The French Joke

Kurt Tucholsky (1890–1935) was a German satirist whose writings were very popular during the Weimar Republic. The phrase often attributed to Joseph Stalin that “the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic” is, in fact, found in Tucholsky’s work, Lerne lachen ohne zu weinen (Learn to Laugh without Crying), which was published in 1932. We are delighted to bring this fresh translation into English of an excerpt from this work, where the original version of this famous phrase is found—more importantly as an example of French wit.


Summer has brought a hail of anecdotal books to the French station kiosks: New editions, new publications. There are: T. S. V. P. by Bienstock and Curnonsky (Crès, 21 rue Hautefeuille, Paris); Le Wagon des Fumeurs by the same authors, published by the same publisher; Joyeuses Anecdotes by Max Frantel (Editions Montaigne, Impasse de Conti 2, Paris VI); Histoires Marseillaises, collected by Edouard Ramond (Les Editions de France, 20 Avenue Rapp, Paris); by the same publishing house, Histoires Gasconnes, collected by Edouard Dulac; Histoires de Vacannes, collected by Leon Treich (Librairie Gallimard, 3 rue de Grenelle, Paris VI). Whew!

The title of the first book, T. S. V. P. is the same as the inscription on some doorknobs to which no handles are attached, and it means in full: “Tournez, s’il vous plaît!” Well, let’s turn this knob for once.

French wit and French jokes are not always synonymous. It is stronger than them, because wit in stage dialogue, in the salon conversation, in the “mot” that even the little man often throws into the street noise with lightning speed and with the utmost repartee, this wit is not always caught in jokes.

That is why the French funny papers are not exactly hilarious—the level of the “Assiette au Beurre” has never been reached again, and you have to pick out the good ones from a whole jumble of jokes. This refers to “Le Rire,” to “Canard Enchaîné,” to “Le Merle Blanc,” different in value, unequal.

The collections cited above are much better, especially T. S. V. P. and Le Wagon des Fumeurs. So, what do the French jokes of today look like?

First of all, you have to take off your hat often enough, because so many old acquaintances pass by. For the still considerable remainder, the obstacle for the foreign reader is that he does not have the factual prerequisites of wit in flesh and blood. A joke that first has to be explained is no longer a joke; and it is not enough to know those premises—you have to feel them.

The specific characteristics of French wit are its lightness, its delicacy, its elegance. For example, the resigning minister writes to the Secretary of State for Posts and Telegraphs an hour after his fall: “Dear colleague! I do not know if you still remember me…” The hand gesture with which a phrase is uttered is quite casual. They are talking about the horrors of war. Then a diplomat from the Quai d’Orsay says: “The war? I can’t find it so terrible! The death of one person: that’s a catastrophe. One hundred thousand dead: that’s a statistic!”

The language of diplomats is French, and the definition of the profession goes like this: “A diplomat, my dear child, is a man who knows a woman’s date of birth and has forgotten her age!” And so many things sound softer and more delicate in this language than elsewhere. An old lady receives a visit from one of her friends, who climbs the four flights of stairs to her apartment with great difficulty. Still breathing hard, he says in greeting: “Four flights of stairs are no small matter, madam!” “Dear friend,” says the lady, “that’s the only way I have left to make men’s hearts beat faster!”

This language has the finest gears with which it seizes everything that comes too close. Album entry by Jean Cocteau: “Italians and Germans love it when music is made. The French have nothing against it.”

And even a mild rebuke takes on an endearing melody when it is uttered in the way that Curé did when he encountered a lady at the altar of his church who was decollete to the point of impossibility. “If you only wanted to dip two fingers in, madam,” he said, “you needn’t have undressed!”

Even if the joke becomes a little delicate, it remains bearable in this form. The conductor to the passenger, who is excitedly walking around the small station: “Are you looking for the restaurant?” “No, on the contrary,” says the traveler.

This example shows how concisely this language can sometimes shed light on a confusing situation: a conversation through the door. The male voice: “Is Mr. Paul there?” The woman’s voice from inside: “No, he’s not here. You can’t come in, I’m in bed.” The male voice: “There’s no harm in that; why don’t you open up a bit?” The woman’s voice: “But you can’t—someone’s already with me!”

Of course, there are many of these French jokes that are completely untranslatable. For example, the saying of the elderly woman who was reproached for the excessive simplicity of her toilet. “A mon âge on ne s’habille plus, on se couvre.” Or that enchantingly beautiful saying by a Marseille painter: “Quand on a mangé de l’ail (garlic), il ne faut parler qu’à la troisième personne.”

I spoke earlier of the many old acquaintances one encounters in these collections of anecdotes: “The right barber” by Chamisso, who would also have cut off the neck of Hebel’s choleric customer for a whisker, is there, and there are not only folk jokes that wander through all literature, but even a story as seemingly linguistically limited as that of the lady on the phone who spells the word torch: “F as in Fioline, A as in Ankpir, C as in for example…” even to this story we find the French analogy. It is about the Hôtel de l’Ourcq. “What kind of hotel?” – “L’Ourcq! L’Ourcq!

O as in Auguste
U as in Ugène (Eugene)
R as in Ernest
C as in Serge
and Q as in you.”

Now, French jokes have been stamped out for the whole world, and here, to my great regret, I have to put the brakes on, because the moment you translate these daring jokes, they usually become unbearably coarse. But I did find one little story that is possible in German. Frida, go out for a long while!

