Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Fernand Raynaud and His Role in Amusing Myself

Your first favorite comedy recording is one of the milestones of your childhood; it may not fully define the expanse or range of what you find funny as you grow older, but it presents the root elements that made you laugh all those years ago, and probably still hooks you today when you search for a moment’s distraction.

I spent the first few years of my life in a melange of languages. My mother, newly transplanted to America from years in Naples, Italy, switched between French and Italian on alternate days, believing it would help continue communication between myself and her non-English speaking parents, who had also moved stateside to be closer to me. My father just kept speaking English. I have no memory of what transpired, but according to him, after a stretch of this, I stopped speaking completely for almost six months, and then just as abruptly, started up again. Therapists they took me to then could not agree on whether being immersed in multiple tongues was helping me or confusing me – a debate which continues today – so once I inexplicably ended the vocal standoff, the decision was made to pare down to just French and English at home. So while I had previously (and adorably) been able to muscle up to a barista on a cruise liner and say, “Uno cappucino, subito!” before the age of four, what Italian I learned faded away, my French stayed conversational though I would never fully master writing it or nail that eternal aigue versus grave divide, and I learned to speak the flat unaffected English of any other child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Nonetheless, my first comedy memory was impacted by that multilingual setting. My mother had brought with her a collection of comedy 45s by a French comedian named Fernand Raynaud. And one in particular I somehow gravitated to, playing it as constantly as most growing kids played their Disney storybook record, and ultimately memorizing the sketch. Well, technically, memorizing it as onomatopoeiatically possible, since between skips in the record and the high speed slang of the delivery, I never fully understood all the actual words being said. But my determination to recite it at the drop of a hat definitely made for some initial amusement at family gatherings. Then, for various reasons practical and personal, this obsession became just a curious historical anecdote as I discovered Monty Python, George Carlin, the Second City, and other English-language comedy.

Trying to describe the appeal of a foreign-language comedian whose prime came before the internet offered global interconnectivity is not quite as difficult as dancing about architecture, but it’s still a bit of a challenge. With that Magilla Gorilla in the room, I’ll give it a try.

Fernand Raynaud’s comedy was driven by storytelling, reciting events and sketches using exaggerated voices and facial expressions, usually building to one big payoff, kind of a French equivalent of Jerry Clower. And since some of his sketches became quite popular, he would also effectively be an ancestor of that genre which “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE” would mercilessly brand for eternity as, “The Kings of Catchphrase Comedy.” Raynaud was in fact often derided by some comedy fans for this appeal, which was at odds with another popular French comedian of the day, Raymond Devos, who was perceived as way more literate. Writer François Beaune described the divide through the words of a woman he encountered in 2011:

Fernand Raynaud, really, he was already cheesy back then...When I was young, there were only two comedians: Fernand Raynaud and Raymond Devos. In my cultivated, bourgeois family, we loved Devos. [Raynaud’s] interminable croissant gag...[he] was for the proles, Devos was for the nerds. There were still real class distinctions.”

Raynaud’s affinity was indeed for working class characters, and their daily toil against the indignities of job, home, and other people. This was likely inspired from his upbringing in Oradou, a suburb of Clermont-Ferrand, dominated by Michelin’s tire factory, where his father worked as a foreman. He left school at 15, and lived a nomadic, knockaround life into his 20s, working a multitude of jobs, doing military service in Berlin during WWII, and losing two of his fingers in an undefined accident. When he began regularly performing in Parisian cabarets and television in the mid-’50s, he performed material inspired by the personalities he had encountered through his travels, most often sporting a battered hat and long coat. As Beaune observed, “The characters of Fernand Raynaud are beautiful and complex creatures: the sister, the switchboard operator, the customs officer, the [brat]...No stereotypes. Fernand possessed the art of portraiture, the art of observing, of transcribing without exaggerating, of sketching reality.”

