Published on August 23rd, 2016 | by Anne-Fleur Andrle Stephan0
Encounter and interview with Sebastian Marx, a comedian coming from New York and established in Paris
On July 25th, I turned 31! Yeah, great. Most importantly, on July 25th, I had the great honor of interviewing a young stand up comedian, American born and living and performing in Paris. I met with Sebastian Marx (pretty cool birthday gift!).
Do you know Sebastian Marx?
Personally, as a French person living in Boston, I have not had the chance of seeing Sebastian perform live on stage. To tell you the truth, Sebastian came to my radar a couple of months ago, when he started a series of short videos explaining the French language and its oddities with Topito. He made me laugh a bit, especially his video about the “ça va”, which is both a question and an answer in French to say “how are you doing?” and “I am doing alright”. Everything is in the tone! This is how I learned for the first time what “ça va” originally meant.
Anyway, I have been watching his videos and sharing them on social media quite a bit, and got intrigued. How the heck is this guy able to perform both in French and in English, with all the cultural and linguistic differences that we know, while I am still struggling with understanding all the anti-Trump jokes from the Simpson and Jon Stewart?
That was enough; I had to meet with him. Sadly enough, between this decision and our interview, 14th of July happened, along with the terrible attacks, which took place in Nice, in the South of France. Sebastian released a short video, trying to make people laugh in those terrible circumstances. You may have seen it as quite a few media channels relayed it. It was not an easy topic to laugh about, and I think he was able to deliver a peaceful message with some sarcasm, but damn it, we need to laugh and especially in these moments!
Anne-Fleur for French Quarter Magazine (FQM): Hello Sebastian, thank you so much for making time for us during your vacation! To start, could you please tell me a little more. Who is Sebastian Marx, when he is not shooting videos?
Sebastian Marx (SM): As my show’s title says “A New Yorker in Paris”, I am from New York City, or more precisely from the close suburbs, Westchester. This is where I grew up, before living in Manhattan and studying at Boston University in communication, with a major in film and television, in Boston. Before going to college, I was already doing stand up in New York. My first time on a stage was when I was 17. I was really attracted by the entertainment world. So even though stand up comedy is not taught at the university, at least not yet, this is what made me want to study communication in television and film at BU.
FQM: I assume you could not play on this bicultural aspect back then, not before living abroad. What was your thing back then?
SM: No, no, I was doing stand up comedy, which was entirely different from the jokes I do today. Even though today I mostly (but not only) work on culture clashes between the US and France, when I was performing in New York I was mostly sharing on my daily life observations.
FQM: Stand up comedy is like an all American national sport. Especially in New York! How did “France” show up in all this? Why did you decide to go to France?
SM: Love… Yes, it is! (laugh) I met a French woman in New York after my studies. Also, it was the beginning of my career and I could easily have decided to stay for 30 years doing what I was doing. I wanted to see something else. I had no idea how long this relationship was going to last, but I decided to go to Toulouse. It was not Paris, and going from New York to Toulouse can clash a bit (laugh). Seriously though, going from New York to France was not the hardest choice. It is easy to fall in love. The culture is very rich; the food is very rich too! My parents are from Argentina, I was born and raised in New York but I know a bit Buenos Aires, and its Latin culture. I guess this helped me acclimating to Paris. The cultures were not that far from each other.
FQM: So France was your first real experience living abroad?
SM: Living, yes. I spent about 2 months in Buenos Aires but France was my first more permanent living abroad experience, yes.
FQM: Did you know France before moving there?
SM: Hmm, no. I went there for a few months. Came back to New York, to think about my decision. I lived between the 2 continents for about a year, and after that I finally got my ticket without knowing when I’d be back.
FQM: Your career and life decisions make me think of a famous French stand up comedian, but reverse. You probably heard of Gad Elmaleh, who decided to (almost) leave everything behind and go to the US in order to learn the language and how to perform “à l’américaine.” Do you think you guys can relate?
