"What the Fuck, France?": Paul Taylor on bilingual comedy
In 2015, British expat Paul Taylor quit a corporate job working for Apple to pursue a full-time career in stand-up comedy in Paris. One year later, after a viral video about the curious custom of "la bise," he's making a new TV series for Canal+ dedicated to poking fun at the foibles of French life.
cafébabel: You’ve spent seven years in Paris - what made you choose to live in France?
Paul Taylor: It’s a long story, but here’s the short version: I was born in the UK, moved to Geneva when I was two, then to France when I was 4, then back to UK, then to Madrid when I was 14 and then moved back to the UK again when I was 16.
I studied French and Spanish at Queen Mary University and I had to do a year abroad, so I spent eight months of that in Canada, and then four months in Australia. When I was 20 I started part-time in an Apple store in London, so I transferred to Montréal and then to Sydney. After I finished university they announced they were opening stores in France, and I decided I was going to come here to work. And coincidentally in my last year of uni I met a girl from Paris (who is now my fiancée). She thinks I moved here for love, but it was really for Apple.
cafébabel: Your upbringing was very cosmopolitan!
Paul Taylor: I was always the foreigner, even back at home - they used to just call me "the French kid" or "the Spanish kid" whenever I came back.
cafébabel: Did your time abroad help you develop your knack for languages?
Paul Taylor: When people ask me how I speak such good French, I tell them I was here for 5 years when I was a kid and they say "Oh, that’s why!" But I feel like that's only 20% of the reason. The reason I can do accents so well is that my mum's Irish, my dad's English, and I went to an American international school in a French-speaking country. My French was good, but it wasn't on par for a 9-year-old French kid. But then I moved back to England and all of a sudden I was above the average.
My mum made an effort to stop my French dropping off - every summer she would have French exchange students come over and stay at the flat to keep me fluent. And then it was just through studying it at school, right through to my degree, which was French and Spanish. My Spanish is obviously nowhere near as fluent, but it's still good enough that I can make people laugh; I've done a couple of gigs in Madrid and they've gone pretty well.
It's about living the language, rather than passively listening to it or watching it on TV. That's why a lot of French people I meet are quite bad at speaking English but great at understanding it; they're used to watching films in English, but they don't speak to anyone else.
cafébabel: Do you think that’s something to do with the way that languages are taught? In the UK and France it’s often very rote learning with a right and wrong answer.
Paul Taylor: The worst thing you can do when teaching anything to kids is to tell them "No, this is wrong." When I had my initial training at Apple to be a "creative", basically teaching customers how to use their phones, you weren't allowed to point at people's screens and say: "Click here, do that." You have to ask: "Where do you think you would click? Do you see something that might be useful?" They also encourage you not to use stop words, so instead of saying "Don't do that", it's saying: "Close, but try again."
Stand-up is a little like that - instead of hearing “No, you’re wrong”, you just get silence. The difference is that there's nobody in the audience saying "Almost, but why don't you try it like this?"
cafébabel: How did you first get into stand-up? Did you have an epiphany one day and decide to pack it all in?
Paul Taylor: It was an epiphany over a period of years. The trigger was in October 2011 when Steve Jobs passed away. I read his biography and started to really question my life. I was 24 at the time, and by that age Jobs had accomplished so much more than me: I was working for the thing that he created! I could've stayed with Apple my whole life, and I could see myself at 60 looking back over my life and regretting that I didn't at least try. One Christmas I had two weeks off work and just watched stand-up DVDs every day. I remembered how much I loved watching stand-up and wanting to do it, so that was how I made my decision.
I'd tried a few open mics in London before I moved out to France. One of the first things I did When I moved to Paris was go see a friend of mine called Sebastian Marx, who's an American comedian. I asked him how to sign up, and he told me just to send him an email - it took me three years to get back to him.
Those three years felt like six months because I was working so much. Even though I was really enjoying it, 100% of my time and my brainpower was being committed to my job. And I realised I wanted to slow down, so it was a New Year's Resolution that I made in January 2013, to try and get back on stage. I was performing once a week on average for a couple of years, got to a stage where I felt confident enough to really do something, but I wasn't in Paris enough to make the commitment. My job sent me all around the world and I was only home six months of the year. The only way of getting anywhere with comedy was to do it full time. So I quit my job for Apple in May of last year.
cafébabel: Who did you watch in your binge period?
Paul Taylor: A lot of English comedians. Lee Evans was always one of my favourites when I was at university, but I also watched Jack Dee, Michael McIntyre... a bit of everyone who was really big in the UK at the time.
cafébabel: Was it research for you? Figuring out your style?
Paul Taylor: It was more about projecting myself on stage, putting myself in that situation. I was listening to the jokes and thinking "it doesn't seem that complicated... if that's all it takes to fill an arena, I think I can do it."