Probably the best representation of Raynaud’s skill for social observation and wresting comedy from a repeated phrase is his well-remembered sketch, “J’ m’amuse.” In a set up that serves as a scarily prescient prediction of modern-day corporate doublespeak, a factory boss calls an impromptu meeting of all his employees to inform them that starting immediately, “to boost morale,” no one is allowed to even say that they are laboring or doing a job, they must say, “I’m enjoying myself.” There are predictably tired and grouchy recitations of the new euphemism by the unlucky grunts who are put on the spot to test the new rule, but the sketch reaches its full potential as the boss grills a supply clerk about his role in the factory, and the clerk keeps repeating the “I’m enjoying myself” maxim, demonstrating the clear absurdity of this directive, to a perfect conclusion:

SUPPLY CLERK: I think I’ll be enjoying myself here for another fifteen years, until my retirement, tell you what!

THE BOSS: And after that, what will you do?

SUPPLY CLERK: Well then after that? I'll go to work!

The sketch that I had memorized as a five-year-old was “Bourreau d’enfants,” which literally translates as “Executioner of Children” but would probably be better understood as simply “Child Abuser.” Raynaud alternately narrates and acts out the chaos of a dyspeptic father trying to get his intransigent son to eat his dinner, and the yelling between them leads the neighbors to constantly scream the title catchphrase. Perhaps, to modern listeners, that's a grim-sounding scenario for a lighthearted comedy routine, especially to be re-recited by a child like me back then. However, speaking as a former child, that's a scenario likely relatable to any parent, or neighbor to a parent for that matter; as the late Rahn Ramey observed, if you’ve never thought about killing your kids, that’s because your kids don’t live with you. Revisiting and translating it for this article yielded fresh insight that I obviously lacked back then. For example, there is a third character in the sketch, the father’s mother-in-law who vainly tries to mediate the dispute. Which leads me to the question, where is the actual mother during this dinner? I rather suspect the fact that Raynaud chose to dramatize a grandparent rather than the maternal parent was perhaps meant to hint that mother was off working a night job! 

A reasonably faithful translation of the French audio is provided in small print below:

FATHER: Toto, eat your soup.

TOTO: No, I won’t eat it. Tonight, I don’t want to eat my soup.

FATHER: Eat it right away, Toto. Otherwise I will see it as my paternal obligation to serve you, with deep regret, a lovely pair of slaps to your face.

TOTO: Ohh...oh how unhappy I must be...all this crazy slapping when I don’t want to eat things I don’t like...Oh, I’ve had it...what I life I lead…

FATHER: Stop your crying, Toto, or otherwise I will give you such a slap, you'll know why you're crying.

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: Seriously, you’re not going to rile up the neighborhood because you don’t want to eat your soup, no? Eat it this instant!

TOTO: No, I won’t eat it. Tonight I decided that I won’t eat my soup.

FATHER: Oh like that you decided?

TOTO: Yes, that’s what I decided.

FATHER: Well, you’re going to eat it.

TOTO: No, I won’t eat it.

FATHER: Yes, you will eat it!

TOTO: {wailing}

MOTHER IN LAW: It seems to me, my son-in-law, that for the education of your son, it would certainly be preferable at the moment, would it not, especially at this time that we live in…

FATHER: You, “mother,” give me a break. If you’re not happy here, I’ll show you the door.

MOTHER IN LAW: This I thought I’d never see; my children, throwing me in the street.

TOTO: That’s papa, he wants to throw us in the street. {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: Stop your screaming! I’m not going to play along with this drama! What do you want to eat since you don’t want to eat your soup?

TOTO: What would I like? I would like...a sausage.

FATHER: You’d eat a sausage?

TOTO: Tonight I’d definitely eat a sausage.

FATHER: Well, you’re not going to eat a sausage because you are going to eat your soup right this minute.

TOTO: No, I’ll eat a sausage.

FATHER: No, you won’t eat it.

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

The father goes downstairs at top speed, he rouses the butcher after they've closed for the night, and he returns with a sausage.

FATHER: There. Happy? You’ll give me a moment’s peace now?

TOTO: {wailing}

FATHER: What are you going on about now, what do you want?

TOTO: I want you to have a piece before me.

FATHER: That I eat a sausage? After I’ve already had my jam? Never, you hear.

TOTO: Uh-huh. I know you want to poison me, then.

FATHER: No, but you’re crazy. Yes, completely. I don’t want to poison you.

TOTO: Then eat a piece!

FATHER: No, I won’t eat it!

