A SMALL LIFE FOR THE SMALL SCREEN: On the Cultural Phenomenon of the Sitcom La petite vie and the Critical Failure of the Feature Ding et Dong, le film
Résumé: L’émission ayant obtenu la plus haute cote d’écoute de l’histoire de la télévision québécoise fut un épisode de la série La petite vie (mars 1995), mettant en vedette Serge Thériault et Claude Meunier dans les rôles de « Moman » et « Popa » Paré. Dans les années 1980, Thériault et Meunier, sous le nom de scène « Ding et Dong », étaient devenus célèbres pour leurs spectacles de cabaret qui incluaient des sketchs avec les personnages de Popa et Moman. Passés à la télévision au cours des années 1990, Popa et Moman sont devenus de véritables phénomènes de société. Pourtant quand Meunier et Thériault tentèrent de transposer leur humour absurde au grand écran, dans Ding et Dong, le film (1990, Alain Chartrand), la critique fut méprisante. Par une analyse culturelle et formelle des spectacles, de la série télévisée et du long métrage, cet article tente d’expliquer le succès extraordinaire de Moman et Popan à la télé et l’échec de Ding et Dong au cinéma.
On 20 March 1995, over four million Québec spectators gathered around their TVs to watch what would become the top-rated show in the history of French-language television in Canada.1 It wasn’t a Canadiens hockey game or special news broadcast on referendum results. Rather, it was an episode of La petite vie, a Radio-Canada sitcom revolving around the strangely uneventful life of the Paré family, which enjoyed unprecedented success from 1993 to 1998.2 Mom and Dad Paré, aptly called “Moman” and “Popa,” were played by two men, Serge Thériault and Claude Meunier. In the 1980s, under the name “Ding et Dong,” Thériault and Meunier had developed a tremendously popular nightclub comedy routine, which included skits featuring Moman and Popa. The absurdist humour of Ding and Dong’s stage performances in the 1980s and La petite vie in the 1990s struck a chord not only with the francophone public, but also with critics, who saw in those “post-kitsch”,3 gender-bending, maniacal characters a revival of uniquely Québécois forms of carnivalesque vaudeville.4 In fact, a scholarly book offering an in-depth socio-cultural analysis of La petite vie was published by Michèle Nevert in 2000. Yet, when Meunier and Thériault tried to bring their characters to the big screen in Ding et Dong, le film (Québec, 1990, Alain Chartrand), critics unanimously panned the production.5 While in hindsight, some scholars like Bill Marshall have appreciated the film’s display of the “carnivalesque return of the body,”6 it still has very few supporters amongst critics. Through an examination of the structure of Thériault and Meunier’s nightclub comedy act, television series, and feature film, as well as the various (and often paradoxical) critical discourses around the sitcom and the movie, this article seeks to explicate the phenomenal success of Moman and Popa on the small screen, and the failure of Ding and Dong on the big screen.
