Humorous Writing in French

Humorous writing, like humour itself, can be subjective, subtle and difficult to define. Emerging from the marriage of specific social, historical and cultural forces, it also reflects the vagaries of fashion and popular taste.
Humorous writing, like humour itself, can be subjective, subtle and difficult to define. Emerging from the marriage of specific social, historical and cultural forces, it also reflects the vagaries of fashion and popular taste.

Antonine Maillet, writer
Maillet's novels fuse adventure, desire, frustration, agony and joy to offer a new image of the original Acadia (photo by Andrew Danson).
Michel Tremblay, writer
Michel Tremblay's diverse writings include novels, plays, musical comedies and translations (photo by Andrew Danson).

Humorous Writing in French

Humorous writing, like humour itself, can be subjective, subtle and difficult to define. Emerging from the marriage of specific social, historical and cultural forces, it also reflects the vagaries of fashion and popular taste. Although there is no French Canadian counterpart to the Leacock Medal for Humour, there is a strong tradition of humorous writing in French Canada, dating to the early 19th century and most evident after the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. The 2 original strains influencing more traditional genres are folklore and political journalism.

Folk humour and more formal satire are responses to the Roman Catholic Church's domination of culture and politics in 19th-century French Canada, a domination that lasted until the end of the DUPLESSIS régime. ULTRAMONTANISM, a nationalistic type of religious and political conservatism, led to censorship even after the ban on theatre (1694-1763), and political satire is one of the first recorded types of humour, associated with the proliferation of newspapers and magazines edited by European expatriates from 1830 to 1880. Napoléon Aubin is a prototype here: his unfinished novella, Mon Voyage à la lune, his journals, Le Fantasque (1837-45) and Le Castor (1843), and his theatre troupe, Les Amateurs typographiques (est 1839), all satirizing public life in French Canada, led to his brief imprisonment in 1839 for his outspoken views. This cosmopolitan tradition culminates in the journalism of Arthur BUIES, the editor of La Lanterne canadienne (1868-69), one of the most irreverent, satirical journals published in 19th-century French Canada.

The few plays published or produced before 1960, mostly light comedies influenced by French boulevard theatre and the works of Molière, all tend to ridicule local manners and morals. Joseph QUESNEL's L'Anglomanie, ou le dîner à l'angloise (1803), for example, criticizes the imitation of English customs, as does Pierre PETITCLAIR's Une partie de campagne (1865). More serious but no less witty closet dramas attack specific figures: the anonymous Les Comédies du status quo (1834) ridicules local politics, while Le Défricheteur de langue (1859) by Isodore Mesplats, the pseudonym of Joseph LaRue and Joseph-Charles Taché, mocks the Parisian manners and the lurid historical romances of Henri-Émile Chevalier, editor of Montréal's La Ruche littéraire (1853-59). Félix-Gabriel Marchand's light comedy, Les Faux Brillants (1885), was revived in 1971 by Jean-Claude GERMAIN, a contemporary dramatist whose unpublished plays include the parodies Don Quickshot and Rodéo et Juliette.

 Theatrical satire ended in 1903 with Louvigny de Montigny's Les Boules de neige, criticizing hypocrisy among Montréal's bourgeoisie, and eventually re-emerged in 1968 with the production of Michel TREMBLAY's controversial joual play Les Belles Soeurs, which blends realistic comedy and allegorical satire to explode the official vision of French Canadian society as a peaceable rural kingdom. Among the many dramatists influenced by Tremblay, Jean BARBEAU stands out for his extensive use of puns and popular culture (especially sports and film) to depict Québec culture; his best known play is the unpublished La Coupe stainless (1974). According to Laurent Mailhot, "Barbeau believes that all the great Québécois tragedies will be humorous ones because our greatest misfortune occurred in 1763 and nothing worse awaits us." His comment provides one more serious context for the lighthearted revues such as Broue (1979), a collective creation which successfully toured English Canada as Brew (1982).

