This summer, John Semley asks the tough questions of our nation: Are we Canadians really a funny people? And, if so, how did we get that way? Each week, for 10 weeks, he will explore a new facet of our history in humour. For the previous instalment, click here.
There is, in Montreal, a certain abiding sense of humour that pumps through everything. It may have a lot to do with the annual Just For Laughs festival, and the wildly popular spin-off TV program, Just For Laughs Gags, both of which propagate the idea that Montreal is the sort of place where the smothering dullness of life can so easily be leavened by a cop in lingerie or a pregnant nun smoking a cigarette, where every banality is scored to a peppy slide-whistle glissando.
But it goes deeper. There’s something more meaningful in the city’s bones. Montreal’s a place where clown punks – like punks, but committed to stuff like acrobatics, sword-swallowing and snake-handling – sell beers to the after hours set and serve up speed on the blade of a machete; where the bassist of a “pot punk” band called Grimskunk can successfully reinvent himself as a Liberal Party candidate; where you can poke at a plate of runny eggs while taking in a topless dance in the shadow of the crumbling Expo Stadium.
Montreal is like a civic planning project mapped out in the bizarre, yawning chasm dividing life’s possibilities and its realities. It’s a patchwork of clashing cultures. It’s a Catholic theocracy enclosing Canada’s second-largest concentration of Muslims and a vibrant Jewish community. It’s an Anglo(-ish) city in a Franco province in an Anglo nation. And when differences rub up against each other like this, funny stuff tends to emerge from the tension of contradiction. (See: pregnant nun smoking a cigarette.)
This, I think, is the milieu that accounts for Michel Tremblay. Tremblay is a playwright and novelist maybe most famous for his play Hosanna, about an aging drag queen and her deeply repressed lover, and the Plateau Mont-Royal Chronicles cycle of six novels, which kicked off in 1978 with The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant. These works were celebrated for embracing the gruff Quebecois joual dialect, loaded with slang and English loan words. Most importantly, Tremblay is funny. Like, deeply funny.
Previously in this series, I’ve looked at how humour has been used as a rap across the knuckles for our nation: from the Protestant shaming of the Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure to the Laurentian liberal coddling of Leacock. Tremblay is of a fundamentally different stripe. His humour is base and blue collar, without feeling especially lofty or condescending. He peoples his work with the shamed, with dolled-up transvestites, with sex workers whose physical charms are on the decline and with clucking Quebecois housewives throwing anti-Semitic shade. He writes about children peeing and guys belching at the “supper table,” about beer-drinkers and ugly dogs. It’s easy – and fun! – to imagine ol’ Stephen Leacock reading Tremblay and proceeding to sputter Earl Grey all over his evening edition of the Mariposa Times-Herald. And that’s precisely the point, n’est-ce pas? Tremblay’s humour is lacerating, unkindly, anti-Leacockian.
In The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, Second World War-era Montreal is a hothouse of shame and resentment. The residents of the working-class Plateau are chastened by the Catholic Church, snubbed by the city’s Anglo upper crust, and furious (and confused) that Quebecois men are bothering to fight a war for nations that had little use for the province, historically. During a lively barroom rant-off, one would-be conscript shrugs off the futility of war, saying “Maybe it’s better to die for nothing, like a man.”
Unfolding across a single day in 1942, Fat Woman is crammed with characters scuttling in and out of each other’s lives. The text itself is a jumble of colliding perspectives and anxieties, from the point-of-view of 20-plus characters (including a lovelorn cat). Throughout, Tremblay seeds the promise of a modern Quebec. The titular “fat woman” is pregnant not only with a literal child, but a figurative hope for this new nation.
Through its mingling of comedy and harrowing despondency, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant opens up all kinds of possibilities about the role of humour in Canada. Tremblay’s not just indexing foibles from the plush comforts of a wingback chair. He cuts deep, right to the core of the Quebec (and Canadian) identity. He understands that his characters are conflicted, pitiable (people refer to themselves as “cowards” in Fat Woman with notable frequency) and, in their own way, amusing. Because he is all these things. To make fun of something – a Plateau, a province, a people – isn’t necessarily crude or patronizing. It’s deeply compassionate.
Tremblay, in short, gets it. He knows that to venerate something while simultaneously disdaining it can often reveal the penetration of that veneration and love. It’s like making mean jokes about your own sister or hometown, then getting snarling and defensive when someone dares to do the same. To exist at all is to live in constant conflict, to be afflicted by competing twinges of pride, self-loathing and ambivalence. It’s a vitally absurd state of affairs, as goofy and halfway sad as a hula-hooping clown punk snorting amphetamines off the tip of a machete.
Next week: We go “camp”-ing to look at the ironic recuperation of Marian Engel’s award-winning novel Bear, which is literally about a woman having sex with a bear.