Here we have what may well be the oddest TV show of all time: LA MINUTE NECESSAIRE DE MONSIEUR CYCLOPEDE/THE NECESSARY MINUTE OF MONSIEUR CYCLOPEDE. Broadcast nightly on France’s channel FR3 at 8:30 PM during the years 1982-84, each episode lasted just 90 seconds, and was presided over by Monsieur Cyclopède (played by the late Pierre Desproges, who also scripted the series), who’s been described as “A sort of foppish know-it-all who hands out advice nobody asked for.”
Seated on a nondescript stage, Monsieur Cyclopède, a Mr. Bean lookalike sporting a distracting red bowtie, a massive front pocket rose and unkempt hair, discourses on topics like “How to Euthanize A Kamikaze,” “How to Soundproof An Andalusian” and “How to Kill Time While Waiting to Die,” all in response, he claims, to queries by various “halfwits” and “idiots” (as in “Many idiots have asked me…”). The show came complete with hilariously cut-rate enactments of Cyclopède’s theorems by Desproges and actress Dominique Valadie (Mexico, for instance, is evoked by several potted cactuses placed around the stage, and Hell by Desproges prancing around in a devil costume amid exploding firecrackers). At the end of each segment Monsieur Cyclopède sums up his findings with the catchphrase “Etonnant, non?“/“Amazing, isn’t it?”
Pierre Desproges (1939-1988) had a decidedly misanthropic brand of humor whose nature was summed up by the title of a late 1980s radio program he hosted: CHRONIQUES DE LA HAINE ORDINAIRE/CHRONICLES OF ORDINARY HATRED. He was also known for lending his voice to another radio program, the satiric LE TRIBUNAL DES FLAGRANTS DELIRES, around the same time he filmed MONSIEUR CYCLOPEDE (with the former airing at noon each day on France Inter FM—which it seems is destined to be his signature work. Note the epitaph written on his gravestone: “Pierre Desproges est mort d’un cancer, étonnant, non?”/”Pierre Desproges died of cancer, amazing, isn’t it?”
The show’s overall gist was similar to that of Monty Python, albeit several degrees more surreal. Also like Monty Python’s output, not every segment is a winner; in fact, quite a few of them flat-out suck (such as a gag built around the “common saying” “a watched pet never boils”(???) and a thoroughly witless segment called “How to Prove The Infallibility of The Pope”), but when they’re on their game Desproges and director Jean-Louis Fournier impart a brand of comic brilliance as odd and distinct as any you’ll experience.
A good example of Desproges and Fournier’s unique sensibility occurs in an episode titled “How to Tactfully Remove Blackheads,” in which Monsieur Cyclopède informs us that the best way to conceal unsightly facial blackheads is to paint them white, which he demonstrates by doing just that…on the face of a black man!
Other stand-out segments include “How to Tame A Savage Civil Servant,” in which we learn of the dangers posed by civil servants and how to calm them down; “How Not to Bother A Strangler,” in which Ms. Valadie is strangled to death by a serial killer because she’s an English speaker and nobody can understand her cries for help; “How to Play Blind Man’s Bluff with A Blind Man,” wherein we learn that blind men make especially good players of blind man’s bluff because they don’t require any props; “How Not to Laugh Before the End of Hamlet,” in which we’re taught how “In a comedy, the lover is undressed, in a tragedy, the lover is under duress;” and “How to Fireproof Louis XVI,” in which the promised fireproofing is demonstrated, only to have Louis XVI wonder if maybe “it would have been smarter to fireproof Joan of Arc.”
We also see the outcome of an imagined meeting between the Venus de Milo and The Little Prince (which concludes with the latter being called a “little asshole”), and another between Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Armstrong (which might well have occurred, Cyclopède asserts, “If Napoleon had lived ninety years longer”). Religion is also invoked, in “How to Profit from the Wrath of God” and “How to Try in Vain to Make the Holy Virgin Appear,” segments that are said to have inspired many angry letters to channel FR3.
A number of French-only (i.e. non English subtitled) PAL DVD compilations have been released. One of the first was L’INDISPENSABLE ENCYCLOPEDIE DE MONSIEUR CYCLOPEDE from 2000, a two hour package containing a couple dozen MONSEIUR CYCLOPEDE segments interspaced with newly filmed bits featuring actor Thierry Gibault on a soundstage, discoursing in a very Monsieur Cyclopède-esque fashion on subjects like children, neighbors, cats, racism, democracy, and WWIII—not a great idea if you ask me, as the Gibault segments, despite having been scripted by Pierre Desproges (who obviously wasn’t around to do the discoursing himself), woefully fail to match the exquisite strangeness of MONSIEUR CYCLOPEDE. A more straightforward DVD compilation was released in 2010, containing the program’s entire 98 episode run and some tantalizing extra features.
Regarding any potential exposure of Monsieur Cyclopède in the English speaking world, I’m not holding my breath. Desproges’s brand of pitch-dark humor can be deemed politically incorrect (the segments “How to Tell A Blank from A Black” and “How to Vainly Strive to Hide Our Anti-Semitism” play exactly as you might expect), and is quite Gallic-centric (with references to Tin-Tin, Victor Hugo and General Gamelin, among other quintessentially French subjects). I think it goes without saying that such humor probably won’t play too well in England or (especially) America.
This American, however, enjoyed the Hell out of THE NECESSARY MINUTE OF MONSIEUR CYCLOPEDE. At just 90 seconds each, none of the episodes can be said to overstay their welcome, and, more importantly, they prove something I’d long believed was categorically impossible: that French comedy can actually be quite funny.