Closeup/The Arts

L’homme funny

For future reference, it’s 'ee-von day-shom'

Graham Fraser July 11 1977
Closeup/The Arts

L’homme funny

For future reference, it’s 'ee-von day-shom'

Graham Fraser July 11 1977

L’homme funny

Closeup/The Arts

For future reference, it’s 'ee-von day-shom'

Graham Fraser

The thin grey-haired man with the hawk nose and the puckish grin was being ushered from one interview to another, from Toronto radio station to Toronto TV station, as part of a promotion for his latest record—and they didn’t know how to pronounce his name. Or what he does. Unfailingly polite, Yvon Deschamps corrected the interviewers when seconds before air time, they made vain, interrogative attempts to get it right. “Yvon Deschamps,” he would say when they asked, pronouncing it tightly and quickly “ee-von dayshorn.” In Quebec, he cannot walk a block without being recognized and greeted. His 10 albums have sold 350,000 copies. His last show at the Place des Arts sold out for 13 weeks. His audience is immense—and cuts across all lines in Quebec, from the long-haired youngsters in jeans on Rue St. Denis to the suburbanites in double-knit leisure suits, to the rural villagers filling a local high-school auditorium to hear him.

“Son public, c’est tout le Québec”—his audience is all of Quebec—says Clémence Desrochers, herself a singer who has worked with Deschamps. Quebec critics have called him “our national comic” and a “comedian-moralist,” praised him for “exorcising our very Québécois flaws by putting them under our noses—when he doesn’t throw them in our faces.” And described him as “speaking the language of our humiliation.”

Gilles Vigneault, a friend and great admirer, calls him “a great classic who succeeds in making us laugh a second after we have wept—and then makes us regret having laughed.” John Williams, the producer of his English album, calls him, succinctly, “a monster star.” And in Toronto, although his appearances on Peter Gzowski’s 90 Minutes Live and a TV special with Don Harron in April have changed “Yvon who?” to a vague awareness, an “oh, yeah, him,” there is still great uncertainty about how to pronounce his name.

It is only one of the paradoxes in the life of the fascinating, complex and contradictory man who likes to maintain that nine years ago he stumbled by accident into a career of standing in front of audiences and telling stories. And now, equally by accident, he has just launched his first album in English.

The publicity tour is a triumph of charm. Moving briskly from one interview to the next, Deschamps is friendly, articulate, witty, self-deprecating. There is no word in English that easily explains what Yvon Deschamps does. In Quebec he is called a monologuiste: someone who does mono-

logues. He puts together a two-hour show of monologues, music and a few songs— his records are selections from the shows, some with simply one 20-minute monologue on one side and another on the reverse. He has occasionally been compared to Lenny Bruce (a man he admires, but refuses to sanctify: “He has five or six pieces which are exceptional—the rest are worthless”). Like George Carlin and Bill Cosby, he has done very funny material about his childhood—like Mel Brooks’ 1,000-yearold man, he plays hilarious games with history and religion—like Woody Allen, he is obsessed with death. His characters talk of death and happiness.

But, while comparable, he is unlike any of them. He is unique. His genius, as Vigneault suggests, is in getting his audience to

laugh at what it doesn’t want to laugh at and to face what it doesn’t want to face: its cruelty, its racism, its intolerance, its dishonesty, its sexism, its fascination with TV violence. Strong stuff. A lot of big risks. Not a light, easy night out, with a few giggles, a few songs, a few laughs.

In translation—even with Deschamps himself as translator—at least one level of humor is lost: the dimension of the language itself. Deschamps uses Montreal slang as a hilarious tool for puns and caricatures. If he succeeds in English, it will be, in large part, because of that enormous reservoir of personal charm: a magnetism that gives him the kind of surge of fascination and affection and respect that René Lévesque has, even from people who disagree with him totally.

For, like Lévesque, he immediately conveys a mixture of vulnerability and integrity, of openness and passion. But, he has

no false modesty. The whirlwind tour of Toronto, and the English album it was supposed to promote, had its origins in a series of coincidences.

“I never said, ‘One day, I’m going to translate my monologues and do them in English.’ I don’t think like that. It was Peter Gzowski, whom I got to know because of his radio show, who was having a tryout for his talk-show [last summer in Vancouver]. He phoned me and said, ‘Hey, you’re absolutely unknown in Canada.’ And if you check all the statistics, you’ll see I’m the number one star in Canada at the box-office—no one can attract as many people as I can, and I’ve never left Quebec.”

“Is that true? The biggest in Canada in terms of box office?” he was asked.

Ever so slightly, he bristled. “Well, in terms of box office, do you know anyone who can do the O’Keefe Centre for 13 weeks and be sold out? I don’t know any Canadians who could do that. I don’t know many Canadians who can do 300 one-man shows in a year, and fill halls with 1,500 to 2,000 people. And it’s 10 years now. So it makes for quite a few people.”