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: Be quiet, you! I swear to you, I’ll eat your darned piece of sausage. And after that you’ll give me peace. (mouth full) Because, first off...pay attention...I’ll show you out the door, you hear? So don’t make your faces at me. You’ll be eating your sausage with your school teachers. (swallow) There! Are you happy? I ate your piece of sausage!

TOTO: {wailing}

The neighbors: ‘CHILD ABUSER!’

FATHER: How can this be? You didn’t want to eat your soup, you didn’t eat it. You wanted me to bring you a sausage and I brought it. You wanted me to eat a piece, and I ate it. And you’re still whining? Why?

TOTO: You ate the piece that I wanted!

Thinking back to that very distant time of my childhood, where memory is often difficult to recover, I am inclined to believe that while I liked the laughs I was getting for regurgitating the routine, I was probably first drawn to it and ultimately embraced it because with the highs and lows of the dialogue between the sketch's father and son, it was almost like memorizing a favorite song. Maybe it was less about the subject matter and more the melody of the French being spoken itself that drew me in.

Similarly, to really get in a zone to write this piece, I mainlined easily two dozen or more monologues and sketches of Raynaud's, some of which I was able to suss out meaning from with my pidgin understanding of French, some that I did not but instead simply listened to, indeed, as if they were musical compositions. And while I've got a definite bias because I'm trying to sell the validity of my subject to the reader, I did feel a definite and immediate sense of comfort listening to his patter at length, the kind of easy feeling decades of "A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION" audiences have likely felt. I have not yet gone so far as to listen to an equal amount of his ersatz rivals Raymond Devos or Colouche or Fernandel, but I'm open to that idea, depending on how much response I get for this initial foray. But I digress.

At the height of his fame in the ‘60s, doing TV and movies in France, and taking his stage act to London, Canada, and Africa, Raynaud was now in a paradoxical position. His success meant he could take his children on holidays his hard-laboring father could not, but they would often have to cut their visits short due to being besieged by fans. Also, the high demand for his performances led to being subject to higher taxes, which he could only feasibly pay off by working even more than he already was. His son Pascal recounted in a 2003 interview that he tried to balance all these conflicting forces as best he could: “Even when he was traveling 400 kilometers away, he drove all night to get home and sleep at home...It bothered him not to have the life of the simple man.” However, he would allow himself one major indulgence that would be in stark contrast to his working-class roots: after being served with a tax bill of 300,000 francs, he spent an equivalent amount on a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. Finally, to hold onto more of his income and ease his work schedule, Raynaud moved his residence to Nouméa, on the peninsula of New Caledonia, just out of reach of the revenuers.

Raynaud never did make inroads into the United States, but strangely enough, some of his material did.

It’s not known who precisely was the Francophile on the writing staff of the 1971-1977 Children’s Television Workshop educational series “THE ELECTRIC COMPANY,” but two of Reynaud’s sketches were repurposed, without credit, into animated segments for the show. The segments were done by the late Jerry Lieberman, whose studio would later create logo treatments for Nickelodeon and Turner Broadcasting and the animated portions of Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” video.

The first sketch really needs no introduction, suffice to say that the animated version pares down what was a wordy 6 minute monologue into a tight playlet.

The other, “Deux croissants,” mentioned earlier in this essay, became the “Sweet Roll” segment, which proved so popular, it was restaged in live action with Hattie Winston and Jim Boyd in a later season. While the ingredients change, the principle is the same: a clueless customer continues to request the one menu item an increasingly flustered server tells him is not available. Raynaud’s original finishes with a third character, another diner who castigates the customer for annoying the server, stating that had it been them taking the order, they would have used the non-existent croissants to smack him in the face. The “ELECTRIC COMPANY” version just ends with the server running to the kitchen screaming. In the 2006 book SMARTBOMB by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, another variation was attributed to computer game developer Will Wright, who described it as a “Zen” joke, with no acknowledgment to its previous telling by Raynaud or the TV series.