The creative force behind La petite vie was Claude Meunier, who wrote all episodes and played the central role of Popa, also known as Ti-Me Paré. Beyond his contribution to La petite vie, Meunier stands as the most important figure in Quebec comedy since 1980.7 While studying law at the Université de Montréal in the early 1970s, he wrote skits for amateur shows,8 and in the late 1970s, started appearing on stage with Thériault as a member of the comic group “Paul et Paul.” Despite what the group’s name might suggest, this was not a comic duo but a trio, in which none of the members was actually called Paul, the third member being Jacques Grisé.9 In parallel with his stand-up comedy work in “Paul et Paul,” Meunier also wrote a few plays with Louis Saia, who is better known today for his directorial work on the successful Les Boys series of films. Meunier and Saia co-wrote two popular satirical pieces, Les Voisins (1980) and Appelez-moi Stéphane (1980) and were among the collective who created the most frequently revived comedy in the history of Québec theatre, Broue (1979). Saia explains the success of his collaboration with Meunier in terms of their complementary skills: Saia, the accomplished playwright, would provide plot structure and well-developed characters, while Meunier, the stand-up comic, would come up with hilarious one-liners.10
Ding and Dong were first introduced to audiences in embryonic form in a segment of a “Paul et Paul” show entitled, “Une attend pas l’autre.” Here, Meunier and Thériault were playing two old-timers of the Québec burlesque scene whose entire routine was a succession of one-liners, hence the title “Une attend pas l’autre,” a colloquial expression roughly translated as “one joke after another.”11 The machine-gun delivery of jokes was harking back to a tradition of comic duos from the 1950s, like “Ti-Gus et Ti-Mousse” (Real Béland and Denise Émond) whose routines had titles like “Un rire à la seconde” (a laugh a second) and “Un rire n’attend pas l’autre” (One laugh after the other).12 Such one-liner routines were replaced in the 1960s and 1970s by a more politicized type of humour. First with “Les Cyniques” (Marc Laurendeau, Serge Grenier, Marcel Saint-Germain and André Dubois) and later with monologuistes like Clémence Desrochers, Marc Favreau (aka Sol) and especially Yvon Deschamps, humour in Québec between the “Quiet Revolution” of 1960 and the first referendum of 1980 was based on content and narrative with characters, such as Deschamps’s anonymous ouvrier blissfully ignorant of his own alienation, relating stories of their lives as colonized French Canadians not yet fully aware of their Québécois identity.13
Some critics have argued that the dejection that followed the negative result of the first referendum precipitated the end of political humour 14 and triggered a need for less engagé entertainment, thus favouring the re-birth of the vacuous one-liner.15 Whether or not this is the case, there is no doubt that by the early 1980s, when Thériault and Meunier decided to make “Ding et Dong” the core of their regular Monday evening live shows, “Les Lundis des Ha! Ha!,”16 at the downtown Montréal comedy club Club Soda, the public couldn’t get enough of their jokes. On any given Monday, a thousand people would have to be turned away from the 450-seat Club Soda.17 Within a few months, the duo had reached almost mythical proportions in Québec culture. While Ding and Dong, with their cow-skin jackets and ridiculous wigs, differ markedly from Deschamps’s sober (albeit very funny) working-class persona, their routine was not merely a return to traditional stand-up comedy. As a self-conscious parody of old-fashioned, campy comic duos from the 1950s, Ding and Dong presented their routine in quotation marks, as it were, with much of the humour emerging not only from the one-liners themselves but also from Ding and Dong’s own absurdity and ineptitude as comics. Audiences laughed most joyfully at Ding and Dong’s own response to their jokes. After an especially sharp “witticism” Dong would throw out a proud “Tiens-toi,” (Take that!) accompanied by ridiculous little dance steps, or would congratulate Ding on an especially funny comeback with “Est bonne, est bonne,” (Good one, good one) or “Est effreyante” (Scary funny) or “Terrib’, terrib'” (Terrific, terrific). Quickly, these lines took on a life of their own and started being repeated across the province. Every time someone would make a purposefully bad joke, “Tiens-toi” would be sure to follow. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence that Ding and Dong’s routine had on humour amongst young adults in 1980s Québec. As Paule des Rivières argues in Le Devoir (Montreal’s intellectual newspaper), humour in Québec was revolutionized by Meunier and Thériault, who single-handedly created a comic sub-genre that spawned hordes of imitators.18 Like Homer Simpson’s “doh!” Ding and Dong’s “Est effreyante” has little meaning and doesn’t seem particularly funny, but in its particular delivery has become part of the popular idiom. Not surprisingly, linguistic purists such as Diane Lamonde often cited Meunier’s use of language as an example of the deterioration of French in Québec.19
