Learning French through stand-up

For you, the advanced learner, with the world at your fingertips, here’s an idea to shake up your routine: stand-up comedy.

We’re not asking you to perform – unless you’ve got a tight five at the ready – we’re just asking you to watch some French-language comedians, and hopefully learn a thing or two while you chuckle politely and wonder how your life took such a weird turn.

The French stand-up scene is bustling with wannabees and pros, all desperately seeking your validation laughter, – something we at Gymglish know a little bit about. French humoristes (and French movies) are part and parcel of every French person’s cultural references however. Seeing comedians perform on stage and deciphering facial expressions helps give meaning to jokes and punchlines, thus improving your oral comprehension. An increasing number of French comics are crossing over to the mainstream and international scene – either by performing routines in English or releasing subtitled performances. Still, you’re libre to throw a tomate or two at them, don’t let us stop you. Note: Please don’t actually throw tomatoes. 

Advanced learners: here are 8 French comedians who may provide a change of pace on your quest for Frenchification.

Gad Elmaleh (1971 – )

Sometimes known as the “French Jerry Seinfeld” (he allegedly stole a lot of his jokes), Gad Elmaleh has been performing on stage since 1997. He is a Morrocan-born French stand-up comedian, actor, film director, singer and musician. Famous one-man shows include L’autre c’est moi, Papa est en haut and La Vie normale in which he plays different characters including “Le Blond”, a man who succeeds in everything he does. He’s also starred in a few movies such as Coco, Chouchou, and made a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – so he has crossed over into the US mainstream somewhat – and managed to work with some of America’s most problematic celebrities. For the French however, Gad is a household name, and regularly sells out arenas. He now performs overseas in the US and Canada, where he shares observations about American culture and the trials of learning English. A few of his sketches focus on learning English as a young student in French schools, including the infamous question “Where is Brian?”. In 2019, he released his first Netflix film HUGE in France, which was not huge.

Blanche Gardin (1977 – )

Blanche has risen to fame on the French stage and seems poised to become one of France’s new feminist icons. In her shows, she makes reference to her eventful childhood as well as her years spent in a psychiatric hospital. Gardin is able to create an intimate atmosphere with her audience as she broaches a variety of subjects in a confessional tone. 

Her most famous sketches include Être une femme / Etre un homme and La Télévision, in which her self-deprecating style is apparent. Her 120-minute show “Bonne Nuit Blanche” (a play on words meaning “happy all-nighter”), where she performs in a princess dress, red nail polish and matching lipstick, is a must-see. A clear, authentic French accent is on display throughout her performances, allowing you to focus on the jokes without trying to decipher the words. Did you know? By watching French documentaries, you can also significantly improve your listening skills.

Coluche (1944 – 1986)

J’arrêterais de faire de la politique quand les politiciens arrêteront de nous faire rire !” (“I’ll stop talking politics when politicians stop making us laugh!”). We dare you to find a French person who has never heard of Coluche, one of France’s most outstanding and outspoken comedians. Blunt, politically engaged and largely beloved by his countrymen, he is known for his biting satirical treatment of politicians and the government. Coluche went as far as running for president in the 1981 French election. He is also well known and respected for the creation of Les Restos du cœur, a charitable organization that has delivered free meals to disadvantaged people since 1985. His sketches (L’auto-stoppeur, La publicité, L’histoire d’un mec…) are best suited for advanced learners, as his nasal delivery is particular. Coluche also appeared in several films, including Inspecteur la Bavure and Tchao Pantin.

Fary (1991 – )

At the tender age of 28, Fary is ready to take on the challenge of making modern French audiences laugh. Though he may look like he belongs at a trendy brunch spot in Williamsburg, rather than working the comedy circuits of Paris, his sketches and stand up (Fary is The New Black), tackle touchy subjects including racism, patriotism, and dating,  approaching them with skepticism and childlike incredulity. His shows are accessible for intermediate French learners. Use the subtitles to your advantage! Oh, and don’t forget to tune in to some authentic French podcasts while you’re at it.

Florence Foresti (1973 – )

Comedian, actress, and writer, Florence Foresti is another one to add to your list. She made it in 1998 thanks to her appearance as part of the all-woman trio Les Taupes Models (a play on words meaning ‘The Model Moles’). In 2001, she created her first one-woman show Manquerait plus qu’elle soit drôle. We strongly recommend you watch her best-selling shows, Mother F***** and Madame Foresti. She also hosted the 41st César Awards, recording a memorable performance. Foresti’s comedy largely centers around everyday life, which is great if you’re looking to improve your pronunciation and your oral skills.

Raymond Devos (1922 – 2006)

Raymond Devos is known for his clever wordplay and his absurd sense of humor. Half French and half Belgian, he has had a major influence on French humor and French culture as a whole. With a background including miming, burlesque shows and clowns, his sketches often follow the same blueprint – he chooses a word, then juggles it in every possible way. His onstage persona is a bit clownish, and so Devos often dressed like one (blue suit, bow tie, and suspenders). His career lasted nearly 50 years and his legacy is unquestionable –  he is among the most respected comedians in the Francophone world. Raymond’s impeccable French is ideal for those of you who wish to improve your oral skills and learn new vocabulary. “Parler pour ne rien dire” is a two-minute masterpiece that will leave you reeling.

Bonus: Paul Taylor

We wouldn’t dare claim that Paul is French (largely because he’s English) but he’s been living in Paris for more than 10 years and his accent is presque parfait. Most of his bits are in French and he makes fun of French culture (better than most), so we would strongly recommend you give him a listen. Don’t forget to listen to some cool French tunes, too.

If this selection wasn’t a bundle of laughs, we profusely apologize. But we guarantee a laugh or three by subscribing to Frantastique, our online French course featuring funny stories with up-to-date cultural references.

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