French-language comedy has evolved considerably following the success of burlesques and cabarets during the first half of the 20th century. The 1960s saw the emergence of stand-up comics whose humour was critical and politically engaged. Silly, absurdist and cynical humour were popular in the 1980s and 1990s, while the 2000s and 2010s are characterized by comedy that focuses on everyday life, human relationships, and the question of integration into Québécois and Canadian society.
Early French-Language Comedy
From 1920 to 1950, Montréal stages were dominated by burlesque, a theatrical genre consisting of comedic monologues, variety numbers (vaudeville, musical farces, songs, operettas and dance) and short improvised skits. Originating in the United States, burlesque was adapted for French-Canadian audiences by Jean Grimaldi (whose troupe performed shows throughout Québec, Ontario, and the eastern United States) and Olivier Guimond (Sr.). Rose Ouellette, known by her stage name La Poune, was the uncontested queen of this genre for a number of years.
In the late 1950s, Québécois humorists performed in cabarets and clubs. Such performers included singer, comedian and fantasist Jean Lapointe — who initially worked with Jérôme Lemay, in the double act Les Jérolas, from 1956 to 1974 — as well as stand-up comedian and singer Clémence Desrochers. The biggest burlesque stars sometimes performed at the Théâtre des Variétés, founded in 1967 and run by comedian Gilles Latulippe. Comedy also moved from cabarets to television, where it had great success, especially with the sitcom Moi et l’autre, which showcased the popular duo of Dominique Michel and Denise Filiatrault on Radio-Canada in the late 1960s. Political humour was popular as well: impersonator Jean-Guy Moreau became known for his impressions of politicians, and the quartet Les Cyniques (consisting of Marc Laurendeau, Serge Grenier, Marcel Saint-Germain and André Dubois) cut their teeth on current events.
First coming to fame in the 1968 cult hit musical L’Osstidcho, stand-up comic Yvon Deschamps established himself as one of the major comedic figures of the 1970s. His acts reflected the socio-political upheavals of this intense period of identity assertion, by featuring the character of a colonized low-income worker (“Les Unions, qu’ossa donne?”). In 1973, comedian Marc Favreau left the children’s programs on which he had created Sol, a gullible tramp clown, to begin a long stage career with this same character, whose speech was riddled with humorous wordplay.
During this economically and politically bleak decade, comedy exploded in Québec. In 1983, former members of the comedy trio Paul et Paul (which also featured Jacques Grisé), Claude Meunier and Serge Thériault, launched Lundis des Ha! Ha! Hosted by their characters Ding and Dong, these comedy nights were incredibly successful and gave many comedians a chance to distinguish themselves. The two hosts gained so much popularity that they eventually starred in a full-length feature film, Ding et Dong, le film, released in 1990. Claude Meunier, who wrote plays mocking the vacuity of contemporary life (Les Voisins and Appelez-moi Stéphane, both co-written with Louis Saia), also made a sitcom in 1993 based on the Ding and Dong sketch, La Petite Vie. This parody about a Québécois family, rife with absurdities, was broadcast by Radio-Canada and soon grew to be the most-watched show in Québec, becoming a true social phenomenon.
Lundis des Ha! Ha! helped launch careers for a new generation of comics, such as impersonator André-Philippe Gagnon and his scriptwriter Stéphane Laporte. After appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1985, Gagnon achieved international fame and began performing for larger audiences in North America and Europe. Another example is Daniel Lemire, known for his biting stand-up routines about current socio-political affairs. His recurring characters Oncle George, Ronnie and Yvon Travaillé left a mark on the collective imaginary.
Also achieving popularity in the 80s were the physical caricatures and funny faces of Michel Courtemanche, and the versatile comedy (including television parodies, sketches and humorous songs) of the group Rock et Belles Oreilles (RBO), who first came to fame on the radio, and then on television, stage and CD. After the band broke up, at least two of its former members continued to make a living in comedy. Yves Pelletier made a name for himself as a director and writer both in film (Karmina in 1996, Les Aimants in 2004, Le baiser du barbu in 2010) and on stage (in the duo Yves and Martin, with comedian Martin Drainville). Meanwhile, Guy A. Lepage created the popular television series Un gars, une fille, whose comedic take on relationships has been sold to more than 26 countries since the show’s debut on Radio-Canada in 1997. Since 2004, Lepage has hosted Tout le monde en parle, a well-watched show airing Sunday nights on Radio-Canada.