 Much humorous fiction in French Canada revisits and transforms the oral tradition of shanty tales, folk songs and "esquisses de moeurs" which formed the richest vein of humour in the nineteenth century. While most of these folk tales remain uncollected and unpublished, the figures of the storyteller José in Philippe AUBERT DE GASPÉ's LES ANCIENS CANADIENS (1863) and of "le père Michel" in Joseph-Charles Taché's FORESTIERS ET VOYAGEURS (1863) provide an example of popular folk humour. Jacques FERRON in Québec (Contes du pays incertain, 1962) and Antonine MAILLET in Acadian New Brunswick (La Sagouine, 1974, and PÉLAGIE-LA-CHARETTE, 1979) are 2 contemporary authors of international repute whose ironic fiction and theatre rely extensively on folk humour and the popular tradition.

If Ferron's fiction approaches satire, Maillet's work is closer to comedy. These 2 dimensions of humour are both present in contemporary Québec writing. The satirical novel is the modern form for the vision which found its expression in theatre and journalism during the 19th century. Rodolphe Girard's Marie Calumet (1904) employs Rabelaisian humour in its portrait of clerical and rural life, and it led to the author's dismissal from La Presse. Jean-Charles HARVEY's Les Demi-civilisés (1934), a savage attack on the domination of Québec society and culture by English and Catholic elements, also resulted in severe criticism of the author. Gérard BESSETTE's Le Libraire (1960) is another literary landmark, satirizing censorship during the Duplessis régime. More recently, Jacques GODBOUT, in SALUT GALARNEAU! (1967) and especially in Les Têtes à Papineau (1981), employs allegorical symbolism to satirize contemporary society with the irony of a gentle humorist. Louky Bersianik's L'Euguélionne (1976) turns to the genre of utopian science fiction to communicate its humorous but nonetheless scathing analysis of patriarchy.

The comic novel, once less prevalent, is experiencing a new surge of popularity. The classic example of picaresque comedy in the writing of French Canada is Roger LEMELIN's LES PLOUFFE (1948), a novel which formed the basis for a long-lived television series before the emergence of the film version in both official languages (1980). Yves BEAUCHEMIN's novel Le Matou (1981) is the most recent and most significant addition to this comic tradition; its conventionally realistic story and style unexpectedly and repeatedly devolve into linguistic play, enhancing the humour without detracting from the internal logic of the narrative. Finally, no mention of humour in the novel would be complete without reference to the work of Roch CARRIER; in particular, Le Jardin des délices (1975) reveals his characteristic blend of surrealism and black humour.

Poetry has provided a few examples of parody and the mock epic, notably in Réjean DUCHARME's novel La Fille de Christophe Colomb (1969). However, radio, TV and film are the media that have best served French Canadian humorous writing. During the Depression, the popular poetry of Jean Narrache (the pseudonym of Émile Coderre) offered a bittersweet, gently critical portrait of the French Canadian everyman, while in the 1940s the Fridolinades of Gratien GÉLINAS, adapting live theatre for the radio, created an audience for the personality Fridolin. The popular stage and television performer Yvon DESCHAMPS (Monologues, 1973) emerges from this tradition, employing the monologue as a distinctly French Canadian humorous genre.

A new breed of Québec singer-songwriters have turned to the recording industry rather than to live theatre to earn a living while satirizing contemporary manners and morals. As early as the 1930s, "La Bolduc" (Mary Travers) turned to radio to popularize her satirical songs. Robert CHARLEBOIS and Michel Rivard, from the 1960s to the present, have remained notorious for their witty musical parodies of local and American trends, while Plume Latraverse continues to extend parody into the domain of scatological verse. Finally, the cinema provides some of the most sophisticated and successful artistic outlets for humour: "writing" in this genre includes the award-winning films Deux Femmes en or (1970) and Le Déclin de l'empire américain (1986), among others.

The importance of live performance in the domain of humour cannot be overemphasized; even film and television underscore the extent to which "humour" is an oral tradition in French Canada. Perhaps because until recently they have feared the effects of censorship, authors of "humorous writing" in French Canada have tended to question the "status quo" in ephemeral but no less scathing terms through popular culture, reserving literature for subtler ironic statements.