The Arty Semite

France’s Favorite TV Comic Host Examines his Jewish Roots

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
wiki commons

With the demise of Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman, Jewish comic story-tellers have mostly vanished from American TV, but they are alive and well in France, in good part due to the raconteur, compère, and interviewer Philippe Bouvard, born in 1929 in Coulommiers, north-central France. Although Bouvard has broadcasted since the 1950s, his ongoing program “Les Grosses Têtes,” launched in 1977, represents his most indelible success, with rude jokes recounted by the singer Enrico Macias (born Gaston Ghrenassia to an Algerian Jewish family), journalist Claude Sarraute, and many others.

“Les Grosses Têtes” ridicules its own format by offering questions to the panel from fictitious viewers with punning names such as “Madame Lenvie de Béziers” (or Mrs. Lenvie from the city of Béziers, which in French sounds like “Mrs. Has the Desire to Screw.”). One fellow performer described Bouvard’s style as a “mixture of toilet jokes and quotes from Marcel Proust.” With the pose of a grand seigneur, Bouvard confronts corny jokes with the mock aplomb of William Shatner, before dissolving into laughter.

On January 19, Les éditions Flammarion published Bouvard’s “My Life Before and After” (“Ma vie d’avant, ma vie d’après”), referring to the author’s wry conceit that despite his frenetic ongoing career, he is in fact dead. Bouvard’s previous book, published in 2009 by Les éditions Flammarion, was similarly titled “I’m Dead: So What?” (“Je suis mort. Et alors?”).

Along with his coyly sustained posthumous pose, Bouvard delves into his Jewish identity in “My Life Before and After.” Recalling a great-grandfather who would “read the Talmud in the original while listening to Mozart symphonies,” Bouvard describes how at age 12, he was hidden from “German and French policemen” who were hunting his family, denounced as Jews by neighbors who coveted their apartment:

Long after the war, I retained a reflex of nighttime panic in reaction to unidentified noises, while continuing to perceive my bed as a holy refuge from which no dictatorship could extricate me.

During the German Occupation, Bouvard discovered the writings of the French Jewish comedian Pierre Dac, which inspired him: “Pierre Dac warped my young mind more than Spinoza had formed it.” Last year Bouvard told Actualité Juive magazine that for him, a “semitic intelligence” means ceaseless mental voyages from abstract to concrete concepts, with an ability to adapt: “When you belong to a people destined for exile, it’s better to have a capability for adaptation!”

Watch Bouvard interview Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in 1971.

Watch Bouvard interview the short-lived Israeli-born French singing star Mike Brant (born Moshe Brand) in the 1970s.

Watch a “posthumous” Bouvard in a reflective mood in March, 2011.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Philippe Bouvard

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.