Magazine | February 9, 2015, Issue

Rire in the Rear

Charlie Hebdo, insolent child among philosophes.

It’s been more than two weeks since the deadly attack at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, which is enough time to allow me to say this: Charlie Hebdo isn’t funny.

Not really, anyway. Charlie Hebdo is French, and the French — who can be subtle and nuanced about things like cheese and marital fidelity — are remarkably ham-fisted about humor. For them, a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed engaged in a wet kiss with a rabbi is hilarious, because, well, how can that happen? In real life? On ne fait pas ça!

“You know what I love so much about the American show Friends?” a French writer once asked me. “I love the dialogues,” he said, slipping back and forth between English and French. “Les dialogues sont drôles! J’adore les dialogues en double sens!” “Ah, yes,” I said. “In English we call them double entendres.”

He looked at me funny. “That is not English,” he said. “That is French.”

“Yes,” I said. “I was making a joke. Because in English we use the French term. And so I thought it was funny to say that a French phrase was an English phrase because . . . well . . .”

I trailed off. He looked baffled and utterly lost. My (admittedly weak) witticism was lost somewhere in the gray zone of French humor. It was neither boldly scatological nor a simple play of opposites, so it was rejected by the rigid and often robotic French funny bone.

The French — and they’ll be the first to tell you — are rationalists. There’s not a Frenchman alive — from bus drivers to café waiters to TV talk-show pundits — who doesn’t fancy himself a rational thinker, an unsentimental philosophe. In France, if you want to throw some serious shade at a debate opponent, you dismiss his argument with an airy wave and a condescending Ce n’est pas logique. If you do, prepare yourself: Fists will fly.

That makes it tricky for Americans when we talk about Charlie Hebdo and the right to free speech and the sacred art of satire, because if you ask a typical American what, exactly, is funny about any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons — the kisses between Mohammed and a rabbi, the homosexual embraces between Muslim clerics and papal caricatures, any of them — what you’ll get is probably a shrug and something along the lines of “Well, it’s two guys making out who probably wouldn’t want to make out. It’s not funny to me, but what do I know? The French are weird.”

True enough. But compare any of the offending cartoons with a recent Broadway hit, the Tony Award–winning musical The Book of Mormon, written and conceived by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the movie Team America: World Police and South Park, the closest thing we have in the United States to Charlie Hebdo. The Book of Mormon is a rude and utterly hilarious multilateral attack on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its beliefs.

It is also, in some odd way, sweetly sentimental and even nuanced in its portrayal of faith, belief, mission, and moral goodness. The lead character struggles — comically, of course — with the tenets of his religion, and it’s clear that the authors of the piece find most of the specific beliefs of Mormonism to be ridiculous, but there’s also a lot of heroism in the story of Mormon missionaries in the middle of a nasty African despotic dictatorship trying quixotically to make the lives of its citizens more free and healthy and decent. The biggest number of the show — “I Believe!” — is both a sharply nasty satire on LDS doctrine and a declaration of the power of faith.

Which, for me anyway, is why it’s funny.

Charlie Hebdo, since its inception, has made a mission out of shock. The blasphemy of the Muslim-themed cartoons that resulted, in a twisted way, in the massacre of January 7 had rich and deep precedent in the cartoons and features of previous years — sexual and scatological renderings that took aim at the Roman Catholic Church, at sacred institutions like the Académie française, at often remotely lofty politicians like Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand.

In contemporary French society, though, these were hardly tough subjects to go after. The Church has been shrinking quickly — over 40 percent of all French citizens define themselves as atheist — and the pomposity of French politicians has been on the wane since the corruption scandals of former president Chirac and the image of current president François Hollande, in disguise and clutching onto the back seat of a moped, on his way to meet his (other) girlfriend.

In today’s France, unmarried presidents cheat on their live-in girlfriends, politicians routinely appear on television unshaven and tieless, rock stars sing duets about incest with their daughters, everyone’s a rebel. Surrounded by the icons and monuments of Western civilization — cathedrals and opera houses, academies and châteaux, parks and boulevards — it’s irresistibly tempting, and ultimately very safe, to pose rebelliously with a dangling Gitane, to shrug at the middle-class values of the Roman Catholic Church, to draw cartoons of cultural figures in flagrante or on the toilet or both.

Put it this way: During the tumultuous post-war years in France, the political and social establishment would dine regularly at the Brasserie Lipp. The political and artistic rebels would dine across the street at Café de Flore. But it could have easily been the other way around, because to be French — truly French — is to be French first, to be part of a large and fractious (but ultimately unified) family of rational Cartesian philosophes. And in any family there’s a (basically harmless) ten-year-old boy making flatulation sounds in the back seat, or drawing filthy pictures of the local priest, or saying dirty words to watch the grown-ups splutter. In France, that ten-year-old boy is named Charlie Hebdo.

Charlie Hebdo is funny in context, if you imagine someone really uptight — a cleric, say, or some humorless religious zealot — reading it. In fact, the cartoons are funny — and even then it’s a stretch for me — only with the image in mind of the target, face red with rage, offense very much taken, holding the magazine with specks of foam around the mouth and spittle flying. And since 1970 or so, that outraged grown-up has been some member of the French national establishment. The magazine or its direct antecedents have been banned — yes, in France some publications can be “banned” — half a dozen times or so. And each time, after what progressive parents might call a “time-out,” the magazine has gone right back to work being childishly offensive and funny-in-context.

Even, it must be said, when the humorless targets of Charlie Hebdo’s mockery weren’t French first, but Islamist reactionaries with primary allegiances not to coolly rational French logic but to death cults in Yemen and Syria and elsewhere.

This is where the boy in the back seat, who can be tiresome and crude and unfunny, faces a choice. It’s one thing to put a stick in the eye of a pompous cultural or political grandee. It’s another to do it to an irrational and violent adversary who, despite holding a French passport, doesn’t know the first thing about being truly French. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo knew for certain that the members of the French establishment would never come for them with guns blazing. But they also knew that the Islamist targets most definitely would. That they continued their offensive and utterly blasphemous campaigns against Islamic sensibilities is a sign of their reckless courage.

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