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As Paris’s Theaters Go Quiet, Its Comedy Clubs Are Packed

PARIS — It was supposed to be an international breakthrough for France’s young comedy scene. When “Standing Up,” an original series developed by …

As Paris’s Theaters Go Quiet, Its Comedy Clubs Are Packed
18.08.2022 17:29
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PARIS — It was supposed to be an international breakthrough for France’s young comedy scene. When “Standing Up,” an original series developed by Fanny Herrero, creator of the hit show “Call My Agent,” landed on Netflix in March, many critics fell for this love letter to Parisian stand-up.

Yet less than two months later, Netflix canceled the partly written second season, citing low viewership. For Herrero and the talented, unknown cast she assembled, it must have felt like a hasty blow. On the ground, it also feels out of step with the exceptional rise of American-style comedy clubs in Paris — a type of venue that barely even existed in France before the 21st century.

I visited a few of them in July, as the city’s traditional theater scene slowed down for the quiet summer months. While established French playhouses have complained in recent months that audiences haven’t returned in the same numbers as pandemic restrictions have eased, comedy seems impervious to this slump. At venues such as Madame Sarfati, Barbès Comedy Club and Le Fridge, all opened within the past three years, there wasn’t a free table in sight.

And in most cases, the crowd was exactly the kind of “new audience” so many theaters desperately seek to attract. As a theater critic in France, I’m used to sitting in auditoriums full of all-white, older spectators. In the comedy world, the customers mirrored the young, racially diverse lineups onstage — to the point where, when an older comic at Barbès Comedy Club asked if anyone there was his age, and joked about realizing in his 40s that “women are people too,” he was met with deathly silence.

The crowd at Barbès Comedy Club.Credit…Christine Coquilleau

If French stand-up skews fresh-faced, it’s in part because it’s a relatively new art form. While American comedy clubs have decades of history behind them, sketch and character-based comedy has long dominated in France, and comics typically performed solo shows in regular playhouses. That started to change in 2006, when the well-known comic Jamel Debbouze created a TV show called “Jamel Comedy Club.” Its success led Debbouze to open a venue in Paris that at first was advertised simply as Le Comedy Club, since there was no competition.

The club became the crucible of French stand-up. Kader Aoun, a Debbouze collaborator, soon launched rival shows at Paname Art Café, a bustling venue where Herrero, the creator of “Standing Up,” first discovered the art form. Younger comics, many of whom cut their teeth as part of Jamel’s permanent troupe, also saw an opening. Of the newest clubs, Madame Sarfati is the brainchild of Fary, who has two Netflix specials behind him, while Barbès and Le Fridge were launched by Shirley Souagnon and Kev Adams, respectively.

Yet even when the founders are household names, French comedy clubs almost uniformly bank on surprise lineups. Even for the more prestigious evening shows, there are no headliners; if you see someone famous, it’s a bonus. In addition to explaining how comedy clubs work (for the average French person, it’s still not a given), M.C.s take special care to note that performers are there to try out acts, and that some jokes will “die” right there in the room.

Nordine Ganso performing at Paname Art Café.Credit…Jack Tribeca/Bestimage

The results are bound to vary from night to night. But in my visits, the clubs offered a refreshing snapshot of French youth and culture, and one that was often at odds with the rest of the arts world here. Sneakers and athletic wear, a socioeconomic litmus test in Paris, were practically de rigueur. In all of the lineups I saw, over half the performers were Black or of Arab descent — a level of diversity that is the legacy of pioneering French comics like Debbouze and Gad Elmaleh.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyday racism was a recurring topic. At Paname Art Café, the stand-up Ilyes Mela dexterously steered a complex story about a gender reveal party for a Black child to a thoughtful conclusion: “It’s not for the person who hits to say if it hurts.” Nordine Ganso, seen at both Paname and Madame Sarfati with slightly different sets, has honed a naïve persona that enhances both his tales of growing up in a part-Congolese, part-Algerian family, and his subtly homoerotic comparison between holding hands with women and with his “friend Karim.”

While most performers, like Ganso, are regulars at multiple comedy clubs, there are now enough venues in Paris to offer a range of atmospheres. Le Fridge has a trendy cocktail bar, with drinks named after American comics like Amy Schumer and Dave Chappelle. Madame Sarfati, nestled in an upscale district by the Louvre, is clearly aiming for an exclusive feel, with a performance space designed by the street artist JR that patrons are not allowed to photograph. On the other end of the spectrum, the friendly, no-frills Barbès Comedy Club, where the cast of “Standing Up” honed their scripted sets incognito ahead of filming, brings stand-up to a far less privileged neighborhood, home to many Parisians of African descent. (Barbès also hosts a weekly English-language show, New York Comedy Night.)

The bar at Madame Sarfati.Credit…Mathilde & Geoffrey

The clubs differ in their attitudes toward gender, too. While there are hugely successful female comics in France, from Florence Foresti to Blanche Gardin, women were outnumbered at most clubs. Some venues take a proactive approach to the issue: A Barbès spokeswoman said the club insists on parity, and its lineups were refreshing in that regard. At Madame Sarfati, on the other hand, not a single woman performed when I attended. When asked about it, a manager said the women who usually perform at the club were “on tour.” (The waitressing staff, on the other hand, was entirely female.)

The effect of gender balance on the overall shows was real. Some experienced Madame Sarfati performers delivered outright sexist, as well as transphobic, material. As a woman, it was far more joyful to sit in audiences where I wasn’t merely the butt of the jokes, and to hear performers riff on having large breasts while exercising (Sofia Belabbes) or the appeal and cost of nose surgery (the effervescent Nash, an effective M.C. at Le Fridge).

Compared to the larger Paris theater world, the stand-up scene seems a strongly heteronormative place, with opposite-sex dating by far the most popular topic. That has perhaps helped turn Paris’s clubs into date-night hot spots, judging by the comics’ interactions with the audience.

Yet the Paris scene is so new that there is a heady sense on any given night that its artists are grappling with what stand-up can be, and achieve, within French culture. Netflix’s “Standing Up” may have been called off, but the comedy clubs that inspired it are only getting started.

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