The 90 Minutes Live people were enthralled—“it was an extraordinary piece of television,” recalls Gzowski. He went back twice more, and did two more monologues. Another old friend, John Williams, who was starting a record company asked him to record the four monologues. The result: an English album: “Yvon Deschamps en Anglais.” It is all, he insists, just a series of accidents.

Deschamps was born July 31, 1935, in Montreal. His father was a patent designer. Shortly after he was born, the family moved to Saint-Henri, where Deschamps lived until he was 20. Saint-Henri is a poor neighborhood—not exactly a slum, but a rough polyglot community of small factories and shops, French Canadians, Irish and blacks. Yvon worked as a delivery boy and a wrapper.

As a patent designer, Avila Deschamps was, in effect, an industrial artist: gifted, and imaginative, but, out of the kind of desire for security that his son refuses to accept and viciously satirizes in his monologues, worked for 25 years for a small French-Canadian company, exploited and underpaid.

At 16, Deschamps dropped out of school, and was hired as a messenger at the Radio-Canada record library. At RadioCanada, he discovered the theatre and studied acting. At 22, he left Radio-Canada to become an actor—to the horror of his family.

“My mother thought it was madness,” he recalls. “I was working in a children’s theatre that played in the parks, and when she came to see me I was dressed up as a clown. She was appalled. ‘You left such a good job to play the fool in front of children?’ And my father didn’t understand it. He kept saying, ‘But there are no actors in the family.’ As if that meant it was impossible for me to be one.” As Deschamps often points out to English-Canadian interviewers, his career is quite similar in pattern to Don Harron’s: Harron playing Shakespeare, Deschamps playing Racine, both started as classical actors, and in their thirties ended up doing their own material and making people laugh.

Along the way, a restaurant venture played an important role. In 1963, a friend of Deschamps bought a place in Old Montreal and Deschamps fell in love with the area. “I saw a basement, and asked the owner how much it rented for. It was $300 a month so I rented it. My wife asked me what I was going to do with a basement in Old Montreal—I had to tell her something.” So, on a whim, he opened a restaurant. He later expanded, and with Clémence Desrochers operated La Boite à

Clémence. Four years later, the restaurant could not survive the post-Expo slump, and it went under—Deschamps had to declare bankruptcy. From its beginning on whim, through its operation to its conclusion, Deschamps can be hilarious about the adventure, talking about the night a customer found a nail in his stew, and the conclusion when, bankrupted, he was able to take the perishable stock, and, while staying at a friend’s because he had no money, ate like a king on roast lamb—but the failure hurt him deeply.

It was, however, in the words of poetpolitician Gérald Godin, “a happy bankruptcy for Quebec culture.” Unemployment led him to produce a review with Robert Charlebois and Louise Forestier: L’Osstidcho (a pun on “l’hostie,” the communion host, a common Québécois swearword—translated roughly as a helluvashow ).

This, again by accident, resulted in his first monologue: “What good are unions anyway?” in two skits at La Boite à Clémence, Deschamps—after an initial false start in which he played the boss—had played a worker, and Gilbert Chénier had played the boss. Chénier being enormously fat and Deschamps thin, it was played as broad farce. For L’Osstidcho, Deschamps wrote another sketch using the same characters. However, at the last moment there proved to be no time to rehearse, and Charlebois persuaded Deschamps to rewrite the sketch as a monologue.

An unforgettable character was discovered. He was “un petit gars”—a little guy, naive, friendly, hardworking, and almost idolatrous in his worship of le boss: the French-Canadian factory owner with the salmon-pink Plymouth and plywood animals on his lawn, who paid his workers $62 a week (“and with overtime, I got $73”) and an extra two dollars for mowing the lawn. The little guy’s dying father had

given him the philosophy he lived by: ..

dans la vie, y a deux choses qui comptent..

. une job steady, pis un bon boss.” In life, there are two things that count: a steady job and a good boss.

L’Osstidcho was a huge success—it ran all summer at Le Théâtre de Quat’ Sous, and played at La Comédie Canadienne in the fall. The review launched three stars: Charlebois, Forestier—and Deschamps. Another review followed—Deschamps wrote another couple of monologues. The French record company Polydor was just starting in Quebec and recorded the first album. Another review, another couple of monologues, another record. The first sold 30,000 copies, the second 40,000.

“I had never in my life envisaged myself doing a one-man show, writing monologues. It was never a preoccupation,” Deschamps says. “But the other things came up. After a year, I realized I’d done nothing but that, I had two albums out— maybe I could do that full-time.

Deschamps’ morologues fall within a long tradition in Quebec. Traditionally, storytelling has been as honored an art as singing—both arts are part of the strong oral tradition in Quebec whose strength is shown by the fací that Québécois buy many more records than people in the rest of Canada, but proportionately fewer books.The aspects c f Deschamps' style are solidly in the tradition of Québécois monologists: his ust of the language of the streets, and his bittersweet edge. However, in both cases, he goes much farther than other monologists h ive gone. His language is almost a caricature of what Pierre Trudeau once called “lousy French”—his phrases are full of elipses and anglicisms, his syntax is butchered.

