ARTICLES

What Quebec laughs at

With gags often as subtle as meat axes and as broad as the St. Lawrence, French Canadians chop away gleefully at their province’s politics, religion and sex habits. And the deeper the wounds, the louder the guffaws

KEN LEFOLII May 9 1959
ARTICLES

What Quebec laughs at

With gags often as subtle as meat axes and as broad as the St. Lawrence, French Canadians chop away gleefully at their province’s politics, religion and sex habits. And the deeper the wounds, the louder the guffaws

KEN LEFOLII May 9 1959

What Quebec laughs at

With gags often as subtle as meat axes and as broad as the St. Lawrence, French Canadians chop away gleefully at their province’s politics, religion and sex habits. And the deeper the wounds, the louder the guffaws

KEN LEFOLII

Until he went to Paris last summer, Jacques Normand was the funniest man in French Canada. In Quebec night clubs even the waiters listened when Normand cut loose on the three great themes of Canadien humor — politics, religion, and, naturellement, sex—in a crackling spate of off - the - cuff songs, jokes and topical jibes.

With a glass in his hand and a standing-room crowd breathing on his ice cubes, Normand tossed off barbed quips faster than a ragtime stripper shedding lingerie. There was Bip Bip Bip, the Sputnik song; Normand genially assured

his admirers that the lyrics would rise to greater heights than anything at Cape Canaveral. There was the premier of Quebec: “Duplessis is an honorable man. ‘Answer all questions frankly,’ he commands his ministers, ‘but say nothing.’ ” Once, in mid-jibe during a televised monologue, Normand’s mind went blank, his eyes glazed, and he blew a despairing, tuneless whistle. For the rest of that season any comedian who was stuck for a laugh puckered up and blew aimlessly, happily reflecting that for the moment the funniest thing in the belle province was a Nor-

mand-inspired dry whistle,

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Even, so, away from the responsive crowds in the clubs, with his material emasculated by broadcasting taboos, Normand "never touched the high points” on television that he reached with live audiences. This opinion belongs to Roger Rolland, production chief of the CBC’s French division, who observes that few of Quebec’s other favorite comedians are at their best on the screen either. "Not even Gratiën Gélinas, in his great comic role as Fridolin, really came to life on television.”

Still, in the clubs Normand could do no wrong — not, at least, to anybody but the seared victims of his mordant tongue — and finally he left to conquer Paris. This triumph has yet to take place. His first appearance in a Montmartre club was greeted with polite Parisian smiles, a pallid chaser for Montreal's bonhomous belly-laughs. Since then Normand has been on the road, touring small-town cafés in provincial France and discovering. with mounting success, just what it takes to translate Canadien humor into continental laughter. Now scouts for the Ed Sullivan television circus, who found Wayne and Shuster to show Americans what makes English Canadians laugh, are out to belt the international funny bone again by signing Normand to show them what a French Canadian has to do to make Frenchmen laugh.

Normand’s life and temporary lean times throw a fairly bright light on what French-Canadian humor isn’t. First of all. it isn’t French; a Montrealer who delights in both describes the difference as the distance between a meat axe and a stiletto, and his reasons will become increasingly clear as you read on. In the second place, it isn’t, by and large, the slick, censored patter that distinguishes English - Canadian and American radio and television comedians. On the other hand, deciding just what it is that makes French Canadians laugh is a little like deciding if the water’s warm enough — you’ve got to gel your feet wet. Take Mivillc Couture’s comedy;

“My dear chap, the thing that impresses me above all in the Quebec landscape is the Plains of Abraham.” Couture is speaking in the voice of Lord Hi Fidelity, one of the dozen-odd characters from

around the globe that he impersonates on his daily radio show, Chez Miville. “My admiration for the Plains, if you follow me, is a matter of tradition. After all, this is the traditional landing place for us British in the New World; it’s where Wolfe got off, don’t you know. To my mind, General Wolfe must have been a splendid chap, splendid, but if this beloved general had known that in 1959 at least ninety-six percent of the population of Quebec would be speaking French, would he have uttered his immortal dying words? Never! He wouldn’t have said ‘1 will die in peace’ but Tvc been wasting my time!’ ”