SM: I think it is good for him. Quite frankly, It is a trendy thing right now. Exchanging culturally on stage. Even before Gad, Eddie Izzard who is a famous British comedian, and who came a couple of years ago to perform in French in France. He actually got back into it “more seriously” recently. And he is pretty hilarious. Gad and Eddie performed together not too long ago in Paris, where Gad was performing in English and Eddie in French. So it is a trendy thing and it makes sense. I knew Gad was a good friend of Jerry Seinfeld. As well as Eddie Izzard, I believe Gad did reach a really high level, which makes it hard for him to progress more in France. He is definitely considered as a king in France, so in order to challenge yourself, going in another country where you have to pick the language and the culture makes perfect sense.
FQM: So what would you say in the most challenging thing in France, coming from the US as a stand up comedian?
SM: Honestly, other than the language I don’t know. Each culture has its own “taboos”. On some topics, Americans are more sensitive and less incline to laugh, and vice versa. I would say it is more a matter of learning the culture and the public, but honestly it is something that you can pick pretty quickly on stage. As a stand up comedian, if you perform 5 times in one place, you have a pretty good sense of the limits and of the public. The public imposes the limits actually. If it is a taboo topic, you always have a way of saying it for the public to ultimately accept to laugh about it. In the end, we can laugh of everything, absolutely everything, but finding how to do it is the real challenge. Right now, for example, in France, talking about terrorism and islamophobia is a very sensitive thing to talk about, whereas in the US right now, it is the transgender debate that is hard to laugh about. Not all for the same reasons.
FQM: This actually brings me to the video you released after the terror attacks in Nice. First, I must say I am impressed by the tact you had. What’s the story behind it? How did you manage to talk and laugh about such a “heavy” thing? How did the public react? It is the type of topic where everyone has an opinion.
SM: Overall, I am very happy about how the public received the video. Anyhow, I got about 8 millions views on this video, which is quite huge. The Huffington Post did relay it, as well as a few other media. I am also quite happy because I would say that about 90% of the people who watched it, liked it. It was published on Facebook and most people messaged me and just said “Thank you”. There messages were not as much about the laugh, but really a sincere thank you as if I had made them a gift. Really, that is the best thing you can ask for as a comedian. On the other hand, yes I got some crazies. Either they did not understand my message or they took it literally. They were telling me that I should not explain to people how to live or that I should go back and live in the US. I answered to most of the messages, while I tried not to spend too much time with the insults because that was counterproductive.
FQM: Actually, isn’t that one of the roles of the comedian? To teach to his public to let go and to release some tensions, without being disrespectful?
SM: Yes, I agree. I would not say that you are not a comedian if you do not talk about it either but yes, I think it is an important role. But that is also why in the video I wanted to insist on the fact that “I have no fucking idea”, seriously, I do not know the solution, I do not pretend to know better than the politics or the specialists. I just think that as a comedian you should mirror the society, to ask the right questions. My mentors, George Carlin or Louis CK did that too. They ask a lot of questions. With great sense of humor of course, but they do! Laughing is a super important thing. It truly is a power we have to help people laugh while talking about sensitive topics.
FQM: Going back to you and your career. How do you start a career, as an American comedian, in France?
SM: It is not that different than if I were to start in New York honestly. As long as you remain open to always get better. And the only way to get better is by going on stage. On stage, you learn what works and what does not, you learn about handling your body, you learn how to communicate with the public, etc. It really is a job, which you learn by doing. So I started by performing on open stages. Some people saw me and thought I wasn’t bad and invited me on their stages, which are less and less “open”. As you work your text and jokes, you slowly get to perform for an hour and finally get a “One Man Show.”
FQM: Going from stage to stage, you ended being part of “Jamel Comedy Club.” How was that?
SM: Exactly, performing on many stages, I became a part of it. It started on Canal Plus and Jamel then opened his own club. So I played on their open stage, “Debjam” and they saw I had 5 pretty strong minutes and offered me to do the TV show. I did it for 2012-2013. After doing the TV show, you become part of a large family. Jamel was among the very first to do that in France, having stand up comedy in a club shot and sold to TV. As you know, this has existed for quite some time in the US, but in France this is a very innovative initiative. Jamel was actually inspired by Death Comedy Jam, which was the same concept to promote black stand up comedians on HBO in the 90s. He adapted it to people from Maghreb (North Africa). And I must say Jamel did it well! He really did give a voice to a generation of artists.
FQM: Do you write your own texts? Do you get help for that? Is it mostly inspired by your life?
