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Why American TV is funny (and hard to imitate in France)

Update: On June 7, 2016, M6 announces in a press release want to launch an adaptation of “Saturday Night Live” for the following school year. At the helm: former “Guignols” also responsible for Key 2 and screenwriter Brian 3. Good luck!

Dince the start of the school year, several talk shows have tried to get out of the format of the repetitive promotional interview, and offer their guests the opportunity to participate in scripted dialogues, happenings and sketches, as in late-night American shows.

Before the premiere of Big NewspaperAntoine de Caunes had announced that he wanted to recreate “a mood close to Anglo-Saxon late shows, where everything is written, rehearsed, scripted”. Viewers were therefore treated to Katie Perry pretending to know people in the audience on the set or even a strange fight with Elie Semoun. In the BeforeThomas Thouroude played a false dialogue by Woody Allen with Helena Noguerra, and had La Fouine recite Molière.

Of course, that’s also what I was trying to do. So far, so goodwhere Sophia Aram asked her guests to do things “fun” (like asking Carole Bouquet to read the news with an erotic actress voice). Such a failure that the show ends on December 20. It will have lasted four months. The sign that these American talk shows are impossible to import into France?

The American Class

These sketches are particularly difficult to pull off, but in the United States, however, there are many who excel in them.

The master of the genre currently is Jimmy Fallon, who had his ears pierced by Harrison Ford:

He also sang Tyrolean songs with Brad Pitt:

He manages to make his guests funny, without it seeming forced or awkward.

Unlike French shows which alternate information and humor (the “infotainment” hybrid), American talk shows focus on 100% entertainment. You will never see a political columnist there, let alone literary criticism. This lack of journalistic pretension allows for great freedom of tone.

“In France you need a more direct humor, jokes, jokes, an amusing treatment of current events. We can’t afford to be so absurd.”explains Giulio Callegari, in charge with two other authors of making funny The Beforeon Canal+ – and who also watched Fallon’s talk show all summer to prepare for it.

Make BHL fun

The American animators do not, like the French, have training as journalists. Stars like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman or Conan O’Brien are all stage professionals, either in stand-up or improvisation. It’s not in itself a guarantee of success – after all, Sophia Aram had done one-woman shows – but with a strong team of writers, it does ensure some good TV moments.

Take the example of Bernard-Henri Lévy, on tour in the United States during the English translation of his book Public Enemies. Rarely hilarious on French TV, he turns out to be extremely funny in the satirical show Colbert Report. Host Stephen Colbert pokes fun at him without being mean (“your look proves the existence of God”), and BHL makes jokes about Michel Houellebecq’s dog.

This kind of interview is not 100% scripted. The host has certainly prepared a few remarks, but he relies on his training as a professional improviser: he bounces back quickly, has an extraordinary sense of repartee, and knows how to make his guest almost as funny as him.

Similarly, when Conan O’Brien hosted bread specialist Steven Kaplan on his show a few years ago, he knew how to maximize the tremendous comic potential of his guest (who compares the creation of bread to a sexual act). O’Brien jumps at every opportunity to post a funny comment, and he escalates the delirium brilliantly, without hesitating to resort to physical comedy (he shouts, he throws bread, he makes faces). The interview is extremely well paced; for nearly 10 minutes, there is no downtime.

The familiarity of the United States

If American television is full of these nuggets, it is largely because stand-up and improvisation have long been part of the cultural landscape. From the end of the 19the century, writer Mark Twain was paid to do funny monologues across the country. He was therefore already practicing a form of stand-up, and considered his personal humorous stories as a uniquely American genre, which he opposed to European witticisms.

The atmosphere of the talk show also corresponds well to American familiarity, a relationship with others that has developed in opposition to what Americans see as the formalities and assignments of the Old Continent. French shows often sound like “salons”, while American shows have a more direct and laid-back tone. It is a country where, after all, the first lady dances without problem with Jimmy Fallon and where each year, the president of the United States stands up in front of an audience of journalists for the dinner of the correspondents of the White House.

French television has long specialized in heated intellectual and political debates. Americans have been refining the comedy talk show genre since the 1950s. All current hosts are inspired by the Tonight Showwhere from the early 1960s, Johnny Carson was known for his funny interviews.

“David Letterman grew up watching Carson and Jimmy Fallon growing up watching Carson and Letterman”explains Andrew Clark, journalist and director of a humorist training in Canada. “It’s hard to make these shows work without a prior tradition. The Canadians also tried to do American-style talk shows, and many were disasters.

TV author, an unknown profession in France

French humor is more rooted in satire and caricature, and programs that correspond to this spirit are more successful, such as Guignols where the Small Diary. The American animator must be funny without being mean – but also avoiding being boorish – a posture more foreign to the French style, where making people laugh often means being brittle (see Thierry Ardisson’s jokes).

Behind the scenes, the authors who prepare the jokes and sketches also have this training in stand-up and improvisation. For a show like Late Night with Jimmy Fallonthe ten editors offer around a hundred jokes a day, the best of which are then tested on a small group of visitors before the live broadcast.

In France, there are also authors for shows like Hello earthlings, The Before where the Big Newspaper (where they are currently about ten), but they are little known to the public and their name is not in the credits (they did not respond to our interview requests). Few people know that Thierry Ardisson or even the miss weather forecasters of Canal have scriptwriters who prepare their text. Some of these writers come from journalism, radio, theater or even advertising. “It’s a new profession in Franceexplains Giulio Callegari. There is no classic career path for authors like in the United States. Few people want to do this job, because few people know what it is.

In the United States, television writing is much more valued. A growing number of young enthusiasts (the “comedy nerd”) adore these authors, follow their careers on specialized blogs, and take courses to try to replace them one day.

“There has been a real revival of comedy for ten years in the United States. It has become a real religion”explains John Wenzel, a journalist who writes on the subject for the Denver Post. “Today if a young person wants to write for TV, there is a whole system, a trajectory to follow, schools to enroll in.”

learn humor

Theaters like Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) are go-to training venues. You can take classes there on advertising parodies, or sketches on the news, as well as be part of very selective improvisation teams. TV producers regularly go to these shows to recruit future talent.

All the American comic productions appreciated in France –The Office, Parks and Recreationmovies very bad trip, The simpsons, 30Rock or Saturday Night Live– have authors or actors from these two theatres. Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert have been there. Second City – founded in 1959 in Chicago – formed the pillars of this tradition, but the succession was ensured by UCB, created in the late 1990s by Amy Poelher and three colleagues. The style of the house is alternative, delirious, rather cerebral but rarely cynical or mean.

Universities are also places where comic excellence is cultivated. Many colleges have improv troupes and satirical revues. Harvard’s has existed since 1876, and several screenwriters from The Office or some simpsons are from it. There are also specialized university programs, such as that of Columbia College which offers apprenticeship semesters dedicated to careers in laughter.

Comedy is an art taken very seriously, with reference theorists like Del Close, who codified improvisation, and formed stars like Bill Murray and Tina Fey. He encouraged comedians from what is funny in their own lives, with the idea that humor must be rooted in reality, and come from real intellectual and personal work.

It is therefore difficult to import practices that are rooted in decades of comic experimentation. The French channels nevertheless continue to try: on December 20, the second part of the Landingthe Canal+ comedy show inspired by the famous saturday night live… Last January, Jean Dujardin and his acolytes were singing translations of Sinatra with the refrain: “It’s less good in French”… So far they are right.

Claire Levenson

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