One of Hi Fidelity’s stable mates is a big shot named Harry S. McCarty. This is McCarty speaking: “I’m a real American businessman, buster. Just mention my name in Quebec — everybody knows me; the Ungava deal made sure of that.” Not everyone in Quebec, it should be mentioned, regards the U. S. iron - ore development at Ungava as an unmixed benefaction. “But I’ve got a new deal cooking now. Just last week I had a Russian engineer around to see me at my cigar factory in Providence, Rhode Island. He wanted to give me an order for some cigars — when a Russian has finished a People’s Cigarette, two inches of filter and half an inch of tobacco, he needs a smoke. Well, at lunchtime the whistle blew and everybody headed for the door. The Russian panicked. ‘Stop them! They’re breaking out!’ he shouted. The poor sap thought he was back home. Naturally, an hour and a half later, when the whistle blew again, the whole mob trooped back in to work. The Russian couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘Let’s quit stalling around,’ I told him. ‘How many tons of cigars can 1 sell you?’ “Forget the cigars,’ he said. ‘How much do you want for your whistle?’ ”

Couture, moving into what caricaturist Robert La Palme calls “the vacuum Jacques Normand left behind,” is billed as “French Canada’s funniest man (believe it or not),” and his rollicking hourlong breakfast show claims an audience not far short of a million a day on four stations across Quebec. He’s convinced that “as far as comedy goes, we French Canadians follow two leads. There’s the American in which the gag conquers all; you might call it high-pressure bufoonry. Then there’s the French, which relies on the play of words, double meanings, understatement, and la mise en boite (the technique of flattening a victim with a rapid-fire sequence of jibes). What we get in the end belongs only to us.”

By following this formula and spiking it with a jigger of cosmopolitan savoir faire, Couture, who speaks six languages fluently and imitates the rest, has brought his show into its third season as the only all-comedy program on the French radio network. In television, which is just as free of competition, a weekly variety hour called An P’tit Café was the only straight comedy show on the air in last winter’s (truncated) season. The star here was Normand Hudon, a versatile performer who looks more like a Latin matinee idol than a comedian and is, in fact, one of Quebec's three outstanding caricaturists (with La Palme and Bertiot). On television Hudon compresses all his talents into an act that Steve Allen, for one, has invited him to reproduce on a U. S. TV network four times. Hudon often starts with a song. This one is hung on the tune of Learning the Blues:

She reads Stanislavski,

On drama she’s well up;

It’s really astounding

Jo watch her develop!

In mid - cadenza, Hudon has been developing the outline of a female figure on a white board. The song goes on:

With art and with culture Our lady is stacked;

Miss Marilyn Monroe Is learning to act!

When he hits the last bar, this is what he’s got on the white board:

When Robert La Palme, whom Hudon describes as “the Michelangelo of caricaturists,” moved early this year from Montreal’s daily Le Devoir to La Presse, Hudon replaced him as Le Devoir's political caricaturist. But for almost three years before the double move Hudon had been drawing a weekly caricature of some Quebec personality for Le Petit Journal. These drawings have been published in two volumes, and they’re almost the only current books of humor in circulation at Montreal’s public library. “We’re not rich in written humor,” observes chief librarian Jules Bazin with dignified understatement. After a search of his stacks he produces six or seven books that qualify as comic. They range in vintage from 1894 to 1938, and all of them support Hudon’s contention that “there are two ways to make French Canadians laugh. There’s the easy way— with gags. And there’s the tough way — with satire.” Like Hudon, Quebec’s handful of comic writers swing for the satiric fences. The scene below is from Histoires du Canada by Jean Narrache (a pen name); Narrache is cutting up old touches with Letondalaya, one of the two Indians shipped to France in 1534 by Jacques Cartier:

LETONDALAYA: My pale-faced friend, I hear we redskins left a pretty unsavory reputation behind us. NARRACHE: What do you expect? You swooped down on Montreal like a bunch of savages, whooping, drinking, setting fires, and scaring people half out of their wits.

