the other 1.2 million fans who were watching him on TMC (Tele Monte Carlo).  He was pleasant, natural and professional.

Once the program got off the ground, he was at ease and in charge of all the topics and guests.  It was an eclectic program too, that included interviews with young National Front voters (France’s far-right party led by Marine Le Pen); a conversation with Melania Trump’s make-up artist; conversations with an actress and director of the movie “Grave” based on cannibalism; a talk with a Canadian stand-up comic, Sugar Sammy and a report on the “Salon du

Garance Marillinier, the star of the French cannibal film “Grave” (“Raw in English).

Bébé.”  Yann supposedly has carte blanche on the content of the program “Quotidien” and he uses it to blend a cocktail of news, comedy, culture and human interest stories.  He is serious when he needs to be but knows that a little bit of light-hearted “Infotainment” can go a long way in the TV business.  I appreciated the fact that, unlike other talk show hosts, Yann doesn’t come across as the Star.  The star of the “Quotidien” is its unique mix of news and humor – a breath of fresh air in French TV programming.

When the show ended, French administrative inefficiency reared its ugly head just as strongly as it had in the beginning.  The staff shuffled us all back into the hall where we waited for up to an hour to get back our phones, bags and passports.  There were several other team members standing around looking important, but only one person to return the bags and another person to return the passports.  Happy to say, though, that there was a little bonus for us on the way out.  We all got a “Quotidien” sticker for good behavior.  The Prefecture of Paris would never do that.

The Dark Side of French Humor

Having been married to a Frenchman for sixteen years, I know a lack of a sense of humor when I see it.  His jokes weren’t funny to me; my jokes weren’t funny to him.  We eventually divorced due to this total humorless vacuum (and maybe for a couple of other reasons I don’t want to talk about here).  My point is that not being able to laugh together can definitely kill a relationship.  I just saw it happen on television this week when a French comedian-weather girl verbally killed her budding professional relationship with Jonah Hill, the American actor, comedian, screenwriter and producer.

Jonah was in Paris promoting the film, War Dogs, which was released in France this week.  He and fellow co-star Miles Teller were guests on “Le Petit Journal,” a French news and entertainment program.

Jonah Hill, in Paris on a promotional tour of War Dogs.
Jonah Hill, in Paris on a promotional tour of War Dogs.

Their interviewer, Ornella Fleury, was a pretty, young weather-girl who thought that ridicule and humor were synonymous.  She kicked off the live conversation with Jonah Hill with a daring proclamation of how she first fell under his charms.  These were her exact words: “It was when I saw you get sodomized by a 3-meter tall demon in This Is The End,” she said, “that I told myself, now THAT’S the man of my dreams.”

Now, please tell me, firstly, how does this statement makes any sexual sense and, secondly, how in the world did she expect Jonah Hill to react?  Well, he gave her the “right back at you lady” treatment with the following quote, said via his translator, “I heard you get sodomized quite often.”  That wasn’t enough to stop Mademoiselle Fleury as she pummeled through a very awkward live-TV moment with an even more awkward sexual fantasy of hers.  Here it is in all its glory.  “We would meet up in a hotel room at night. We would chat, you’d make me laugh… and then, all of a sudden, you’d bring your friends Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. And then you would leave.”

Jonah Hill was, as he should be, offended.  He said something about coming to France to promote a movie, not to be publicly ridiculed by a “local weather girl” and he left – the TV set and the country.  He subsequently canceled all his further appearances in France. The

Ornella Fleury, the weather girl and would-be comic.
Ornella Fleury, the weather girl and would-be comic.

weather-girl apologized to Jonah in front of the camera the next day, spurting out some lame excuse about how she mistakenly thought that she and Jonah were “friends” due to the fact that she has seen him in films for the last ten years.  So she was just messing around with him (well, her statements were certainly “messy”).  Jonah Hill has not responded and probably never will.  Her actions certainly don’t merit any sort of response on his part.  One more relationship has gone south due to a mismatch of senses of humor.

This incident got me thinking about the kind of “humor” the French feel comfortable with.  They don’t go in for self-ridicule; they need a target to mock.  Anglo-Saxon humor is often self-deprecating whereas the French think wit is funny.  That wit could be hostile, sarcastic, aggressive – and, in this particular case, just plain rude.  The French have an intellectual approach to humor, which is why they love Woody Allen.  And, the fact that they like to see people ridiculed is why they absolutely adore Jerry Lewis.  Most authentic French jokes get lost in translation and that’s probably a good thing.  American jokes get lost too.  For example, I just saw Jimmy Fallon tussle Donald Trump’s hair on live television and the audience thought that was hilarious.  Now if this weather girl dared to touch a French Presidential candidate’s hair on live TV, it would be seen as disrespectful, rude and uncalled for – anything but funny.

