Canada

Quebec’s King of Comedy

Yvon Deschamps is an acerbic social critic— a devastatingly funny one

BENOIT AUBIN August 27 2001
Canada

Quebec’s King of Comedy

Yvon Deschamps is an acerbic social critic— a devastatingly funny one

BENOIT AUBIN August 27 2001

Quebec’s King of Comedy

Canada

BENOIT AUBIN

In Quebec, once you have climbed on board the autobus du show business, you own a seat for life. Old entertainers who have fallen out of favour simply move to the back rows, and make cameo appearances in soap operas, quiz shows or commercials for denture cement. But humorist Yvon Deschamps is another story. The wiry, manic monologuist who became a nationalist icon in the 70s is currendy enjoying an unexpected—and, in Deschamps’s own words, incredible—second debut with the Quebec public. “I meet kids on the street and they tell me, ‘Yvon, you’re my man,’ ” he says. “They were in kindergarten last time I toured!” Deschamps, who turned 66 on July 31, is currendy filling the 550-seat Le Patriote in the Laurentians five nights a week. That follows a successful winter-long run at Le Corona, a renovated Montreal movie house where he used to watch Charlie Chaplin flicks as a St-Henri Street urchin in the ’40s. It’s his first big one-man show since 1992 and he’s booked solid way into next year. The humorist—who once quipped that the thing about happiness is you can’t be happy without it—is pinching himself. “I am not thinking about the future. I want the present to last forever.” The risks involved with staging a comeback with a new show are extremely personal, says Deschamps. “I know they like me out there,” he explains. “But will they come? Will they buy the tickets, dress up, call it a night out to actually come and see me?” In a word, yes. According to Deschamps’s producers, no fewer than 300,000 spectators will have seen the show by the end of next year.

Ever since he hit the limelight with his first monologue, “We Don’t Need a Union, Do We, Boss?” in 1968, Deschamps has established a unique relationship with the Quebec public. His onstage character, who’s remained nameless through the decades, is the quintessential, average Québécois. A loser, but a proud one. Ignorant, but not stupid. Conservative, yet rebellious. A fast-talking smallshot, running hard to keep up with the times, but always falling on the wrong side of the most sensitive issues of the day. Through it all, Deschamps, an ardent nationalist, keeps the barbs flying, such as his

now-famous assessment of the Québécois psyche at times of referendums: “What Quebecers really want is an independent Quebec inside a strong Canada.”

Looking fit and trim and in full command of his craft, the white-bearded Deschamps steps alone in front of the spectators at Le Patriote with a warning: there will be no intermission, you will suffer through 90 minutes of this. And forget about encores, there won’t be any. Five minutes later, he has them rolling in the aisles, as he pinpoints, highlights and lambastes our private little pettiness, and his own big-time metaphysical anxieties:

■ “We do our best to make immigrants feel welcomed and respected, but not to the point of wanting them as neighbours.”

■ “We love our old folks, but do doctors

really have to save them every time they become ill?”

■ “One is always better off being rich and healthy than sick and poor.”

■ “What happens in the afterlife? Will all my former wives and girlfriends be there at once? With their mothers? And at what age, for eternity?”

Deschamps poses as a humorist—and he is funny. But more than that, he is a social critic, and an efficient one, acerbic and devastating. “Anglophones and immigrants are not real Québécois,” he says in his show. “Proof is that we have to be nice to them. What do you think real Québécois are to one another? Nice? Immigrants will become real Québécois the day we can tell them to f___off.”

That is Deschamps’s trademark approach to sensitive issues: get to them from the wrong angle, push the argument to its absurd limit, then move in for the kill. Sometimes that is playing with fire, and he’s been burned, more than once. In the 1960s, language purists criticized his use of jouai, the Quebec vernacular, onstage. Then, feminist leaders wanted him banned from airwaves in the ’70s after a sketch in which he portrayed a male chauvinist pig a tad too convincingly. And the Jewish community group B’nai Brith failed to see the humour in his sketch on intolerance. “They threatened to sue me,” Deschamps recalls. That sketch, to a track of Second World War German military music, ended with a Nazi salute.

Yvon Deschamps is an acerbic social critic— a devastatingly funny one

Comedy

Just don’t take what he says at face value. Deschamps made that point to a Muslim man who visited him after one of his shows. “He said he was ill at ease with my

sketch on immigrants,” he recalls. “I asked him if he liked the other sketches; he said ‘Yes.’ Then I said, ‘It is OK to make fun of women, gays, old people, but not of Islamic neighbours?’ ”

End of discussion.

For his 65th birthday last year, Deschamps bought himself the last car owned and driven by Chaplin, his life-long idol. He drives the mint-condition 1964 Bentley—he calls it une minoune, a jalopy—between his Westmount house, his summer retreat in the Laurentians and the Manoir Rouville-Campbell, a historic compound he operates as a hotel and theatre on the Richelieu River.

But for the most part Deschamps has avoided the trappings of success, remaining the man-on-the-street and keeping his

inimitable accent from postwar St-Henri. One way to keep in touch with regular folks, he explains, is to give “surplus money” away. Over the past 25 years, Deschamps has handed out close to $ 1 million in out-of-pocket cash to help needy people, mostly children with physical or mental handicaps. He’s also had a life-long involvement with such charities as Le Chaînon, a help centre for women in distress, and a grassroots sports association put together by activist parents in the mean neighbourhoods of east-end Montreal. “We had a good house, a car, the fridge was stocked with food, we had friends, and on top of that, a pile of money in the bank,” Deschamps explains. “I was not at ease with all the money. I even asked my producer to stop booking me for awhile. My wife [Toronto-born singercomposer Judi Richards] said, ‘If your money bothers you, just give it away.’ I said, ‘Right! That’s a good idea.’ ”

For all of his exceptional success at home, Deschamps has remained virtually unknown outside French-speaking Quebec. He tried to break into the French market with a two-week stint in Paris in 1983, but the reviews were lukewarm. He had had a better prospect in the United States in the late ’70s. Producers in Los Angeles were prepared to invest big bucks on his career, but he finally backed out, saying he wasn’t willing to spend 10 years “playing synagogues in Detroit, or small halls offoff-off-Broadway. ”

English Canada, meanwhile, was no-go land. “I was heading the artists committee for the Yes side in the 1980 referendum,” he says. “I had monologues about life and death, women, happiness, abortion, but the only thing I was asked was, ‘Why do you want to break up our country?’ ” And that leaves Quebec, where Deschamps attributes the revival of his career to the fact that humorists still maintain an intimate relationship with their audience. “People don’t pay to hear you, they pay to hear themselves, but today everyone else is into the global market, pitching their stuff,” an oblique reference to the likes of Celine Dion, Jacques Villeneuve, Luc Plamondon, Denys Arcand, Lara Fabian. As for Deschamps, he has been a foreigner in France, an interloper in English Canada, frightened by the United States. The quintessential Québécois. CU