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The Formidable Charm of Omar Sy

Sy continued, “I think that it gave us strength. And openness. Today we talk about diversity, about all those things. But I grew up with that. Going from apartment to apartment in the building where I lived, I toured the world.”

Late this spring, Sy and I were talking again, on Zoom. He was driving to the Alps from a house he owns in the South of France. “He really knows how to live,” his French agent, Laurent Grégoire, told me, reminiscing about summertime barbecues with dozens of guests and Sy at the grill. Sy had stopped somewhere near Orange to recharge his Tesla and was sitting in the driver’s seat, side-lit by beams of evening sun. He was talking excitedly about ancient civilizations: the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Maya. A friend had recommended a documentary about them, and he’d fallen down a rabbit hole. “That puts into question, a little bit, our understanding of history,” he said. Eventually, we started talking about his past, and I asked about the incidents that had made more privileged people wince.

“I remember the very racist neighbors we had—they sicced their dogs on us!” Sy said. “We took everything as a game, as a child takes everything as a game, with a lot of innocence and without really seeing the harm. So we had fun trying to be the one not to get bitten by the dog.” Sometimes they’d be playing hide-and-seek and stumble upon things in a cellar: weapons, syringes, unsavory people.

In the second episode of “Lupin,” Assane studies a letter that his father wrote to him from prison, before supposedly hanging himself. It’s ostensibly a confession: Assane’s father admits to stealing a priceless necklace from the prominent Pellegrini family, for whom he worked as a chauffeur, and asks Assane to forgive him. But Assane, tipped off by uncharacteristic spelling mistakes, detects a message. It suggests that he might learn more from a prison mate of his father’s, so Assane goes to the prison and persuades an inmate to swap places with him. The episode was filmed in the course of several weeks at a prison in Bois d’Arcy, only a few miles north of Trappes. Louis Leterrier, the episode’s director, said that the cast interacted regularly with the people incarcerated there. Sy, it turned out, knew several of them from his old neighborhood. “There was a lot of emotion,” Leterrier said. “It was reality that was very, very close to fiction, and fiction that was very, very close to reality.”

By high school, Sy had a plan to become a heating-and-cooling technician. A good student, he had been drawn to aeronautics, but was pushed onto a vocational track. “When you grow up like I did, you need to be able to earn a living quickly,” he once told Le Monde. “I told myself that, if things got tough, I could always go work in Senegal.”

Sy also started spending time with Jamel Debbouze, the older brother of a longtime friend. They made a funny pair: Debbouze, whose parents had immigrated to France from Morocco, was short and mouthy. At fourteen, he had permanently lost the use of an arm in an accident at the Trappes train station, yet he carried himself with total confidence, cultivated at theatre-improv workshops run by a neighborhood group. Both Sy and Debbouze were conspicuously horrible at soccer, and while the rest of their friends ran up and down the field they stood around cracking jokes. They pushed each other to be funnier, to go further. Debbouze, who is now one of France’s most famous entertainers, later recalled, “Even if we hadn’t had the luck we’ve had, we would have been the best in any other discipline. We would have been the best astronauts, the best government ministers, or even the best thieves.”

According to Debbouze, Sy was an unusually dignified adolescent: “Omar, he was impeccable. Always the perfect presentation. We’d all go in behind him when we wanted to get in somewhere.” His reputable appearance served as a useful diversion; his friends would swipe candy after following him into a store. In French, a Trojan horse is un cheval de Troie. Sy, a friend later joked, was le cheval de Trappes.

In the mid-nineties, Debbouze began hosting a show on an alternative radio station called Radio Nova, and he invited Sy to make an appearance. “He was funny, and he was the only one who had a driver’s license,” Debbouze once recalled. They were joined by Nicolas Anelka, a friend from Trappes, who was on his way to making it big as a professional footballer. Sy’s mission was to pretend that he was a Senegalese player who’d gone into farming after a career-ending injury. “Really, it was just a favor,” Sy said, of his participation. “The whole thing was a joke.” The stakes were so low that Sy turned in an impressively relaxed performance. “We were a little bit en famille,” he said. “I wasn’t really paying attention to what was being broadcast. I was just there with two mates, acting like an idiot.”

“If you’ve ever thought about breaking away and starting a new life, here’s your chance.”Cartoon by Frank Cotham

The managers of Radio Nova invited Sy back. At the station, he met Fred Testot, a mild-mannered young performer from Corsica. They formed a comedy duo, Omar and Fred, and started making occasional appearances on a weekly show that Debbouze had landed on Canal +, which was establishing itself as an incubator for a new, more diverse generation of French talent. In 2000, the channel made Omar and Fred regular guests on its flagship talk show. Bruno Gaston, then a Canal + executive, remembers a young Sy posing with lobsters and “telling bad jokes.” He added, “What was clear was that he was formidably likable.”

In 2005, Omar and Fred created the act that would make them famous: “Service Après-Vente des Émissions,” which soon appeared every night on “Le Grand Journal,” one of the most watched evening shows in France. In the segment, one of the pair would play a customer-service agent, manning a bank of phones in a scarlet blazer. The other would appear, in a box at the top right of the screen, as a wacky caller, often wearing some outlandish combination of sunglasses, sequins, hats, and masks. Cult characters included Sy’s Doudou, an excitable amateur crooner with a broad African accent and a leopard-print head wrap, and Testot’s François le Français, a self-aggrandizing patriot dressed in bleu, blanc, rouge. In their most famous bit, they took turns impersonating swingers who would call in to the hotline, recounting their nighttime exploits in florid double entendres and lamenting, in what became their signature catchphrase, “You don’t come to parties anymore.” The duo was so popular that the fast-food chain Quick named burgers for Omar and Fred. “They were our Monty Pythons,” Achour told me. “Lame songs, lame accents, and, at the same time, intelligent. For me, absurdist humor is when you have two curves that cross, the idiotic and the serious, and this was perfect.”

“Of the jokes that made us famous, ten per cent would still fly on television and the rest would be cancelled,” Sy told me. “I don’t know how they still show our old stuff.” During lockdown, Sy dusted off Doudou, posting a video to social media in which he performed a rendition of the hit song of the same name by Aya Nakamura, one of France’s most popular singers. (“It was too tempting,” Sy wrote.) This time, Doudou was not universally beloved. Many viewers, especially young ones who hadn’t encountered the character before, saw an unflattering caricature of an African woman. (Sy says that Doudou is a man.) “All that to make the whites laugh,” one Twitter user wrote. Sy defended his prerogative to “pay homage” to Nakamura, retorting, “Real life happens outside of Twitter, as do the real actions that change things.”

I asked Sy whether he regretted any of his old jokes.

“No, nothing,” he said. “Because I know why we did it. And, above all, I can see the effect it had. It relaxed things, made people less inhibited.”

With the success of Omar and Fred, Sy began fielding offers to appear in films. He turned most of them down. “I was getting proposals for roles as gangsters and guys from the banlieue,” he told L’Express. “I didn’t have any desire to give film a try only to serve as a vehicle for clichés. No more than I have any desire, now, to be le noir à la mode.” He was receptive, though, to working with Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, a pair of young filmmakers who, in 2002, cast him as a camp counsellor in a short film. Sy eventually appeared in four of their movies, becoming a sort of muse. “We grew up together in the cinema,” Toledano told me. In 2009, they told Sy that they wanted to write a movie just for him. “I’m not an actor,” he said. “Well, we’re not directors, either, so perfect,” they shot back. Sy signed on for what became “Les Intouchables.”

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