Blunt and beloved: French comedian Coluche still alive in memories
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Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Coluche, a French comedian known for his political incorrectness and his efforts to fight poverty. France24.com takes a closer look at a personality whose absence is still felt today in France.
More than two decades after he died in a motorcycle accident, French comedian Coluche still looms large in France.
The 25th anniversary of Coluche’s death was indeed ushered in on Sunday with a number of newspaper tributes and interviews.
But earlier in the week, the occasion was marked in a quirkier way, with the unveiling on Tuesday of a bronze statue of the man’s trademark striped dungarees in his hometown of Montrouge (a suburb of Paris).
Several hundred of Coluche’s fans, as well as his ex-wife and one of his sons, were present for the event.
The stand-up comedian, radio personality and actor is remembered fondly in France for his humanitarian efforts aimed at fighting poverty. In 1985, he founded the “Restaurants of the Heart”, a charity that collects food, money, and clothes for the needy.
But his biggest legacy as a performer, and perhaps the reason he is most missed, is the blunt, politically incorrect, profanity-laced humour that delighted his many fans and unsettled the ruling class that was often his target.
As Coluche famously quipped, “I’ll stop talking about politics when politicians stop making us laugh.”
Though the French establishment was the subject of many of Coluche’s jokes, he was considered an equal-opportunity offender, skewering men, women, blacks, Arabs, Jews, gays, and – famously – Belgians with the same irreverence.
That kind of fearlessness is said to be missing in the more cautious comic milieu of today’s France – a point underlined by French filmmaker Romain Goupil: “We miss him, but we especially feel the absence of his voice on the unbearable climate that reigns today,” Goupil told Agence France-Presse.
Performing and politics
Coluche was born Michel Colucci in 1944 – just weeks after the liberation of Paris – to a French mother and an Italian father. Coluche’s father died when he was young, and his mother was forced to raise two children on her modest florist’s salary.
At age 20, Coluche joined the infantry but was imprisoned for insubordination. When he was released, he briefly worked with his mother as a florist in Paris and tried his luck – unsuccessfully – as a singer before launching his career as a comedian.
Coluche got his start on the French comedy scene in the late 60s at Café de la Gare, a Parisian café-theatre frequented by a troupe of young comedians, many of whom would later become famous.
His first sketch, called “It’s the Story of a Dude”, recounted the challenges of trying to tell a joke. Coluche soon gained popularity, but his struggles with alcohol got him kicked out of the group in 1970.
He quickly joined another group called “Le vrai chic parisien” and shortly afterwards met Véronique Kantor, the woman who later became his wife and the mother of his two sons.
But once again, Coluche’s alcohol habit got in the way; he was forced to leave “Le vrai chic parisien” in 1976, leading him to embark upon what was to be a wildly successful solo career.
Aside from his stand-up work, Coluche was best known for bawdy radio routines on Europe 1, which became France’s most listened-to station in 1978 thanks in large part to the comedian’s popularity.
The most surprising turn of events in Coluche’s career came in 1980, when he announced he would be running for president in the election the following year.
The news was not taken seriously until polls starting showing the comedian grabbing around 15 percent of the vote. Following pressure from the media and politicians, Coluche withdrew from the race.
An ‘ability to underline a certain French obnoxiousness’
The comedian was not out of the spotlight for long. In 1983, Coluche won a Best Actor César award for a dramatic role as a depressed gas station attendant in Claude Berri’s “Tchao pantin”.
His professional glory was tempered by personal problems, however, as he was battling a cocaine addiction at the time.
Performing and politics aside, the most tangible mark Coluche left on French society was undeniably his founding of the charity “Restaurants of the Heart”. To this day, a concert is organised every year by various celebrities to raise money and support the association.
On the last radio show recorded before his death in 1986, Coluche was asked by co-host Maryse Gildas about how he would like to die. “As late in life as possible and with my ukulele,” he replied.
Later that year, in June 1986, he was killed when his motorcycle collided with a truck in the south of France. He was 41. As per his remark, Coluche was buried with his ukulele.
In 2008, “Coluche, the Story of a Guy”, a film focused on the comedian’s presidential campaign, was released in France.
The actor who played the title role, François-Xavier Demaison, praised Coluche’s “complexity, his astuteness, his intelligence, and his ability to underline a certain French obnoxiousness” – a combination of qualities that has perhaps not been found in the world of French comedy since.