People of the pandemic: A Paris balcony's lockdown quiz show goes global

·7-min read

When France first went into lockdown in March 2020, the general mood in the country was one of anxiety. To cheer himself and his neighbours up, Noam Cartozo, an actor living in Paris, decided to bring a lockdown version of one of France’s much-loved quiz shows, “Questions pour un champion”, to life from his balcony. This is the second instalment of a FRANCE 24 series about people who found fame during the pandemic.

It all started as a joke. In March 2020, Noam Cartozo, 31, found himself in lockdown like the rest of France, confined to his apartment in Paris’s 11th arrondissement (district).

The theatre production that he was a part of in Marseille had ground to a halt. To relieve himself of the boredom that had begun to set in, Cartozo broadcast live music from his apartment and organised name-that-tune games with his neighbours. But then he had another idea – and the game “Questions pour un balcon” was born. (The name means Questions for a Balcony, which in French rhymes with the popular quiz show, “Questions pour un champion”.)

“I saw people on their balconies looking sad and I wanted to brighten up their everyday lives with a bit of fun every evening,” Cartozo told FRANCE 24.

From rue Saint-Bernard to the world

Starting on March 24, the quiet Parisian street of rue Saint-Bernard was transformed every night into a game show, with the even-numbered side of the street locked in an ongoing trivia battle with the odd-numbered side of the street and with Cartozo as their wise-cracking compère. The game was a hit. Every evening, after the 8pm round of applause for health workers, the fun began. The questions came thick and fast – as did the laughter.

A quick jingle, deliberately similar to the one for the French game show, then a pause for a few minutes of applause for health workers, firefighters and rubbish collectors – those on the front lines of the pandemic. Then Cartozo’s opening line: “Good evening and welcome to Questions for a …”

“Balcony!” his neighbours would respond in chorus.

Then the questions would begin. “Which band sang ‘Hotel California’? Where is Siberia? What type of animal is Thumper in Bambi?” Children and adults eagerly leaned out of windows or stood on their balconies to take part.

After a quarter of an hour of gameplay with the neighbours, the quiz would continue for 45 minutes in an Instagram live. It took just a few days for the game to go viral and be watched by thousands of people around the world.

Cartozo had gone global. At its peak, “Questions pour un balcon” was watched by 2 million people.

“I never expected it to be this successful,” said a surprised Cartozo. "It was amazing to see my nephews who live in Israel scream, ‘…Balcony!’ from their sofa, thousands of kilometres away.”

Usually choosing to look every inch the game show host in a tux, Cartozo also sometimes appeared in fancy dress, helped by his partner, who is a professional make-up artist. Audiences waited to see what costume he’d picked for that evening, whether it was an alien, a wizard, a rabbit (to celebrate Easter) or Donald Trump.

Sponsors and media attention

Just as in a real TV game show, there were prizes to be won.

“At the beginning, the prizes were things like toilet paper and pasta – stuff that had disappeared from supermarket shelves,” said Cartozo. But brands quickly saw the potential in the popular show, and sponsors came calling.

“I received innumerable offers, from products that would actually be useful during the crisis to some really wacky stuff. I only said yes to the useful things,” Cartozo said with a smile.

Games companies and children’s magazines gave away board games or magazine subscriptions for free, while supermarkets provided “lockdown bundles” of products for a week at home for two. Some of these gifts were passed on to volunteers in the area who then redistributed them to homeless people. In total, more than €30,000 in gifts were given out during that first lockdown.

Even the filming became more professional. At the start, Cartozo filmed with only one camera. By the end, the show was filmed from seven different angles. When the game was over, Cartozo would sit down and delve into the editing process, which could sometimes keep him busy until 3am.

“Between preparing the show, managing requests from sponsors and editing – I’d never worked so hard as during lockdown!” he laughed. “I ended up working from home just like everyone else.”

Cartozo also had to deal with press enquiries. “As soon as wire agencies like AFP and Reuters wrote about the show, other media came calling with interview and filming requests, from France and abroad.”

The actor was happy to oblige, taking part in live and recorded interviews for global TV channels. However, Cartozo was dealing with personal problems behind the scenes that were masked by his smile.

Two days after he began the show, his mother rang him; he assumed she was ringing to congratulate him on his overnight success. But instead she delivered some frightening news: his brother had been hospitalised with Covid-19 and placed in a medically induced coma.

For Cartozo, there was no question of halting the nightly show. While his brother fought for his life in a hospital bed, Cartozo buried himself in “Questions for a balcony”. After a month of hospitalisation, his brother finally recovered. Cartozo announced the news to his neighbours one evening and the whole street erupted in applause. “It was a really beautiful moment that we all shared,” Cartozo reminisced.

The end of lockdown – and the start of new projects

The end of lockdown brought “Questions for a balcony” to its natural end. The final episode took place on May 10.

“That Sunday evening, we all said our goodbyes. I thanked my neighbours for having faithfully come out to play every evening. It was really moving. Everyone clapped, and there was a long standing ovation, like at a theatre. But it was also good that it came to an end.”

The street’s residents are still close.

“We all know each other now, we chat. There are newsletters and WhatsApp groups. There’s even a couple that met thanks to the quiz! I’m really glad to have been able to bring people a little bit of joy during such a difficult period,” said Cartozo.

That could have been the end of the story. But after that first lockdown, Cartozo turned his attention to other projects such as new shows for social media. A publisher contacted him to ask if he wanted to immortalise the balcony quiz show with a board game. Cartozo hesitated, but eventually said yes. The board game “Y a du monde au balcon” (“A lot of people on the balcony”, but also a slightly rude French expression that refers to the size of a woman’s breasts) has sold more than 3,200 copies. With every game sold, €1 is donated to French hospitals. The board game also mentions the names of every neighbour who took part in the quiz and the name of the hospital that treated Cartozo’s brother.

“If this game can raise a bit of money for hospitals that are saving the lives of people like my brother, and at the same time liven up a party, then it’s perfect.”

More than a year after he began the quiz, the actor can be found treading the boards again. He’s currently touring with the same plays that were put on hold last year around France – but this time, he has a newfound fame. Audience members often come to find him after the shows.

“They follow me on social media and come to see my plays. They hang around at the end to talk with me, and that’s the greatest gift I could ask for.” he said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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