Le Talk-Show: a beginner’s guide

Note pour mes chers lecteurs français: Ceci est une parodie. Il s’agit d’ironie anglo-saxonne. Au moins, à moitié.

Let me start with a gross generalisation: the French love to talk. If they can have an argument, they love it even more. Therefore, one kind of television programme is particularly popular in France: it’s what they call un talk-show.

Un talk-show is nothing like Oprah or Parkinson. Un talk-show is a sacred arena of French public life. It allows millions of French people to watch other French people talking to each other for hours and hours. If there’s an argument, it’s even better.

To be a talk-show guest in France, you must be a well-paid bourgeois academic, journalist, entertainer, author or politician. In fact, if you don’t manage to hold down at least two of these jobs at the same time, you will never be a talk-show guest, never own a Rolex, and you will have failed in your life.

The biggest triumph for un talk-show is to have a philosopher as a guest, because philosophers love to talk even more than average French people. Philosophers hold doctorates in talking. Thus philosophers are bigger than rock stars in France (although this is also because French rock stars are rubbish).  In fact in France, philosophers even marry rock stars.

There are at least 650 different talk-shows on French television each week, each of them with a studio audience. It is rumoured that the 35 hour week was introduced to allow French workers to participate as audience members in more talk-shows.  This rumour has not been denied by the French government.

The current apotheosis of le talk-show is On n’est pas couché, which is broadcast at a time which in any other country would mean ratings death: Saturday nights, from 11pm to 2am.  I am not making this bit up. This show is three hours long. But it involves people talking. Hence it is very, very popular.

Hosted by Laurent Ruquier (whose main job on the show is to not wear a tie), On n’est pas couché is difficult to explain to foreigners. It involves a series of conversations with a panel of well-paid bourgeois entertainers, authors and politicians.  Normally most of these people are part-time academics and journalists as well.

At least one of the guests will be subject to a chronique satirique, a very particular form of French humour, where a comedian plays a similar role to the medieaval fou du roi. It’s a bit like a celebrity roast, but without Dean Martin. For this section, Jonathan Lambert dresses up as a figure from the guest’s past (a old classmate or a drinking buddy). What follows is generally incomprehensible, and may involve smelly cheese:

But the real stars of On n’est pas couché are the Les 2 EricsEric Naulleau and Eric Zemmour. They have two important jobs. Firstly, to not wear ties. Secondly, they are the two polémistes. The job of a polémiste in France is almost as important as that of a philosopher, because their job is to create arguments.

Eric Naulleau hides behind a cuddly khaki shirt (without tie) and an air of left-wing journalistic social democracy. If he were British, he’d read the Guardian. But instead he’s French, has a sideline gig translating Bulgarian literature, and gets paid lots of money to criticise the latest work of guests on On n’est pas couché.

By contrast, Eric Zemmour is so right-wing he makes Rush Limbaugh look like a pussy. Zemmour is a self-confessed Bonapartiste (ie. he thinks the main problem with the modern world is that Napoleon isn’t ruling France at the moment), and he tells every guest that their book/film/philosophy/sporting achievement is contributing to the moral decline of the Republic. This invariably causes arguments, which, as noted earlier, is a good thing.

I am becoming convinced that On n’est pas couché is the Rosetta Stone to French culture. So if you find me staying home on Saturday nights furiously searching French wikipedia while watching Eric Zemmour tell Jean-Pierre Chevènement (once again) that he is the origin of the moral decline of the Republic, it’s because I’m trying to work out what the heck is going on.

Jonathan Lambert, Laurent Ruquier, Eric Zemmour, Eric Naulleau

13 thoughts on “Le Talk-Show: a beginner’s guide

  1. Great post as always. I laugh everytime I read about your vision of France and the french cultur and paradox.
    I stopped watching On n’est pas couché (maybe because of the broadcast time) months ago mainly because of Zemmour : he is so disdainful and the whole character is disgusting.
    But I must agree, Jonathan Lambert is a great comedian and it was even better when Florence Foresti was on air.

    Keep on the good work.

