Before going to see The Chicoutimi Kid, a sketch comedy play about Quebec, I mentioned my plans to a friend. A francophone Montrealer, she didn’t skip a beat, but groaned melodramatically and explained that Québecois comedy is unbearable, vulgar, and not particularly funny.
Excited to prove her wrong, I arrived at the Theâtre Ste-Catherine last Friday looking forward to trenchant satire, jokes that blurred linguistic boundaries, and ribald takes on the state of la belle province. My plan was working well until I left two hours later without having laughed, with memories of bad jokes about pot, bad French Canadian accents, and an overweight exotic dancer who also happened to be the main character’s mother regrettably yet vividly imprinted on my mind.
Vulgarity isn’t the issue here, nor are politics. It would be easy to find fault with The Chicoutimi Kid for being offensive – for being crude, or sexist, or trading in on the most overly simplistic stereotypes. These are no doubt legitimate concerns, but at an even more basic level than that, the play simply didn’t fulfil the single inviolable rule of comedy: it wasn’t funny.
The show follows Larry Welkes, an alcoholic anglophone separatist from Ville-Emard (“right next to the Verdun”), and his taciturn friend, the titular Chicoutimi Kid, as they travel around the province, meeting a motley group of people, including a pair of francophone, hippie-girl hitchhikers; a middle-aged Berri-UQAM street punk; a pure laine stripper; and a louche drunk called Sugar Rock St-Pierre.
Not that I’d claim that washed-up, loser types can’t make successful comedy – take the slew of slacker movies by Judd Apatow and his ilk, or perhaps the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski – but there’s a catch: these less-than-accomplished individuals created for our entertainment need to be funny, endearing, or, at the very least, idiosyncratic. The Chicoutimi Kid’s characters, quite simply, are none of those things.
Obscured by a façade of badly told raunchy gags, the ideas behind the show have potential. The show’s writer, Alain Mercieca, explained that he was trying to examine the complexities of Québecois identity. “Larry says he doesn’t believe in borders. He is a world citizen, yet at the same time he feels that a place as big and rich as Quebec must be considered a country,” Mercieca explains. “Larry is in love with the world, but his world is Quebec.”
And, despite the nearly complete lack of successful humour in the play, there are moments when the dark clouds of unfunny comedy thin, revealing the complexity that Mercieca and his co-actors are trying to convey.
At one point, Larry picks up a copy of Le Devoir and begins rhapsodizing about how “this paper is only eight pages! In Quebec, you take the good bourgeois when you want it,” a line that, delivered with more thoughtfulness, might cuttingly express the ongoing tensions in Québecois political discourse between populism and intellectualism.
A few minutes later, at Berri-UQAM, Larry listens to a street punk complain about “St-Henri hipster kids with ukuleles, banjos, tight rolled up jeans, and fixed gear bikes” ruining his formerly grungy neighbourhood. Again, this line alone points to a keen awareness of gentrification, subcultures, and Montreal’s polymorphous character, but barely even registers among the bad accents and poorly-played drunkenness.
The handful of lines like these, though lost in the morass of The Chicoutimi Kid, do reveal that Mercieca and his fellow comedians have a feel for how to translate the complexities of Québecois society into comedy. This begs the question, then, of why the play is so full of bad, crude jokes that are not so much offensive as they are boring.
The disaster was not unmitigated. In fact, the show was all the more frustrating because it’s easy to see how it could have evolved differently; the tritely vulgar script shows small signs of the type of self-awareness that makes crude humour funny, as well as a keenly satirical sensibility.
However, these were both lost in the boring, raunchy mire of The Chicoutimi Kid. When I called my friend the next day, I had to admit that while I stay hopeful to find some good Quebec-based comedy in the future, this show definitely didn’t prove her wrong.