Meunier’s talent, however, is not limited to writing catchy phrases that have the ability to “contaminate” Québécois parlance. As Saia remarks, Meunier has an extraordinary gift for creating succinct metaphors that synthesize in the acute form of the one-liner often highly complex ideas, emotions and relationships.20 This is nowhere more evident than in a recurring skit that soon became the most popular part of “Lundis des Ha! Ha!”, “La p’tite vie.”21 The crux of the drama in this skit is Popa’s fixation on his “sac à vidanges,” his garbage bags, which he fills up with maniacal precision and protects with neurotic territoriality. By having Popa telling stupid jokes about garbage bags to his garbage bags before they must be sent to the dump,” Meunier exposes through a remarkably concise and evocative gag obsessive behaviours of separation anxiety, pathological attachments to objects, and anthropomorphic displacement of affection. Moman is equally obsessive and pathological in her interest in cooking turkey23 and her efforts to avoid conflicts with Popa at all cost, defusing his frantic anxiety and violent anger through non sequitur whenever his precious garbage bags are at risk.24
Meunier’s ability to put a hilarious spin on otherwise mundane dramatic situations brings to mind what Richard Dyer calls the “Utopian sensibility” of entertainment. Like all successful entertainment, “La P’tite vie” and other “Lundis des Ha! Ha!” skits had the capacity “to present either complex or unpleasant feelings (e.g. involvement in personal or political events; jealousy, loss of love, defeat) in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid, not ‘qualified’ or ‘ambiguous’ as day-to-day life makes them, and without intimations of selfdeception and pretence.”25 In the post-1980-referendum context, Meunier’s entertaining skits could easily be interpreted as an outlet for the spectators’ repressed feelings of loss, defeat and inadequacy, making them laugh at their own fear of losing their material possessions and desperate need to avoid confrontation.
At another level, Meunier’s comédie manipulations of seemingly ordinary comportments to reveal their underlying pathology, also recall the absurdist work of Eugène Ionesco. As J.L. Styan points out in his book on dark comedy, the power of lonesco’s theatre lies in his propensity for showing serious, familiar situations and disrupting them through excessive eccentricity.26 The “obsessive strategies”27 that Ionesco employs to disrupt a familiar situation and turn it into “théâtre de la dérision”28 are surprisingly similar to those used by Meunier. Ionesco, who sees the comic as “the intuition of the absurd,”29 has described what he wanted to achieve on stage in these terms:
to go all out for caricature and the grotesque, way beyond the pale irony of drawing-room comedies. No drawing-room comedies, but farce, the extreme exaggeration of parody. Humor, yes, but using methods of burlesque. Comic effects that are firm, broad and outrageous. No dramatic comedies either. But back to the unendurable. Everything raised to paroxysm, where the source of tragedy lies. A theatre of violence: violently comic, violently dramatic.30
Like Ionesco’s plays, “La p’tite vie” uses burlesque devices to caricature actions, situations and comportments to create broad, often verbally and physically violent distortions of everyday moments whose familiarity remains visible behind the veil of outrageous parody. Regardless of the social context of the 1980s, it could be argued, Meunier’s absurdist comedy, like Ionesco’s, triggers laughter through the radical incongruity between the frantically exaggerated behaviour of the characters and the all-too-ordinary circumstances that beset them.
In its television incarnation, “La p’tite vie” continued to explore through this absurdist lens the clash between circumstances and behaviours. Meunier had already tried his hand at writing for TV, having contributed to the children’s series La Fricassée in the 1970s and to the annual end-of-year satirical revue Bye Bye 19… in the early 1980s.” When he moved on to writing his own TV show in the early 1990s, he found a medium that was easily adaptable to the structure of his one-liner skits. The necessarily discontinuous organization of the sitcom formula (because of mandatory commercial breaks), the need for only a handful of principals combined with the possibility for endless visitations from a host of minor personages as weeks go by, the sense of “live event,” both in terms of a live studio audience and the currency of broadcast (all spectators watch the same episode at the same time throughout Québec, although the shows were not aired live), all these television-specific features meshed perfectly well with the preexisting composition of the “Lundis des Ha! Ha!” nightclub shows. Characters already present in the “p’tite vie” skits-Popa, Moman, the hysterical daughter, the cheating son-in-law-were straightforwardly transferred onto the small screen, and new roles were added.