A big wedding in the Madeleine in Paris. Outside the church door, the usual crowd of gawkers: midinettes, little clerks, street urchins, curious people of all kinds. The wedding procession! He: very solemn, serious, of the best, the very best, but already the very, very best age, obviously very rich. She …a general ah! A delightful little brunette, very piquant, with full lips, spirited, a charming creature. The train stops for a moment. The gentlemen are photographed. When the bride and groom start moving again, the bridal bouquet comes off and falls onto the carpet. A little midinette, who has noticed this, rushes in obligingly, picks up the flowers and hands them to the young bride. She can’t help but whisper very quickly and very quietly: “I didn’t make this much fuss at my premiere …” The two look at each other for a moment and are companions for a moment. Then the bride whispers back: “Me neither!”

Frida, you can come back in. Next time your uncle will tell you more.


French jokes have many more fixed characters than ours. First and foremost, there is the “cocu” (cuckold).

The word is untranslatable. “Hahnrei” (capon) is a word for which even the all-knowing Doctor Wasserzieher gives no explanation in his Ableitenden Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache and which a sane person would probably only utter if asked what “cocu” means in German. And “betrayed husband” is a crawling turtle to a flight of swallows. (The fact that the word, the term and the joke figure completely distort the extraordinarily bourgeois French woman should only be mentioned in passing).

Of course, French wit also has its professional jokes. Inevitably the doctors. Doctor Z. meets one of his patients on the Pont des Arts. A brief conversation. “Well, how are you …?” “But, dear friend,” says the doctor, “you’re going to get a bad cold; why don’t you button up your coat?” “You’re actually right,” said the other. “And what else… Have you heard the story of the…” They chat for a while, the doctor and his patient, then they go their separate ways. After three days, the doctor sends the following statement:

One consultation: 20 francs

The bridge patient also sends one:

Doctor Z. told a joke20 Francs
Waited until he understood it20 Francs
Total: 40 Francs
Of which for the consultation20 Francs
My remaining claim to Doctor Z20 Francs

Regional jokes play a very important role in France, and it is above all the south, Marseille and Gascony, that offer the main tribute. Anyone who has had the opportunity to hear the “accent du midi,” the “assent,” which is horrible to German ears, will understand that there is a wealth of humor to be found in French dialect. What’s more, the people from the south are considered to be colossal braggarts and, in the exuberance of their temperament, are likely to say quite cheerful things—in any case, the chain of these stories never ends. The local tone is, of course, lost on us. “Last winter,” says the man from Marseille, who is always called Marius or Olivier, “it snowed here and more than a meter of snow fell.” “A meter wide?” someone asks.

“Est-ce que tu vois la mouche au sommet de la Tour d’Eiffel?” (Can you see the fly on top of the Eiffel Tower?) asks a Gascon from Marseille. “Non! Mais je l’entends!” (No! But I hear it) he replies. There’s a lot of peasant cunning in these stories.

One plant that does not want to thrive in French is the Jewish joke. They exist; there is a Collection d’Histoires Juives, published by the Nouvelle Revue Française; they are hardly missing from any collection. But they are not prepared according to the rules; there is no such thing as Yiddish in English, in French; and the Alsatian accent, which incidentally is dwindling in many cases among the younger generation, is a poor substitute.

But the French don’t need to borrow from foreigners, they have enough good jokes of their own. The children’s mouths are particularly funny. “Grandpa, do the lions go to heaven?” “No, my child.” “Grandpa, are the priests going to heaven?” “Yes, of course, my child.” “Grandpa, but what if the lion eats a priest?”

The following story, on the other hand, has to be translated into Berlinese to get the full flavor. There is a young lawyer who has been sitting in his new office for two weeks waiting for his first client. Finally, finally, the doorbell rings and the girl answers. The lawyer hears a man’s voice and says to the girl without listening to her: “Keep the gentleman waiting!” Because he owes it to himself for reasons of prestige. After ten minutes he rings the bell, grabs the telephone, lets the visitor enter and surprises himself in an urgent and highly important conversation. He gestures into the receiver: “Of course, Mr. Senior Government Councillor! I can’t promise that, Mr. Senior Government Councillor! I’m so busy… I can’t close a deal for my client for less than nine hundred thousand marks! Certainly. So goodbye then, Mr. Senior Government Councillor!” – “What do you want?” he says to the man. The visitor replies: “I’m coming because of the telephone. It’s broken.”

This little story is also very French, in which the little six-year-old daughter of a femme entretenue picks up the word “demi-mondaine” and now asks her mom: “Mom, when I grow up, can I become a demi-mondaine too?” – “Yes,” says her mother, “if you’re good!”

There are countless jokes about the “coup de fusil” in restaurants. In a very elegant restaurant in Vichy, a customer complains about the bill. “They wrote me up five francs for a cookie? But I didn’t have any!” “Excuse me,” says the waiter, “may I ask for the bill? I’ll fix it right away.” The improved bill reads: Cookie, four francs.

There is something almost completely missing from French jokes. This is the eccentric exaggeration that we find in American and Irish jokes. If you find something like this in a collection of anecdotes, you can swear that the story has been translated from English. Such is the story of the world-famous dwarf Tom Puce (Thumb), who one day happened to be staying in the same hotel in London as the famous French singer Lablache, a giant about two meters tall. There was a curious London lady who wanted to see the small world attraction, asked for the room number at the hotel, got the wrong door and now stood stunned in front of this Mount Everest. “I… I wanted to see the dwarf Tom Puce!” “That’s me, ma’am!” – “You? You are the dwarf Tom Puce?” “Only in the theater, madam; at home I make myself comfortable!”

This conversation seems to be a child of both worlds, the French and the English: The ticket inspector: “You have a third-class ticket, dear lady, and this here is first class!” “Excuse me,” says the lady, “I thought I was in second class.”

So. Now there are many beautiful stories which I have not told because of their inappropriateness. But that should be enough now. And if I have only enriched the repertoire of a few presenters with these lines, I feel amply rewarded for all my work.

Featured: Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur (Portrait of the artist as a mocker), by Joseph Ducreux; painted ca. 1793.