I Shall Be ‘Bref’: France’s New Empire, the Shortcom

Jean Dujardin is now likely to be known in the United States chiefly as the Oscar-winning lead in last year’s silent movie The Artist. This role brought him a lot of praise in France as well, but of course, around here The Artist is only the tip of the iceberg that is Dujardin’s filmography. His most famous cinema roles includes the lead in OSS 117, a French-language parody of early James Bond movies in which Dujardin portrays a clumsy, chauvinistic yet stylish spy, and Brice de Nice, a movie based on his early-career comedy skits portraying Brice, a groovy, bleach-haired surfer who could not swim.

However, his best-known role here in France, the one which arguably diverted him into the mainstream, was that of Jean in popular short sitcom Un Gars, une Fille (A Guy, a Girl, I shall venture to translate while still trying to avoid the pitfalls I outlined in my debut installment of Au Contraire!). Adapted from a format which had originally found fame in Quebec, Un Gars, une Fille focused on the daily banter and endearing bickering of a couple in their late 20s. Here is an example of an episode in which Dujardin is dragged into the kitchen by his girlfriend so that he can get acquainted with (and learn to use) appliances and kitchenware. (French subtitles available)

Un Gars, une Fille ran from 1999 to 2003, often attracting more than five million viewers, and is still running in syndication today. It set the trend for a new type of French short sitcoms, as each episode, usually broadcast minutes before the eight o’clock news, lasted between six and eight minutes, and it set the tone for a new kind of story-telling, relying on a fast-paced editing style and the recurrent use of hooks in the soundtrack.

Following Un Gars, une Fille’s success, a handful of similarly formatted short sitcoms (or shortcoms, as Google seems to suggest is the patented term, even though I personally would have preferred something a bit more daring like “splitcom”) have made their way to French screens, mostly on M6, one of the nation’s most-watched channels. The first of these was ensemble workplace comedy Caméra Café (Coffee-Break Cam) – think The Office shot with a single still camera lodged into an automated coffee machine, with an even shorter format (three to four minutes per episode) – also hugging the pre-eight o’clock news time slot between 2001 and 2004. The same production company, CALT, then released Kaamelott, arguably the first – and only – swashbuckler shortcom, which tells the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with the latter behaving and speaking like incompetent modern-day Frenchmen. Here is a clip with (amateurish) English subtitles:

In more recent years, shortcoms have been proliferating, with their backdrops moving away from the workplace of Caméra Café and Kaamelott (yes, I would consider the Round Table a workplace for the Knights) back to more domestic settings like in Un Gars, une Fille: Que du Bonheur (Perfect Bliss) and Soda (which in reverse spells “ados” – teens) are currently running, either before or after the 8PM news. Scènes de Ménage (Domestic Quibbles) is another shortcom worth mentioning, not that I find it particularly hilarious, but it has proved somewhat original by focusing not only on one but three couples which stand for different age groups (a couple of feisty 20-somethings, a middle-aged couple stuck in a rut, and a couple of angry pensioners) and presents them in turn when facing similar situations, such as their early-morning routines in this episode.

Several other examples of French-language shortcoms may of course come to mind, but the shows I mentioned share several characteristics, starting with the short length of the show: while early shortcoms could last for up to ten minutes, the current trend of shows seems to have settled around the three or four-minute mark — just about as short as a pop song. While this restricted format requires an original approach to storytelling, it also implies obvious limitations as far as character development and story arcs are concerned. As a result, several episodes of the same show are often broadcast in a row so as to fill a 20-minute time slot, as is the case with Soda or Scènes de Ménage. Resorting to this “omnibus” format undeniably defeats the purpose of shortcoms, as the special pace of such shows and their brevity are what makes them enjoyable. Due to time constraints, shortcoms willingly rely on stereotypical characters and situations, such as the workplace, to be used as backdrops for skit-like scenes.