Half a dozen characters form Popa and Moman’s immediate surroundings in La petite vie: Rod (Bernard Fortin), the self-centred older son; Thérèse (Diane Lavallée), the hypersensitive older daughter; her lying, cheating husband, RéJean (Marc Messier); the second daughter, Caro (Guylaine Tremblay), a dreamer and defender of lost causes; the greedy younger son Rénald (Marc Labrèche); and his superficial wife, Lison (José Deschesnes). A few other characters, like Popa’s best friend Pogo (Rémy Girard), the homosexual Jean-Lou (Michel Côté), and the stinky Frenchman Momo (Benoît Brière), also made regular appearances.32 Even from these cursory descriptions, it is clear that Meunier’s menagerie of buffoons are caricatures in the commedia dellarte tradition, which had a great influence on early French-Canadian burlesque.33 Each individual is dominated by a “humour,”34 be it greed, narcissism, lust or anger, and situations build up around these fixed attitudes. Each episode generally has two or three situations, which connect only in the most indirect way, the purpose being less to construct a multifaceted narrative than to create a space for characters to perform “numbers” according to their humour.
The structure of the sitcom, as mentioned before, proved ideal for Meunier’s brand of comedy. Episodes being divided into three segments separated by commercial breaks-a two-to-five-minute intro, a fifteen minute middle part, and a two-to-five minute conclusion-scenarios could easily be divided into short, almost self-contained skits, where plotlines are clearly subordinated to the frantic delivery of one-liners. The longer, middle part of each episode could itself be subdivided into smaller units, where characters engage in funny business that may or may not have any obvious relevance to the general story. However, Meunier also often introduces seemingly irrelevant material that eventually finds its way back into the narrative or even subsequent episodes for increased comédie effect.
“Le marriage du gai” (1995), whose narrative covers two episodes, is an excellent example of this structure. Here, Caro wants to help her gay friend JeanLou organize his wedding ceremony. Since gay couples cannot get married in the Church, Caro decides to hold the ceremony in Popa’s house without the latter’s permission. The episode begins in Moman and Popa’s bedroom, with the two protagonists standing up in their vertical bed. The vertical bed is a stage gim-
While the plot might be amusing in and of itself, comedy emerges primarily from the “numbers,” which have little connection to the story. For instance, early in the first episode, Thérèse and Réjean, who live upstairs from Popa and Moman,35 barge into the old couple’s house, the woman angry with her husband who now wears an improbable “lie-detector” watch that exposes his cheating and philandering. Every time Réjean lies about his most recent sexcapade, the watch buzzes. It even buzzes when he apologizes, or when he is merely thinking about lying. The only time the watch doesn’t buzz is when, in a moment of self-deprecation, Réjean refers to himself as a disgusting bastard. Thérèse also wears a “lie-detector” watch, which buzzes profusely when she swears she won’t be made a fool again and will leave Réjean. The scene lasts only a couple of minutes and has no immediate relation to the gay marriage story but contributes greatly to the frenzied hilarity of the episode through a rapid succession of one-line lies and noisy buzzes. The device reappears later in the narrative, when Réjean drops by again and convinces Ti-Me to exchange watches, so that Popa now wears the lie detector while the son-in-law puts on a regular watch. Freed from the lie detector, Réjean can tell the most outrageous and hilarious lies to Thérèse who, unaware of the switch, comes to believe that her husband only acted out of the goodness of his heart when he rescued a girl who had a flat tire on her rowboat. Incidentally, the watch gets the biggest laugh during this dialogue between Popa, Réjean and Thérèse when it fails to ring at one of Ti-Me’s obvious lies. Whether this was in the script or a mistake on the part of the sound-effect operator remains unclear. But in any event, the seemingly improvised exchange following the watch’s failure succeeds in showcasing the “liveness” of La petite vie and reasserts the correlation between the TV sitcom and the Club Soda performances.
