How to Become Parisian in One Hour

A one-man show by Olivier Giraud


About two years ago, my friend Antoinette Azzurro of Paris Personalized started raving about a show—one of the most hilarious she had ever seen—called How to Become a Parisian in One Hour. Plans were made for a group outing, then spanners hit the works and the project came to nothing.

But I had not forgotten her enthusiasm and last week, taking advantage of the fact that the show has changed venues and that tickets can now be bought on-line, with a couple of friends we went. I do feel like the last person in Paris who had not seen it.

For the summer of 2012,  the show is housed at the Théâtre des Nouveautés on the Boulevard Poissonnière, very near the Hard Rock Café. And if you feel that you must choose between the two and are hesitating which one to select, then perhaps you should stop reading now : you probably are not yet ready for Olivier Giraud and his no-holds-barred humour. If you do settle on How to Become a Parisian in One Hour, in all humanity I must warn you I have one (and only one) brickbat : the seats at the Théâtre des Nouveautés obviously were designed by the same sadistic person who invented the pseudo-mediaeval torture instrument known as the iron maiden. If you wish to be able to get up and walk out of the theatre once the show is over, sit gingerly. The good news is that, at least for the duration of the show, you will be laughing so wholeheartedly that you will be totally unaware of any physical discomfort.

Olivier Giraud’s one-man show is a wonderful send-up of both the French and the Americans, satirised to their most ludicrous extremes. A few other nationalities get their come-uppance as well. It works because Mr. Giraud is fearless and clearly has no intention of sparing anyone, regardless of the national make-up of the audience. It is funny ; it is almost cruel ; it is not bowdlerised.

The show begins with the communal singing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. No need to rise, because the French display their patriotism in other ways. (And please, whatever else you do, do not place your hand upon your heart as one would in the U.S. for the Star-Spangled Banner. I know you’re only trying to be polite, but the French would not understand. It is one of the most frequent questions I get asked here : why do Americans sing their national anthem with their hand in that odd position, as if they were trying to finger a non-existent pearl necklace or indicate an incipient heart attack? I’ve given up trying to explain : it passes French understanding.)

The real expression of French patriotism comes shortly thereafter, with the camembert.

In the course of his performance, Mr Giraud illustrates the differences in behaviour between the French and the Americans in seven different situations : 1) shopping ; 2) dining ; 3) taking a taxi ; 4) taking the métro ; 5) going to a night-club ; 6) faking an orgasm ; 7 ) finding a flat. These provide him with enough material to outrage and amuse each and everyone whilst at the same time brushing his caricatures in such broad strokes that they are far too exaggerated seriously to offend anyone. Yet they still do retain some resemblance to people one knows or has met : the over-emotive American who can’t distinguish between sexy moves and pole-dancing ; the obnoxiously rude Parisian with le scowl perpétuel. Yes they do exist. (Erratum : above I wrote that the performance could not seriously offend anyone : I fibbed a little because I did meet one couple who were offended by the sexual content of the performance. Oh, well... What were they expecting? This is PARIS! Of course there’s sex involved.)

Beyond his fearless wit and keen sense of observation, the two most striking tools Mr Giraud has to hand are 1) his incredibly mobile face and 2) his alertness to his audience, actually listening to what they shout out and picking up on details, not to mention bringing some spectators on-stage with him for lessons in applied Parisianism. That he is still fresh enough and interested enough to continue to play with and to his audience after three years of the show is nothing short of fascinating and explains his well-deserved success, amongst the French and the tourists. On the night I was there, I’m sure at least 40% of the audience were locals, even though the performance is in English. (Well, mostly in English, with the exception of a few earthy Parisianisms.) It is all the more surprising that he can pull this off because, at least according to his biography, Olivier Giraud is not at all a trained actor or comedian, but a chef and sommelier who worked for several years in the United States. No doubt, that is where he observed both the American clientele and the sort of dismissive and surly Frenchman they expected to encounter. The show is a delight.