I think subconsciously I also was figuring out what sort of jokes make me laugh the most. What you do as a comedian is you end up telling the jokes that you find funny. For me that means people who are pissed off about stuff that they shouldn't be. Being at university, I remember times where we'd be sitting around a table and I'd just go off on a rant, and that was when people would laugh at me. It's been said countless times that you don't choose your style of comedy: it chooses you.
cafébabel: Your show is bilingual - half-English, half-French - and you've talked about timing yourself to make the divide as exact as possible. Had you ever thought about doing a show entirely in one language?
Paul Taylor: The comedy landscape in France is very different. In England there's a network of comedy clubs where you can get paid for doing 20 minutes per night, tour the country doing that and earn a pretty decent living. Whereas in France, in order to make any money you have to do a one-hour show.
When I watched Sebastian Marx, he did an hour-long show in English and then did essentially the same show in French. I considered going down that route, but I wanted to do something that nobody else is doing and have two languages in one show. Plus I didn't have a full hour of jokes to do in one language. Some jokes I do only work in English and others only work in French, so I thought, “Why not combine the two and see what happens?”
cafébabel: Do you think there's a fundamental difference between British and French humour?
Paul Taylor: French humour is very political, whereas in England it's more about self-deprecation. And the style is so different. In the UK stand-up is the main way that humour is consumed, whereas outside of Paris it isn't really a thing yet. Here they have one-man-shows, but that's about playing a character, not telling you about the world from my point of view. When Gad Elmaleh plays the old guy with the cigarette, that's not him. He's playing a character. But even he is now starting to do more of what I would call stand-up; "this is me, and this is how I see the world."
cafébabel: It's almost like a cultural exchange is happening.
Paul Taylor: Sure. A lot of French websites are now reposting old routines - old stuff from Americans like Chris Rock or Louis CK - and people are starting to see the appeal of it. Until a few years ago I got the impression that stand-up was seen as a low form of entertainment, not as good as theatre or as one-man shows. "There's no art to it, it's just someone chatting to their mates." And if we do it well that's what it feels like, but it takes a long time to get to that stage.
cafébabel: Whereas now it's been said that stand-up comedians are the new rock stars.
Paul Taylor: It's almost at saturation level in the UK, there's almost too much. It seems to be about 15 or 20 guys in the UK who just float around between stadium gigs, panel shows and sitcoms.
cafébabel: Will it reach saturation point here?
Paul Taylor: Maybe. It's still in its infancy here in France, but it's cool to be part of the first wave of it.
cafébabel: So you've gone from riding the first wave of "real stand-up" in France to taking over YouTube. How did it feel seeing your video on "La Bise" go viral?
Paul Taylor: It was really weird. That was actually one of my first routines on stage, and I just honed it and improved it as best I could. A friend of mine who organises the French Fried Comedy Night suggested making a video to promote the show. I was against it, partly because I didn't want to burn the joke - if you're in the UK or the US and something from your show gets online, you can't really use it again. But here I learnt it's the opposite. People deliberately come to see you do the routine in the video, but live on stage.
I think maybe it was good timing; the Bataclan attacks happened in November, and so I think people needed to laugh about their own culture again. My phone didn't stop ringing, random news companies kept asking to do interviews, and it was during that period that Canal+ got in touch and said they liked the concept and asked to do a series.
cafébabel: Are the topics for "What the Fuck France" taken from your stand-up routine?
Paul Taylor: No, all of those are written specially. I could have turned my whole one-hour show into three minute sketches, but I don't want the whole thing to just be repeats. There might be a joke here and there, but they're written differently. Originally the jokes were geared towards an expat audience: I tried writing about the problems of calling people "tu" or "vous", which French people didn't really get - it just isn't a problem for them. So we rewrote it with a French audience in mind, but also trying to attract an international audience.
cafébabel: How do you strike that balance of writing material that's funny for different audiences?
Paul Taylor: When we sit down and brainstorm the episodes, it's a group process. We work with British and French people, and every time the expats make a suggestion I ask the French people whether it makes sense to them.
cafébabel: Do you ever get homesick? Do you think there'll be a time when you want to go back to England?
Paul Taylor: If Britain remains as it is now for the next 20 or 30 years, I don't see myself going back. But who knows what will happen politically?
cafébabel: What was the mood here while the Brexit referendum was happening in the UK?
Paul Taylor: Honestly, I think France didn't really care until after the vote happened. It was never part of the conversation with people here, I was never asked how I was going to vote. For two weeks whenever I turned up to a gig, all the French comedians would ask me "Alors, le Brexit?" It was news for maybe a month after the result came out, and now it's gone. I think if you asked most French people now they'd think we already left. It’s the same with the US presidential elections; six months from now nobody will care anymore.
cafébabel: As someone who's lived in so many different countries, what do you think of Theresa May's comment that "if you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere?"
Paul Taylor: That's like saying: "If you drink beer, you have to choose one type of beer." You're allowed to like Guinness and Carlsberg. I do agree that if you're going to go somewhere, you should integrate - don't just create pockets of culture, like British people do in the south of Spain. But the world's getting smaller, it's easier to get from place to place and people aren't going to stop moving, and I think you should be allowed to live where you want to.