As so many similar short shows were successfully launched on French TV over the past few years, I could not help but find the trend intriguing. The questions one might ask at this point are not only: Why are such shows successful? but also: Why is the French TV comedy output now restrained almost solely to shortcoms? Can no-one tolerate French shtick for more than five minutes? Or have French comedy writers used up all their hilarious tidbits after only a couple of minutes’ worth of dialog? It’s perhaps best to leave these questions unanswered. As far as more likely reasons are concerned, one may lament the ever-shrinking attention span of viewers the world over, but I don’t see any reason why French viewers may not be able to maintain focus for 20 straight minutes – other than the fact that they don’t have as many commercial breaks to put their brains to rest.

Then is there just enough money in the mighty French entertainment industry to subsidize five minutes of half-decent comedy? That may well be the case, as French TV channels are nowhere near, say, the BBC’s clout in that respect, but the financial argument is just a secondary part of the question, and as far as I am concerned, I can see a sort of artistic choice in designing purportedly short comedy shows. It may be true that shortcoms were originally designed to fill in the gaps in the daily TV schedule: most of them have or are still featured in what is known around here as “le tunnel”, that is the prime access timeslot between the end of the 8PM news and the 9PM movie (or, more likely, an episode of CSI on its 27th repeat — why are the French so obsessed with this show?), usually filled with short information programs, weather updates and, well, commercials. Now, however, shortcoms have achieved a certain legitimacy and their success has led them to be considered as part of an original comedy form.

The shortcom genre has been spiced up in the past year by the emergence of a new show: Bref, which is French for “brief”, but also an adverb used to mean “anyway” or “in short” at the beginning of a sentence. Bref makes its brevity its raison d’être, as it’s even shorter than its older counterparts, clocking in at less than two minutes, and it only ran for two “seasons” of 40 episodes in 2011-2012. In fact, the show’s cult status (it attracted up to three million viewers) may partly be attributed to its shortness, especially as it made it somewhat easy for fans to share episodes on social networks.

However, this sharing was only possible until the show’s broadcaster – premium cable channel Canal Plus – removed most unauthorized clips from Youtube, so much so that if you were to look for more episodes today, all you would find would be parodies spawned by Bref – obviously another way to measure the show’s sweeping success and imprint left on French popular culture. Bref also stands out in the shortcom world as it is not a stand-alone show; it was broadcast as a segment in popular trend-setting chat show Le Grand Journal, a free-to-air program. Canal Plus is in fact one of the forerunners of the French shortcom genre, as in the late eighties, their flagship talk show of the day, Nulle Part Ailleurs, included a comedic seven-minute segment entitled Objectif Nul, parodying space opera classics such as Star Trek. This early shortcom was created by comedy troupe Les Nuls (The Dummies), who are also credited for launching France’s only known adaptation of Saturday Night Live to date (Les Nuls: L’Emission, 1990-1991).

Bref, written by Kyan Khojandi (who also plays the lead) and Bruno Muschio, focuses almost exclusively on the endearing antics and romantic endeavors of an unnamed, unemployed slacker in his late 20s / early 30s. Two episodes with English subtitles may be watched below, including the pilot, in which the occasionally foul-mouthed main character (simply credited as “Je”, or “I”) chats up a girl at a party, and another episode in which the “slacker” lifestyle is quite nicely portrayed.

These episodes epitomize the show’s most prominent features, in respect of both content and format. First, it appears that Bref focuses quite a bit on the main character’s sex life (or lack thereof), which appears as one of his main worries, not unlike the plot of so many teen movies, thus relating him to male stereotypes most aptly embodied by Judd Apatow’s adulescent characters in Knocked Up, for example. Then, it should also be noted that the show has been revered for its creative, modern format, relying on an extremely fast-paced type of editing, featuring constant jump cuts and smash cuts (often flashbacks towards past events or elements of the character’s own fantasy), usually set to the heavy beat of an electronic soundtrack. This rhythm sets the tone for a similarly paced narration, taken over by an extremely fast voice-over consisting of the main character’s interior monologue.

