The Arty Semite

France’s Favorite TV Comic Host Examines his Jewish Roots

By Benjamin Ivry

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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.

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