When you think about French comedy on a global scale, there aren’t very many names of French comics that come to mind.

Marcel Marceau, a truly funny Frenchman - the King of Mime.
Marcel Marceau, a truly funny Frenchman – the King of Mime.

To understand its wit and irony, you would need to be extremely fluent in the language.  French “comedy” works on a national level.  In fact, the only well-known Frenchman who could make people laugh in both the USA and France was Marcel Marceau.  Ah, but he was a mime. Maybe that young weather-girl should look him up.  She might learn something.  Something that was truly funny.

Can a French-Speaking Dummy of Donald Trump Save a French TV Show?

“Les Guignols”, a political satire show starring life-size muppets on French CanalPlus cable television network, went away about six months ago for lack of audience; lack of pertinence and just plain old out-datedness. However, it came back with a new boss, a new look and a new hero. The new boss is Vincent Bolloré, a wealthy French businessman who initially said he would get rid of “Les Guignols” show but then changed his mind. The new look is one of globalization, including a fast-paced opening theme song that flashes head shots of political leaders from all over the world.

Donald Trump as a muppet on "Les Guignols".
Donald Trump as a muppet on “Les Guignols”.

The new hero, at least one of them, is none other than Donald Trump, a Republican hopeful for the American presidency. What the heck is he doing there?

Mr. Trump is not the only new dummy on the show. In their quest for extending their media reach, Canal Plus has also added muppets of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. “Les Guignols” show is hoping to expand its audience by gravitating towards

A dummy of Kim joins Donald Trump on the French muppet show.
A dummy of Kim joins Donald Trump on the French muppet show.

the United States. They think that presenting American subjects tailor-made for public ridicule will up their ratings. The show will be translated into English and Spanish and will eventually be exported. Now, how ridiculous does this whole idea sound? Canal+ starts with an English-speaking Donald Trump politician wannabe. They turn him into a French-speaking dummy who says outrageous things and acts in an unflattering manner. Then, they translate him back into English and try to sell that to the American market! Why would Americans buy that? We already have the real thing we can make fun of. (Hmm…maybe they should try Canada).

I, however, was curious enough to watch one of the episodes with the Trump dummy. It definitely re-enforced my belief that this is one export that will never fly. What is funny (like in political satire funny) here in France is not always funny in the USA and vice versa. Same goes for political correctness – definitely not a global quality. I am posting the following video as an example but, just in case you cannot watch it in the USA (lucky you), I’ll explain what happens.

Coiffure extrême de Donald Trump – Les Guignols du 20/01 – CANAL+

The opening scene takes place in a business-like waiting room where several 30-something muppet men with shaved heads are sitting quietly. A woman carrying a small dog with longish, blondish hair walks in. One guy gets inspired; steals her dog and a fancy razor blade that just happens to be hanging next to her and hightails it to the men’s room. Once there, he shaves the animal and manages to paste the dog’s hair on his own head. He combs it over to the extreme right (of course) and goes back to the waiting room. Trump comes out of his office. When he sees the candidate who has adopted his hair-do, he points and shouts, “Wow, that’s great!” The voiceover now closes in on Trump proudly sporting his comb-over and says in French, “The extreme hair of Donald Trump – the worst hair-do in history.”

So, as you can see, it barely passes for funny in French and will certainly not be laughed at in the USA. His hair is not the problem though it doesn’t surprise me that the French would make that an issue. It’s a cheap, easy shot. Another point is that shaving a stolen dog is not politically correct in the USA. The skit would be banned for that reason alone.

My advice to the producer of “Les Guignols” would be to drop the Trump dummy. He won’t expand the show’s audience. There is really no time for that since Donald Trump won’t be in the political spotlight for much longer.

Kanye West muppet has staying power as a 2020 US presidential candidate.
Kanye West muppet has staying power as a 2020 US presidential candidate.

Keep Kim and Kanye though – they’ve got staying power. Kanye already announced his plans to run for President in 2020.   That means Canal+ has four more years to figure out how to make that funny.