Now, it is entirely possible that, befitting the old “music hall” style of narrative comedy he practiced, maybe Raynaud was not in fact the original author of those sketches. For example, another of Raynaud’s recordings, “Le tailleur,” is essentially a variation of what has circulated since American vaudeville as “The Suit Joke.” ("Oh, that poor man!" "Yes, but what a perfect suit!") And It’s the Plumber” has been attributed to both American comic Buddy Hackett and UK comic Duggie Brown, though finding a concrete date of telling it has so far proved elusive, thus it is possible Raynaud told it first. 

But getting back to the prime point, while one shared sketch could be attributed to coincidence and public domain status, the fact that two sketches widely associated with Raynaud -- even packaged together on the same 45 -- got restaged on the same TV show suggests that some wily bilingual was taking notes from his act.

And of course, when I was a comedy-devouring child, I wasn’t about joke theft. I was just surprised that somehow that sketch from one of my mother’s 45s made it to one of my favorite TV shows. And we all had a laugh about it, back at that age when laughing in my mother’s presence came much more naturally than it would once I got older.

In the fall of 1973, the 47-year-old Raynaud was ready to step away. He had booked a benefit performance for factory workers in his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand on September 28th, and intended to hold a press conference before the show with the mayor to announce his retirement. He had specifically chosen this location and occasion for personal symbolism, having previously encapsulated his feelings for the city in 1970: "When, coming from Paris, after Aigueperse, on the blue road, I see the Puy de Dome, and after that, passing by Riom, built in Volvic stone, I see [the sign] ‘Clermont-Ferrand, 14 kilometers,’ my heart beats stronger. I am affected as a lover who will return to a beloved woman."

As writer Jean-Baptiste Ledys wrote this past January, “In this declaration of love that Fernand Raynaud made for Clermont-Ferrand...the comedian did not know that he described the road on which he would die.”

Running late for his press conference, Raynaud’s Silver Shadow, chosen this day because his preferred traveling car had been stolen two days before, that piquant prize which he had jokingly described to his friends as “an assassin,” went out of control after the Aigueperse curve, hit a livestock trailer, and continued for 80 meters until crashing into the wall of the Cheix-sur-Morge cemetery, killing him instantly.

La Montagne, one of the French publications waiting for him at the press conference that never happened, later declared in a headline: “For the first time, Fernand made us cry.”

Raynaud’s most beloved monologue was called simply, “Hereux.” Within the flexibility of French, it can mean “Happy,” but also the more sober reading, “Content.” In his monologue, he portrays a road worker, talking about his unassuming but also unstressful daily life, and contrasting it with the dissatisfied feelings of the relatives he reluctantly meets with once a year, repeating the word “Hereux” frequently. When one of his relatives, a philosopher, challenges him to prove how he can be so content with his lot in life, another relative, a doctor, stands up for him, saying, “Have you ever seen a road worker go on strike?”

“Hereux” would become his best known catch phrase. When tabloids reported on his tax disputes and other domestic troubles, they always invoked it with a question mark. When his sketches were published in a 1975 book, and when actor Jean Rochefort staged a Hal-Holbrook-as-Mark-Twain-style tribute to Raynaud in 2004, performing his classic scenes and songs to packed audiences, it was used as the title. And most importantly, it is the word on his headstone in Saint-Germain-des-Fosses, the municipality in central France where he vacationed in childhood. 

In August of 2010, filmmaker and Academy Award winner Claude Lelouch offered this personal memory of Raynaud:

"I knew him well, he was one of those people who really made me laugh...I remember an evening spent at a friend's house who had very, very beautiful paintings, and had a very beautiful Picasso. Fernand had advised him to put it in the bathroom because, he said, this is where we have time to appreciate [things] every day. The masterpieces, we should put them in the bathroom, where we have time to look at them, [otherwise] in the living room we pass them by...He was a very astonishing person and it is true that he was constantly [concerned about] the truth; I had a little talk with him, and he said, 'If there is not one whiff of truth in my sketch, it won't hold the road.'"

And perhaps, without me knowing it, that was the seed planted in me from that first comedy record. Truth. One kid recognizing how bratty behavior can sound amusing, especially when you clumsily recount it to the grownups instead of committing it yourself. One adult recognizing how when you try to futz with or manipulate what truth is only makes you look more stupid. And all the time in between, finding those real things that would indeed make one content, if not completely happy.

So I think I can say truthfully that I really went to work in enjoying myself for you all.

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