In 1983, businessman Gilbert Rozon created an international comedy festival in Montréal. An immediate success, the Festival Juste pour rire gained momentum and spawned an English counterpart two years later. Just for Laughs became an important international marketplace for the comedy world, always searching for new headliners. Attracting big names from the both the English- and French-speaking comedy circuits, this summer event offered a variety of indoor shows, outdoor entertainment and, as of 1991, comedies from the Théâtre Juste pour rire, traditionally directed by Denise Filiatrault. The Rozon empire gave rise to other institutions dedicated to laughs: the Musée pour... rire (later named the Musée Juste pour rire), which opened in 1993 and closed in 2010, and the École nationale de l’humour, inaugurated in late 1987, which produces a new cohort of comedians every year.
In the 1990s, the comedy boom lost none of its momentum. In fact, in 1999, the Association des professionnels de l’industrie de l’humour (APIH) established the Gala Les Olivier— an annual event, named in honour of comedian Olivier Guimond, that aims to recognize and reward comedic performers. The comedy landscape had become more diverse and welcomed a variety of newcomers: impersonators (Claudine Mercier), stand-up comedians (Maxim Martin and Patrick Huard), monologists (François Morency, Pierre Légaré, Lise Dion, Martin Petit), character creators (Marie-Lise Pilote), parody musicians (François Pérusse with his celebrated Albums du peuple) and entertainers (Stéphane Rousseau and Anthony Kavanagh, who, in the wake of Michel Courtemanche, both had breakthroughs in France).
Comedian and fantasist Marc Labrèche rose to fame through the cult television series La fin du monde est à sept heures (1997–2000, on Télévision Quatre-Saisons), a parody newscast in which he commented on daily events using sarcastic and absurdist humour. Through this show, the public discovered new talents who then made their mark on televised comedy in Québec. Such talents included Bruno Blanchet (who hosted N’ajustez pas votre sécheuse, a sketch-comedy show that aired on Télé-Québec in 2001) and Jean-René Dufort (who led the satirical current events program Infoman, first broadcast in 2000 on Radio-Canada).
2000s to Present
In the early 2000s, absurdist comedy continued to be popular with the emergence of Denis Drolet and Les Chick’n Swell. These comedians helped revive political humour, which had declined among younger comedians, according to historian Robert Aird.
The resounding success in the 2000s and 2010s of Louis-José Houde, who graduated from the École de l’humour in 1998, has been unparalleled in Québec. Focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, Houde cunningly manipulates language and metaphor while delivering an energetic stage performance. As of 2015, he has won 19 Prix Olivier Awards, 9 Prix Gémeaux and 6 Prix Félix for his shows, which are both funny and touching because of the topics they address.
Martin Matte — the Discovery of the Year at the Gala Les Olivier in 1999 — plays an arrogant, self-obsessed man on stage. Over 400,000 people watched his second show, Condamné à l’excellence (2014), earning him the Prix du billet platine, and his television series Les beaux malaises (on TVA since 2013) won several Prix Gémeaux, including Best Comedy (2015). Exploring the agony of everyday madness, André Sauvé had noteworthy performances at the Festival Juste pour rire in 2006, where he won Newcomer of the Year, as well as on the show 3600 secondes d’extase, hosted since 2008 by Marc Labrèche. Humour and wit are also part of the fables and tales of author Fred Pellerin, whose first show, Dans mon village, il y a belle Lurette (2001), was performed more than 600 times in Québec and France.
During the 2000s and 2010s, the profile of francophone comedians changed significantly. Women, who had thus far been virtually absent, took their place in the comedy world, and several new comedians whose parents had immigrated to Canada came into prominence. Such successes include stand-up comics Cathy Gathier and Nabila Ben Youssef, Franco-Ontarian vocal impersonator Véronic DiCaire, and, more recently, Katherine Levac (also from French-Speaking Ontario), whose dry wit earned her the Olivier for Discovery of the Year in 2015.
Noteworthy among the male humorists is Montréal-born comedian of Berber descent, Rachid Badouri. With his vocal and physical impressions and his stand-up routines about immigration, he entertains audiences by mocking the accents and quirks of Québécois people of all backgrounds. Originally active on the anglophone comedy scene, Sugar Sammy (Samir Khullar), a Canadian of Indian descent, now brings his biting, socially engaged sense of humour, focused on racism, ethnicity and the integration of new immigrants, to francophone audiences. Of Iraqi-Moroccan heritage, Adib Alkhalidey, winner of the Prix Olivier for Discovery of the Year in 2013, condemns cultural stereotypes and prevailing cynicism in his first show, entitled Je t’aime (directed by Martin Matte in 2013). Finally, Senegalese scientist Boucar Diouf, who has a doctorate in oceanography from the Université du Québec à Rimouski, has become a prominent figure in the world of French-language comedy. A comedian, television host and (in his spare time) columnist, he uses humour and storytelling to intelligently and philosophically discuss cultural differences, integration and current political events.