Coluche: The Tragic Arc of France’s Boundary-Pushing Comic Conscience

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C’est moche, c’est sale, c’est dans le vent: it’s ugly, it’s dirty, it’s going to happen. It’s difficult for me to stand by this translation because I don’t speak a lick of French. So I just have to trust that it properly conveys the spirit of the now-legendary Parisian comedy club Café de la Gare. Given that each and every audience member paid an admission fee based on a random lot they drew, the translation feels apropos.

Founded in 1968 by a group of friends whose main goal was mockery, Café de la Gare was a dinner theater by name only. In actuality, it was a cramped space with no real tables and chairs to speak of and even the seating cushions could be used as weapons by the performers against their compliant audience. Comedy is performance art. Comedy is anarchy. Comedy is an experiment. Oh, how French. And yet, it kind of sounds like the French parallel to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York during the early 2000s or Second City in Chicago during the 60s and 70s. And much like these American comedy institutions — I know the respective founders might balk at the word, but sorry that’s what they are — Café de la Gare produced some of the most famous entertainers in France. For example, our father the hero himself: Gérard Xavier Marcel Depardieu.

Some of the other big names may not be so recognizable to an American audience, but are quite iconic in France. In the following video, some of the founders look back at old footage taken of their early Café de la Gare shows. Even if you don’t speak French, it illustrates the nature of their performances quite well and should hopefully give you an idea of what the comedy theatre was like in its young days.

Leave it to the French to make sketch comedy look so hip. Maybe I’m just grasping at straws here, but they kind of look like the French parallel to the early SNL gang. And if we were to follow this comparison, one of those men watching the old footage, known as Coluche, would be their John Belushi. But if I may depart from this train, I think a more fitting American counterpart to Coluche would be Lenny Bruce. I mean come on, their last names are all so strikingly similar, I smell a dead-end conspiracy theory…

As you may have guessed, the parallel does involve a career-long struggle with drugs and alcohol and an untimely death. But Coluche was also one of the first French comedians to use profanity on broadcast television. And he also had an equal-rights policy for everyone he skewered in his performances: woman, man, gay, straight, black, white or Belgian — no one was safe.

Here’s a video of one of his most famous (and purportedly first) sketches entitled “C’est l’histoire d’un mec,” or “The Story of a Dude” or “The Story of a Guy” or “I Need to Take a French Class.” This version is sans subtitles, but does show his unique sense of humor right down to his name embroidered on his shirt.

The crux of this routine revolves around how difficult it is to tell a joke, which is ironic because it is difficult to understand his jokes if you don’t speak French. I don’t blame him, I blame us for being too lazy to learn a second language. Come on, America.

Whether or not the jokes hit with you, this routine is important because it is what made him famous, as a fan points out, literally overnight. In 1974, as TV announcers waited for François Mitterrand to concede defeat in the Presidential election — someone pulled Coluche on TV to stall for time. Suddenly, the 29-year-old went from starving, indie comedian to a household name.

One of the major differences between Coluche and other comic provocateurs of the time is how beloved he was by the French people. Having grown up in relative poverty, Michel Colucci (his birth name) did not succeed at school and found equal frustration in the French army. He was a square peg in the round hole of his country’s institutions. But his experiences became the backbone of his humor — a mix of the political, satirical and cynical. And the people of France welcomed this peg with open, square-shaped arms.

To me, this speaks volumes to the French sense of humor, something other countries accuse the French of not having. Perhaps because the French have an inclination to what French Surrealist Andre Breton called “l’humour noir,” they would be open to a comedian with dark undertones. And they certainly aren’t as uptight and PC as we puritanical Americans, so all the foul language and shocking commentary only served to cement his role as ‘Comedian of the People.’ Here’s a few of his more famous jokes:

One day God said ‘I shall divide equally: The rich get the food and the poor get the appetite.’

Left-wing politics like poor people so much they create them.

I’ll stop talking about politics when politicians stop making us laugh.

Although he became a bonafied comedic personality across all media in France, Coluche never sold out his comedy or his audience. He even made the elusive transition to dramatic actor, winning a César award for his performance in the film “Tchao Pantin,” or “So Long, Stooge.”

But Coluche was not content to just preach politics, he actually briefly ran for President in the 1980 French election. His platform? “A vote for me is an idiot vote,” says Coluche. “But a vote for any of them is an imbecile vote.” According to a Time article from 1980, 200 ‘Coluche for President’ committees sprung up around France, due in no small part to the growing unemployment rate and the divide between the elite and the blue collar worker. You can probably guess which group Coluche spoke for. But the stunt got too real even for Coluche when a newspaper poll revealed more than 16% intended to vote for him. The French appreciated the joke more than even he could have predicted.

A 2008 film was made detailing his life, particularly his unsuccessful Presidential bid. Here’s the trailer. No subtitles necessary for trailers, right guys? (Please say yes.)

Towards the end of his life, Coluche founded the charity organization Restos du Cœur, or Restaurants of the Heart that worked with restaurants to provide meals for the homeless free of charge and with no expectation they say “thank you.” Much like his comedy, he strove to treat everyone as equals. Which is why the annual fundraising concert is performed by a collection of famous singers and performers called “The Assholes.” To Coluche, everyone was an equal asshole.

It was on June 19th, 1986 when Coluche crashed into a truck on his motorcycle outside of Opio, France. According to French blog FR2Day, “the roundabout in Opio is now a shrine to Coluche, visited daily by his legion of fans, and every year on the anniversary of his death thousands of motorbikers from all over France make the pilgrimage, to pay their respects.” This past Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of his death.

Alcohol abuse eventually forced Coluche out of the Café de la Gare group and compounded with drugs would continue to affect his career throughout his life. He was not perfect. But perhaps it was his lack of perfection that so endeared him to the French people, a kind of forgiveness we could take a lesson from in America.

It’s evident that people don’t just mourn the death of Coluche the person, but also the comedy of Coluche. The actor who played him in the 2008 film praised Coluche’s “complexity, his astuteness, his intelligence, and his ability to underline a certain French obnoxiousness” — a combination of qualities that”, in the opinion of France24, “has perhaps not been found in the world of French comedy since.”

Café de la Gare has now become an institution itself. Gone is the factory-cum-performance space from 1968, “The Station Café” moved to a bigger location in 1972 which it stilI calls home today. And today, it’s more of a tourist destination than a hip, alternative house of comedy.

But wax with me for a minute. In life, things tend to move that way — towards consolidation. Towards establishment, an idea Coluche poked at with darts of wit his entire life. Let us hope that Café de la Gare’s move to the “dark side” has freed up some space in the light for France’s next batch of comic idealists. Because they are way past due.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.