Comedian Paul Taylor created the internet sensation ‘La Bise‘, which took a light-hearted look at how to navigate French culture from an English perspective, starting with the French custom of kissing when you greet friends. His videos, What The Fuck France, were immediately picked up by Canal+, a French TV network, and offer an intro to everything from getting served in a café to French administration.
Why did you start the videos? Was it one particular experience in France that led to the idea or several?
It was all an accident really. I started doing stand-up in 2013. It’s the main thing I do. My friend was running an English-speaking comedy night and he suggested that we should make a video to promote it. I chose the subject of ‘La Bise’ (‘The Kiss’) because it was the best bit of my stand-up, the strongest bit of my set. The idea of ‘La Bise’ came from what I noticed in England actually.
The kissing thing has started in England but no one is sure if you hug, if you wave, or if you kiss. Particularly among people from different countries who live in England, it can be hard to know what to do. It was more obvious when I arrived in France. My friend suggested we make it into something on video. We put it out on YouTube in January 2016 to coincide with the start of my one-hour show. It got a lot of views that first week. Canal+ got in touch and well, when a French TV company calls you up… We worked on ten shows, which were later extended to a total of 34 and we broadcast on Canal+ in September 2016 and finished airing in June 2017. You could say, it all started with a kiss.
You cover a lot of topics in your videos, but what were the biggest culture shocks for you?
The origin of each of the topics has come from a base idea that I noticed. The original ten episodes were fairly easy to find – cheese, wine… Then we sat down in a writers room with a bunch of stand-up comedians. We played around with the jokes and then I went and wrote the sketches, like ‘L’ Administration’. The administrative parts of the country can sometimes baffle me. Although it’s not just true of France. Other countries have lots of situations where you need one thing to get another thing. But you can’t get that thing unless you have the first thing. When I tell my French friends they laugh and say they’re pleased it’s not just them.
How familiar were you with France before you moved there?
I actually spent time in France as a kid. I moved to Geneva when I was two, went to French and International schools in France. It explains my French accent. I moved back to the UK when I was nine, did French at school and at university. I moved back to France when I was 23. My level of French dropped quite drastically at one stage but my French got back to where it was when I moved back.
Do you have any survival tips for anyone visiting France, living in France, or considering the move?
If you’re coming to live, you have to learn the language first. My pet peeve is English people who move to a country and don’t learn the language. It’s the best way when you move to this country. And make sure you hang out with non-ex-pats. If you speak English the whole day in France, it’s more difficult to integrate. And if you’re visiting, just be patient with Parisians.
Why have the videos been so successful, do you think?
Two reasons. French people like to be talked about. They love that someone else talks about them, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s self-congratulation or self-flagellation. And the second is the credibility I’ve got because I live here and speak the language. I get a ‘Get Out of Jail Free card’ so to speak. If I was someone who didn’t speak the language, it would be different. And it’s also about the insider/outsider perspective.
What does Canal+ see as the main attraction for its audience? The comedy, the English perspective on French culture or something else?
Multiple reasons. It’s a new angle. There wasn’t anyone English who speaks French, who has been living in France, doing comedy videos. Plus, our favourite pastime, in France and England, is taking the mick out of each other. And because people think it is actually funny.
The channel has finished airing. What’s next for you? Any other areas of Frenchness that you want to explore?
I’m currently working on another similar format but not on the same thing. It will be French news. Topical stuff in a similar sort of tone. We start filming a thing tomorrow. We’re trying to work out the name, what it should be called, with Canal+. It will have a similar vibe to What The Fuck France. Just different and a bit longer.
What’s the best thing about living in France?
The terraces. I like that I can just sit outside and have a drink until two in the morning. It isn’t possible in the UK.
What do you love about France that you can’t really find anywhere else?
The bread. Baguettes. They’ve done a great job with that.
And finally, if you could add one thing from anglophone culture into French, what would it be?
The word ‘sorry’. Parisians can be annoying because they don’t realise they live with millions of other people. They say to themselves, ‘I’ll just park here’, wherever they want; they block the road. When you live in a community of people, you need to live by some rules so that everyone benefits. So I’d add being courteous, and common rules.
Paul Taylor can be seen in his stand-up show, Franglais, touring France in October, and in Paris from January 2018.