Western Mail Profiles: Dr Jonathan Ervine

Jonathan Ervine is Head of French at Bangor University and his research focuses on multiculturalism and humour in France.

Some say laughter is the best medicine but there are others who would argue that comedy is not always a laughing matter. In carrying out research into multiculturalism and humour in France, I have examined how humour can sometimes stir up tensions and on other occasions be used to promote tolerance.

It is often the controversy created by stirring up tensions that receives most coverage in the media. One need only think back to the decision in 2006 by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo to re-print cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed that had previously appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten.

Earlier this year, French footballer Nicolas Anelka was banned for five games and fined £80,000 for performing a gesture associated with controversial French comic Dieudonné after scoring for West Bromwich Albion. Dieudonné has regularly been accused of anti-Semitism in the last decade and has been convicted of inciting racial hatred on several occasions.

What such high profile incidents hide is comedy’s potential to reduce tension rather than simply exacerbate it. In 2006, the Franco-Moroccan comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze founded the Jamel Comedy Club and helped to launch the careers of many up-and-coming young stand-up comedians. Many of the performers were, like Debbouze, of foreign descent or from large housing estates on the fringes of major French cities.

The Jamel Comedy Club provided an arena in which to discuss and de-mystify difference and has been heralded as symbolizing a radical new France. In addition, its brand of humour is much closer to that of British and American stand-up comedy than that of many established French performers.

At a time when cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed have been frequently portrayed in the media as a symbol of supposed incompatibility of Islam and humour, a project initiated in Bordeaux in 2008 has arguably gone even further in its attempts to challenge stereotypes.

A Part ca tout va bien (which means ‘apart from that, everything’s fine’) is the name of a web series created by Sylvain de Zangroniz and Hassan Zahi. The duo mock both those who seek to exploit Islam for their own reasons and others’ irrational fears of the religion. Their sketches have accumulated over 12 million views on their website and been well-received by Muslims and non-Muslims.

The debates about humour that have been provoked by the four case studies I have discussed here provide a means of gauging community relations and social integration at a time when these issues have often been hot topics. Several debates about humour and offensiveness have arisen in the UK in recent years, and one can say the same about France. As reaction to supposedly humorous comments about Wales by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Ann Robinson have shown, the identity of both the joke teller and their intended audience are of great importance when it comes to assessing jokes’ power and potential offensiveness.

Jonathan may be contacted at j.ervine@bangor.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail on 27th October 2014, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.