  2. Hilarious post !

    I must admit I don’t watch this show. I think there are better things to do when you’ve got 3 hours to spare, but then again it’s YOUR life Richard… 😉

    Pretty disgusted by the video though : this is no incentive to start watching imho.

    However, please, all you foreigners reading this : there are far better sides to French culture ! Don’t let Richard fool you ! I spoilt his plans for the takeover of Alsace back in 2000 and now he’s trying to destabilize and weaken this country to get it filled to the brim with kiwis (fruit AND birds), sheep and appalling rugby players. Although, regarding the latter we already have more than we need, alas…


  3. Salut Richard,

    You got it quite right about the french talk-shows! Very funny post!

    Obviously, being a french nation here in Quebec, we also have our own talk-shows, the most popular of which is Tout Le Monde En Parle. As the name implies, they talk and talk and talk… Take a look here:


    That should keep you busy on Wikipedia for awhile 🙂

    Salutations! Jean Francois

  4. Merci Jean Francois! The clip from TLMEP is great, I just need a few minutes to “tune” into the Quebecois accent 🙂

  5. Hehehe !

    What are the differences between a talk-show a la francaise and Oprah, though ?

  6. The differences between a French talk-show and Oprah? Oh, let me write another post. … 🙂

    For a start Laurent Ruquier hasn’t been turned into a brand in the same way as Oprah. Oprah has magazines, cosmetics, everything. I don’t see Patrick Poivre d’Arvor aftershave in shops here. Not yet anway.

    And Oprah is nice to her guests, whereas (at least on On n’est pas couché) it seems that people must be deeply critical of each other for the hell of it.

  7. In fact, French talk shows are not always as intellectual as you imply (if that’s what you meant by critical).

    Well, first of all there’s the video you show in your post that proves it ^^ but I can also think of two other (now defunct) talk shows that used to be very popular : Thierry Ardisson’s “Tout le monde en parle” and Marc-Olivier Faugiel’s “On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde”.

    I must confess that prior to owning a hard-drive DVD recorder, I used to slump in front of them for an hour or two (or more sometimes) late at night. They’re now gone and I’m not sorry because even though they were at times very interesting they really were a mixture of promotion, gratuitous provocation and the search for juicy gossip about the guests.

    As I said they don’t air any more but trash TV still lives in France (look at Mireille Dumas… if you can ! I can’t.)

  8. Don’t forget that “talk show” is pronounced “tall-k shoh” because they figured their English was good enough after learning “Brian is in the kitchen”.

  9. What a classic example of American arrogance. So French people love to talk? I guess Americans love to swear and beat each other up since that’s what they usually do on American shows.
    Maybe the reason there’s a 3-hour-long talk show on which intelligent (I guess to you that’s bourgeois) people have some serious discussions is that French people don’t have the attention span of a 4-year-old.

  10. Dear bbou, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure if you are accusing the article of “American” arrogance or not… since I am originally from New Zealand, and myself am not American at all, perhaps the article displays “New Zealand arrogance” ? 🙂

    I hope I don’t need to point out that the article was written in an ironic/parodic tone, and I stated so at the beginning.. “ceci est une parodie”

    When I wrote the article, I was attempting to express the fascination of a foreign visitor arriving in France, and being confronted by a style of TV talk-show that does not really exist in the Anglo-Saxon world. I hope that my article also expressed, at some level, the respect I have for a culture that can sustain debate and conversation for long periods of time. It is something, sadly, that has been lost in many parts of the English-speaking world.

    The use of humour to describe my observations was an attempt to express how strange this sort of show appeared to me, at first. Now, 3 years later, and still living in France, I am much more used to the French style talk-show, and I guess I see it as almost “normal”. When I occasionally see TV in the UK now, I often find the level of discourse rather limited…

  11. Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your site? My website is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my visitors would truly benefit from some of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Thanks a lot!

  12. Actually I love this show. I studied French in college but I was unable not follow the conversation 100% because the people in it speaks very fast. I have learned a lot about French literature and new books published in France. I hope I could find English translation for this show.

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