L: Almost as bad as a Shriners’ convention, eh? But tell me, is it true you pale-faces are still scared of Indians? N: Are we! When a father of twelve kids comes home and his wife tells him, ‘Jos, there’s another papoose on the way,’ I assure you poor Jos turns white as a sheet. Well, I have to run; if there’s ever anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to let me know. L: There is one little thing ... if you could . . . that is, use your influence to . . .

N: To what?

L: Get M’sieur Duplessis to slip me into a soft job?

“In Quebec, the things we laugh hardest at are the things we take most seriously,” explains Pierre Juneau, French-language production chief at the National Film Board. Narrache’s swipes at politics and the size of Quebec families, a concomitant of the prevailing religion, are twenty-five years old but they’re still the subjects of the scenes that bring down the house at the University of Montreal’s hit comedy revue for 1959, Les Frères Avaient Raison. In the passage below, a priest is exhorting a diffident youngster at the outset of his career in a Catholic classical secondary school:

“My son, I want to talk to you about the one subject that lies at the axis of your entire classical education. I refer to Quebec, the spiritual yeast in this tub of materialistic dough we live in. By a profound misfortune, we are condemned to live alongside the United States of America. But happily, in this purgatory, there is the blessed yeast of salvation. We are the yeast! The pure province of Quebec! Beyond the belle province all is darkness and the sin that corrupts. But here! Ah, here all is light, truth and redemption. Yet even now the sated moneygrubbers of the Anglo-Saxon world are trying to drag us down to their own level. Their taint, alas, is rubbing off on a few of our own pure but misguided souls.

“Hell and damnation to the English barbarians,

“Paradise and salvation for good sectarians.”

This is a bitterly strong satirical brew, but it has been stirring up nothing but glee among the sell-out crowds that clap the curtain down on the speech. A few minutes later the campus comedians, whose theme is the crying need of the injection of a few bucks into the educational mainstream of Quebec, have switched targets: the speaker in this scene bears as strong a resemblance to John Diefenbaker as the make-up artists can achieve.

“Well, je know that je have un petit accent when je parlez Français, but, you see, je commencer-ed to take les lessons in Français just après les last elections. Anyway, to hell avec Duplessis et his autonomy — I’ve got to rush back to Ottawa to organize le next visit de la Royal Family. You know, I’m a real fan de la British Empire, and je have picked up the habit of inviting Liz and her whole family to venir over here every year. Charming, non?”

Diefenbaker is the first subject to come down le pike in decades that has a serious chance to unhorse Premier Duplessis as the front runner among all victims of French-Canadian wit. One of the hottest troupes on the Quebec night-club circuit is Les Snobs, whose current revue features a long parody of The Three Musketeers. In the passage here, Lady de Winter is advising her men how to ambush d’Artagnan, who has just saddled up for a gallop to Toronto to recover a crown forgotten by the queen:

LADY DE WINTER: You know the way to Toronto?

HER MEN, AL & CAPONE: Who doesn’t?

L DE W: Good. About a mile this side of Ottawa there’s a motel. You can’t miss it — as far as anybody knows, it’s the only one between here and Toronto. D’Artagnan will have to pull up there to water his horse. Overpower him

and show absolutely no mercy: shut him into the Parliament Buildings and make him listen to a speech in French by Diefenbaker. When he’s through with that brainwashing he won’t know what he’s doing even if he does get to Toronto.

A & c: Right. We'll go put the snowchains on the horses right now.