Unlike in most other shortcoms, not all episodes are completely disconnected from each other, and despite the several innovative format-related tricks, some more classic storytelling techniques are occasionally used. There is indeed a handful of recurrent secondary characters besides the unnamed 30-something whose stream of consciousness provides the backbone of the show: his on-and-off girlfriend and other romantic interests, his brother, his father, his roommate and his best friends. All of them are very briefly reintroduced whenever they feature in an episode in a mini “previously on”-type segment, so that each episode can nonetheless be enjoyed independently, contrary to a classic soap opera.

Despite Bref’s short nature, some story arcs can be developed over the course of several episodes, his romantic pursuits directing most of the show’s plot turns. Bref has therefore thoroughly rejuvenated the shortcom genre by, well, shortening it even further, but also by making its shortness its very strength; that very fast-paced format indeed makes it fit for hilarious repetitions, quips and one-liners.

The (slightly preposterous) question that now remains is: are shortcoms the future of sitcoms? Both types of shows consist in short episodes describing the adventures and relationships of a handful of characters for a comedic effect, but is it necessary to stretch an episode over twenty minutes when just as many laughs could be milked out of a five-minute show? Despite the time constraints, five minutes is still plenty of time to present and develop relationships. However, this peculiar format obviously implies several cutbacks on depth of character and shortcuts in storytelling. Characters are therefore meant to embody stereotypes, especially in workplace comedy such as Camera Café, which features exaggerated archetypes: a ruthless boss, a union representative who is always ready to go on strike, a chauvinistic salesman, and so on. Developing a narrative simply appears a secondary objective here, the main aim being to tell jokes, rather than a story. Of course, this may also be said about some classic sitcoms, but it can’t be denied that whether it be The Cosby Show or Friends, sitcoms tell the comedic story of a group of characters that grow with the show, which seems much more complicated to do in a shortcom.

While viewers watch sitcoms primarily to be entertained, one of the tenets of comedy is the possibility for viewers to identify with characters, be that in the shape of shameful identification; laughing at a character’s habits while feeling simultaneously ashamed and comforted that one shares the same flaws (isn’t that what Ross Geller is all about?) – or of hopeful identification; appreciating one character’s attributes such as heroism, composure, or wit in the hope of one day possessing those same traits. This identification phenomenon is deeply rooted in the development of a relationship between the viewer and a certain character, which certainly necessitates time.

Is it still possible to identify with a character when the aim of the show is not to follow their development, and when each episode is a mere three minutes long? Once again, the frequent crutch of stereotypes in shortcoms may lead to limited characterization, and considerably restrains the possibilities of identification. However, I don’t see stock characters as a limit to identification, especially when these are broad – as opposed to niche – stereotypes. The strength of Bref’s main character is that this character is so stereotypical that viewers may not necessarily identify with him (as a person), but with the stereotype itself. Even though much of his cliché behavior will most likely be seen as part and parcel of the late-20s lifestyle (going to parties, looking for a significant other), many other parts of the character’s personality, for instance his tendency to procrastinate put forward in the second episode, are flaws just as common as Ross Geller’s. In that sense, Bref was original not only due to its particular rhythm and innovative storytelling techniques, but also with the introduction of a surprisingly endearing stock character. This refreshing format and the efficiency of the jokes and comedic situations truly brings a much-welcome renewal to the shortcom genre.

If shortcoms are more efficient as a comedy medium than classic sitcoms, then it should only be a matter of time until they become more widespread. While the short-lived American remake of Un Gars, une FilleLovebites – was only broadcast in late-night slots on TBS in 2006, but hardly got off the ground, Fox has already announced a “shortcom comedy hour” program set for the summer of 2013, with Will Forte’s MacGruber, straight out of Saturday Night Live, rumored to make an appearance. Even though what Fox calls “shortcom” may be a succession of sketches rather than a short sitcom, giving attention to shorter comedy formats may just mean that, for once perhaps, France will have set the trend for America to follow.