SM: I write my own texts, yes. It depends of what we talk about. For my chronicles for radio and TV, I write and my girlfriend helps me to make it more French, more fluent, etc. For my One Man Show, it is me and my jokes that you get! But on this last version, I collaborated with Navo, who is the co-creator and co-producer of Bref (NDLR: famous short TV show airing on Canal Plus). We were friends before Bref even existed and so we worked together on this new version of my show. Otherwise, it’s me!
FQM: Tell us more about your radio and TV experience!
SM: I have been working with RTL (famous French radio channel) for a year, with France Inter (another famous radio) for another year and lastly I was on the Grand Huit (TV show, French equivalent to The View). Unfortunately, after 4 years of this show, it is stopped. In September, I might go back to the radio but cannot tell you more right now!
FQM: Where can we see you perform? In English and in French? And when?
SM: All year long! I do a few openings for other artists, but otherwise yes starting back at the end of August in French for my show “Un New Yorkais à Paris” at the Apollo Theatre in Paris. In English, I actually started an English speaking initiative for performers. So I started my stage called “The New York Comedy Nights” about 6 years ago, and I play every Friday night at 9:30pm since then. Same place!
FQM: What can we wish you for the future?
SM: I hope I can continue to perform in Paris, in bigger places as time goes on! It really is my passion. In September, I will also start to write a book how France from the point of view of an American, similar topics than in my show, and maybe start a project with another comedian who wants to start a sort of French “Daily Show”. I also want to continue to do videos like the one I did on terrorism. But honestly, what’s the most important to me in my show: come see me!
Sebastian Marx in 9 Questions
FQM: If you were not a comedian, what would you have done with your life?
SM: I think I would be in social work, or shooting documentaries for TV, which would balance my background in cinema and social working.
FQM: What is your favorite neighborhood in Paris ?
SM: I have several but I’d say Buttes-aux-Cailles or around Ledru-Rollin.
FQM: What’s your favorite region in France?
SM: Hmm… Le Roussillon!
FQM: What’s the worst thing about French people?
SM: The lack of second degree in humour! My thing is to mock French people a little, but how careful I have to be to not offend anyone is sometimes really impressive!
FQM: What’s the best thing about French people?
SM: Their heart! I think that in the US it’s easy to have buddies, but not easy to have friends. Here my friends are like my family. The bounds are really deep and real. Also, ironically, their critical minds. They criticize everything, which can be annoying sometimes but they question everything and that’s great!
FQM: Who is your favorite American comedian?
SM: Right now, I am hooked on Louis CK. In the long run, I am a big fan of George Carlin or even Woody Allen when he was doing stand up. Also, even though he is not very popular right now, Bill Cosby’s stand up as absolutely amazing.
FQM: Who is your favorite French comedian?
SM: I love Yacine Belhousse, who did the two first seasons of Jamel Comedy Club and who did the opening for Eddie Izzard. I also really like Blanche Gardin. She does stand up comedy in the spirit of Louis CK, brutally honest and hilarious!
FQM: What was your most embarrassing moment on stage?
SM: I think my worst was talking to a blind woman, without knowing she was blind. She was sitting on the first row of my show and I asked her “Why aren’t you looking at me?”. Oh… I had forgotten about that!
FQM: What was your best moment on stage?
SM: I don’t know about one specific moment but there are times when you talk to the public and your spirit is in the right place and the communication is amazing. Being able to surf on their reactions.
For all show dates and more, please visit: http://www.sebmarx.com/
To attend (and have a good time) watching his “one man show”, it is every Friday and Saturday at 8pm at the Apollo Theatre (18 rue du Faubourg du Temple, 75011 Paris). Every Sunday, same time, all in English!
To meet him and other comedians, you may look into the New York Comedy Night, the hub of the best English speaker’s line-up in Paris, in English every Friday at 9:30pm at SO Gymnase Club (8 boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, 75010 Paris).
French Quarter Magazine wishes all the best to Sebastian!
Sebastian had to explain that one. In France, we use the expression « One Man Show » for a comedian’s show who is alone on stage. In the Us, I learned that it is not always humoristic.
Canal Plus is the French equivalent TV channel to HBO in the US.