Here, in the cheek-by-jowl intimacy of the night clubs, is probably where Quebec’s slashing style of humor finds the climate that nourishes it best. Paul Berval, a rubber-faced comedian who has turned down bids to star in a weekly television show, makes irregular camera appearances but regularly draws overflow nightclub houses. Here is his parody of a defeated mayoralty candidate’s post-election speech:

“Fellow citizens, I just got word that Craig Street was once a river. It was a surprise to me; I didn’t get my paper this weekend. But 1 grasped the situation immediately. Some more of the previous administration’s dirty work! 1 can see the whole plot: some contractor with a pile of dirt on his hands rigged up a deal with city hall. He dumped his dirt into Craig Street and everybody cleaned up. What a racket! But they can’t get away with it — the people of Montreal have a right to that river and I’m going to see that they get it. Because when Craig Street is a river again — happy day — we’re going to need bridges on all the cross streets. Toll bridges, friends!

“I ask you, what happens today? The good people of Montreal shell out their hard-earned money to cross Jacques Cartier Bridge, which is nothing but a federal bridge across a federal river with federal tolls that go into federal pockets. An outrage! But not my bridges; my bridges will be municipal bridges across municipal rivers with municipal tolls. Think of it! Our own money back in our own pockets for a change!”

For his current night-club revue Berval has augmented his troupe, Le Beu Qui Rit, with a female impersonator and a wide-eyed young comedienne, Clémence Des Rochers, who chides sex with childishness:

“At the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique de la Province de Québec, I was in a class by myself. 1 was the only one listed under the heading Special Case. Naturally, when 1 graduated 1 went to the CBC to look for a job. Where else could l go? It was important to make a good impression, so my mother made me a pretty white dress. It had blue dots and buttoned right up to a cute bow under my chin — but you can't blame mother for a little mistake like that. It was months before anybody noticed me at the CBC, but at last a producer discovered me. He rushed across the lobby and said, ‘Mam'selle, you have nice hands.’

“Then he said, ‘Would you be interested in mixing Jell-O on TV?’

“Uh. But at least my hands had been discovered. Now I was sure it was only a matter of time till the rest of my body made the grade. 1 wasn't even surprised by my own success. I'd always told myself, Think of the great stars . . . Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield . . . think how long it took to discover those four beauties!’ ”

The pony-tailed girl who delivers these lines is the daughter of one of French Canada’s best-known poets, Alfred Des

Rochers, who is the father, in all, of twelve children. Men with families on that scale often complain that they have kids underfoot; the poet suffered from the common complaint but devised a unique defense. He had a barber’s chair installed in the middle of his living room and a tabletop hung from chains screwed into the ceiling. When he wanted to settle down with a good book, a cigar, and a glass of sherry, he pumped himself up in the chair, lowered the table to his elbow, and relaxed. The kids were still underfoot, but they were so far under they didn't bother him a bit.

Harping on the peculiarities of life in a big family is one of the surest ways to pluck a responsive chord in almost any French Canadian. Raymond Levesque, for one, sounds the note deftly in a tune called La Famille, one of the brightest numbers on a currently popular LP record by comedienne Dominique Michel. The last chorus deals with the activities of Uncle Arthur, and winds up like this:

In the spring when uncle comes back to town

With money his pockets are loaded down.

He drinks his fill and finds a guidoune*

And picks up my father to go on a balloon.**

Mother says, "Hector, you’ll stay right here,”

But Papa pretends he just doesn’t hear.

A t last he comes back to the house, pie-eyed,

And all of us kids have to ran and hide.

The cops are called by the people next door

Before we know who has heen knocked on the floor.

And early next morning when we’re on our own

The schoolteacher makes us sing Home Sweet Home!

* A nice girl; nice to everybody.