“It is a reminiscence, a memory, an image of the language I spoke when I was 16, in Saint-Henri,” explains Deschamps. “But it is an image—it is certainly not exact. It is made poetic, and, at the same time, exaggerated at least 200%. It is a type of jouai—the jouai of the southwest of Montreal, where not only the words are deformed but the grammar is English.”

Like Archie Bunker or Charlie Farquharson, he plays his fractured phrases for laughs—but, as is so often the case with Deschamps, he swings a double-edged sword: celebrating and attacking at the same time, holding up a distorted mirror to the audience to amuse, but also to draw moral lessons. “It is the only language that permits me to say everything I want to— even though it is very restricted, with a vocabulary of maybe 200 words.

“For a caricaturist like me, it is important to caricature (this language) to the point that we can emerge from it—to show, in fact, that language goes with social, economic, and cultural development. If you are an exploited or colonized being, you can’t help but have a colonized language, which is imposed on you by the force of things.”

The schools have got the message—Des-

champs’ records are used in courses for the study of language. It pleases him. There is another aspect of the tradition: his bittersweet mixture of emotions that provokes a lump in the throat as the laughter dies away.

This bittersweet quality is very much present in “Pépère”—one of the first monologues, which Deschamps chose to do fori the. first Gzowski show and which is on the English album with the title “Grandpa.”

“When I was little, I had a grandpa,” Deschamps begins, and he is smiling as he talks. The story seems nostalgic and amusing, and people are smiling and chuckling along until they are jarred by the cruelty of the child to the old man. The pain of the practical joke is quite shocking, in fact. At the end, after the old man dies, the family—which has been bitching and complaining about having the old man around the house—is suddenly deeply saddened by his death, and the audience, like the raconteur, is caught by a moment of grief— and guilt for having laughed. The first time it was broadcast on TV in Quebec, there were 1,400 letters of protest: now it is the most requested monologue.

Deschamps insists that he does not write about society, he writes about himself, and if people see themselves in his monologues it is because they share the same characteristics. The result is a mixture of caricature and self-portrait, of confessional and autocriticism from a man who is both very revealing and very private, very generous of himself and very solitary. It is the kind of paradox that shapes his work and his life.

But Deschamps goes beyond the bittersweet and the paradoxical to the morbid. Death is a constantly recurring theme in his work. “He is obsessed by death—it is

something which is constantly in his thoughts,” says Clémence Desrochers.

“I have been invaded by the idea of death,” Deschamps admits. “From the age of six or seven until I was 25, I was anguished by the idea. For death is the ultimate absurdity. It took me 40 years to accept it.” The preoccupation has diminished in recent years—although it came back in a rush in 1973 when Deschamps killed “le boss”—and the little guy reacted by killing his child and committing suicide in a monologue entitled “La Mort du Boss.”

With the end of the character, who had become a burden to him, Deschamps has become more theatrical, more philosophical, more interested in form. At the same time, he takes continual risks with his audience: pushing them to their limit. In his last show, he provoked audiences to fury in a monologue entitled “Honesty”—in which a man tells how his girl has been raped, and says it was obviously her fault, d she must have led them on. The source of the story was the combined experience of two friends who had been raped, and had found the experience in court more excruciating than the rape itself. Typically, Deschamps turned the story on its head, and recounted the story as a man, convinced his girl had lied to him. Not light entertainment, that. But like the rape in Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, it was there for moral reasons, not to titillate.

A naturally solitary man, Deschamps is nonetheless generous with his time and money, particularly for causes he supports. He has done benefits for the Parti Québécois, Québec-Presse and political prisoners, and works for Oxfam, Amnesty International and the committee for political prisoners. In connection with the last group, he has visited François Schirm, the Hungarian member of the FLQ who has been refused parole, even though every other person sentenced with him has been released.

Now, his career is being launched in English. The risks of failure are high, but in contrast with the pressure of preparing a 2'/2-hour show for the Place des Arts next fall, a show that will surprise, jolt and amuse an audience that has known him for nine years, the emotional investment is much less.

But what happens if it doesn’t work? Supposing English Canada just doesn’t find him funny?

“I asked him that,” said Wayne Grigsby, the Montrealer who was co-producer of the TV special. “Yvon just shrugged. ‘I’m used to that,’ he said. ‘When I first did “Pépère” (“Grandpa”) I went a whole month and nobody laughed.’

“ ‘A whole month? How could you stand it?’ I asked. ‘Well, I knew it was good,’ he said. ‘And they learned to laugh.’ ” Grigsby paused. “I think that if we don’t find Yvon funny now, he’ll just keep on until we do. And if I were going to bet money, I’d bet we learn.”