The beauty of Paris is its layers. You can walk countless times down the same street and discover a new element each time. But it also means you can happily spend months exploring the same quartier – a habit I’ve fallen into. In the seven months since I moved from Australia to Paris, I’ve spent much of my time becoming intimately acquainted with my home quartier, the sixth arrondissement.
Tonight, however, I’m métro-bound across the river for an evening with some Parisian friends who have invited me to an open-mic comedy night in the tenth. Having resolved to accept all invitations in Paris, I ignore the fact that, even in English, French humour is somewhat hard to grasp. Then there’s the hurdle of my ailing French, which doesn’t exactly extend to high-brow humour. Still, I bound up the métro station steps excited for the adventure.
When we arrive in front of the centuries-old Théâtre du Gymnase Marie Bell, I wonder if I’ve misunderstood and we are attending something far more glamorous than open-mic comedy. But rather than shuffle into the majestic theatre, we enter a side door and trudge up several flights of stairs. As we near the top, an animated din emerges from a doorway. We squeeze into a crowded room with a tiny bar at one end, a small stage at the other and a cluster of preloved sofas and bentwood chairs in between. As my friend knows the emcee, we are ushered to a weathered lounge in the front row.
Since live comedy is known for audience participation, I feel particularly vulnerable – resolving not to make eye contact in order to avoid being picked on. Unfortunately my efforts are thwarted, and the first comedian singles me out within minutes. Cued by the terrified expression on my face, she lets me off with an innocuous jibe – as does the succession of comedians after her.
As the night unfolds, I come to two realisations. First is that the fodder for stand-up comedy is generally similar regardless of culture – clever but relatable riffs on personal insecurities, physical anomalies and quotidian experiences. Granted, the routine about French politics goes over my head, but I take solace when my Gallic friend admits even she found it challenging.
My second realisation is that, if you are a true Parisian, then it’s virtually a requirement to know all the lyrics to La Vie en Rose. Having imagined that the Edith Piaf chanson was a mere stereotype French people endure for the sake of tourists, I am surprised when a comedian begins leading the room in song, and everyone – except me – joins in the patriotic chorus. I can’t help smiling at the quintessentially French moment and, as the night comes to an end, I resolve to learn the words for the next inevitable occasion when a crowd bursts into a heartfelt rendition of the classic anthem.
And as we all shuffle out of the club into the late evening chill, I feel a small sense of achievement at having survived my baptism into French comedy.
Originally published in the June-July 2013 issue of France Today