** A high old time.

Uncle Arthur, in his lusty way, stands for another of the comic stereotypes of Canadien humor—the habitant who subscribes to neither the inhibitions nor the manners of his cousins in the city. The best-loved habitant in Quebec is a raffish old curmudgeon named Père Gidéon, one of Roger Lemelin’s Plouffe Family characters. Doris Lussier, the actor who plays Père Gidéon on television, uses the familiar character as the vehicle for a night-club monologue that set the barely credible mark of playing to two audiences a night, seven days a week, for more than five hundred performances in the same Montreal club without exhausting either the hu-mor of the act or the supply of cash customers. Lussier sprays a jet of tobacco juice on the floor, hitches up his pants, and convulses sophisticates by dealing with the facts of life in the unminced terms of an old farmer with an eye for young creatures, as he calls them:

“The other day I dropped in to see the sawbones. No sooner do I get trough the door, than he starts giving me a lecture. ‘Look here, Gidéon,’ he says, ‘at your age, you're too old for the little creatures. Do yourself a favor; leave them alone.’ What does he mean, my age? I’m only sixty-five. Then he asks me, ‘What good does it do to fire up an engine that's fresh out of steam?’ Ha! I’ll show him who’s out of steam,” Lussier snorts, leering at the plainest girl he can spot through the footlights. She loves it.

Offstage Lussier hurriedly discards his country twang along with his plug of

tobacco and observes soberly, “It’s easier to make people cry than make them laugh.” He then launches a scholarly discourse on the elements of humor that points up the one thing almost all FrenchCanadian humorists have in common: for most of them, making people laugh is no joke. It’s a serious intellectual exercise, and they’re formidably equipped for it Lussier is an ex-professor of philosophy and economics at Laval University; Paul Berval is a classics scholar; Berval's straight-man, Denis Drouin, is a graduate lawyer; Miville Couture is an eminent authority on languages; and so i; goes.

A synthesis of their dissection of French-Canadian humor would sound something like this: we laugh at ourselves and our institutions to escape them. If our comedy is tougher than AngloCanadian comedy, maybe it's because we’ve got to go a little farther to escape. Or maybe it’s because there are some skeletons in English Canada’s cupboard that they don’t dare rattle even to raise a laugh.

But if Quebec’s humorists are prone to dissect their comedy, they put it back together again with loving care and enviable élan. Who can remember a broadcast in English to compare with this 1953 episode of a defunct show called Cart: Blanche:

“As you know, the outstanding aim of this series of lectures is to convince my fellow Montrealers that each and every one of us must, at all costs, become selfsufficient. I’ve already told you how to grow oats on your balcony; and moreover how to cultivate bread trees, milk trees and family trees. I’ve also demonstrated, although with less success, the necessity of keeping close to hand a few chickens and a yoke of relatively sweettempered oxen; better keep them at home where you can put your finger on them when you need them. You see, the secret is to know how to reconcile the enjoyable with the functional, for pleasure goes with utility like thorns with roses, vinegar with cucumber and water with ducks. It follows, esteemed listeners, that each and every one of us owes it to himself to become* a home gardener. Seed your home with green plants in general and. above all, with that coniferous beauty noteworthy for its harmonious proportions, welcome for the shade it affords in summer, and by its very permanence a constant reassurance of your own place in the imponderable future. I mean, of course, the sequoia. Not, assuredly, one of those giant sequoias we continually see in photographs with cars passing through tunnels in their trunks — who can afford to tour his apartment in a Cadillac these days, in any case? No, I’m talking about one of the new dehydrated pocket-sized sequoias you can buy in any drug store and which, notwithstanding the modest diameter of its trunk at the outset, will end up by occupying a large place in your life and your living room. Little by little, of course, you may have to rearrange the furniture in your apartment and even unglue your wallpaper. That is, if you want to have room to get around between your sequoia and the wall, but by that time maybe you won’t want to be bothered ...”

By that time this particular comic would probably have lost touch with most of his audience, not to mention his sponsor, if he’d been broadcasting in English. But in French Canada it was the funniest thing—-as they say — since Maisonneuve asked Duplessis for permission to found Montreal. It was a real tour-de-farce, fy