Some of the subsequent lie-detector numbers are somewhat more directly related to the central theme of homophobia, but still function as self-contained skits. Interviewed by a lesbian reporter, Ti-Me manages to avoid being exposed as a homophobe by playing around with the question “do you like gay people,” turning it on its head, throwing it back at the reporter and using the word gay in its meaning as “happy.” Later, when Ti-Me finally gets a chance to work with his idol, Monsieur Bricole, the watch buzzes numerous times to reveal his homophobic sentiments. The most notable moment in this exchange is when Popa is asked by Bricole whether he would be interested in experimenting with the gay lifestyle. Popa “lies” by saying “yes” to humour his gay mentor, but the watch doesn’t ring, thus revealing that gay experiences would indeed appeal to him. This revelation of Ti-Me’s own homosexual desires implicitly refers back to the opening scene when the two male actors, Meunier and Thériault, were in bed indulging in post-coital banter. Elsewhere in the episode, when Jean-Lou describes some of the fantasies of some of his gay friends, he identifies having sex in a garbage bag as the sickest of the sick perversions, thus associating Popa and Moman with the most radical of sexual practices. This comes only seconds after Moman complains that she has masculine hips. Here Meunier makes a rather astute commentary on the true nature of homophobia, that is, the “fear” of that which is “similar.” Etymologically, homophobia is not the fear of homosexuals per se, but rather the phobia of homo, i.e. “one and the same.” Ti-Mé’s homophobia is thus perceptively revealed to be fear of his own sexuality.
The sort of gender-bending humour used in this episode, which at once exposes homophobia and capitalizes on it, since Michel Côté plays Jean-Lou as a stereotypically flamboyant queen, is certainly not exclusively Québécois. Nor are Réjean’s womanizing and constant lying, Thérèse’s naïve hysteria or Caro’s devotion to all that is eccentric uniquely French-Canadian. As such, there is something perhaps universal or perhaps commonplace about Meunier’s comédie writing.”‘ But certain aspects of Meunier’s work are undeniably culturally distinct. “Le marriage du gai” is filled with references to one of the best-known gay plays in Québec theatre, Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna (1973). For his wedding, Jean-Lou dresses up as Cleopatra, like Hosanna; the centre piece of the décor for the ceremony in Ti-Mé’s living room is a kitschy statue of David, which recalls the grotesque David at the centre of the small apartment that Hosanna shares with her boyfriend Cuirette; most importantly, Gilles Renaud, who plays the macho Monsieur Bricole, was the first actor to play the equally macho Cuirette in the original production of Hosanna.” Such references to the cultural icon that Michel Tremblay has become in Québec are sure not to go unnoticed.
The same is true of a brief appearance by Janette Bertrand at the end of the episode “Info Caro” (1994). An actress, author and television personality, Bertrand was the famous host of the talk show Parler pour parler from 1984 to 1994, which is lampooned in this episode of La petite vie. Here Caro is hosting a show which ridicules the kind of heart-to-heart conversations that Bertrand featured in Parler pour parler, and the title of Caro’s show, Bonsoir avec un gros B, makes fun of another Bertrand show, Avec un grand A. Having invited her entire family to appear as “strangers” talking about their personal problems around a dinner table (the formula of Parler pour parler), Caro extracts amusing confessions from her guests, including Thérèse’s revelation that she had a brief sexual encounter with a mysterious man in a Toyota Tercel. References to the Tercel will remain a running joke throughout the rest of the series, as Thérèse will bring up her affair on occasions to counter Réjean’s constant womanizing. The punch line of the episode, however, is when Janette Bertrand actually appears at the Paré house to prepare a special instalment of Parler pour parler on garbage bags. That Bertrand would agree to make a cameo in a sitcom that so blatantly mocks her attests to the status of La petite vie as a weekly national event in which even “big stars” want to participate. The Simpsons offers again an appropriate parallel, where celebrities agree to make fun of themselves for the sake of partaking in the legendary series.
“Info Caro” is also a good example of another culturally distinct aspect of Meunier’s writing: his use of language. Manipulations of language, or “linguistic terrorism” as David Bradby calls it in his analysis of lonesco’s dramaturgy,38 is common in absurdist theatre. But Meunier does not play with language only to expose its failure to achieve genuine communication, as Ionesco does.39 He uses it consciously to make a point about the role of language in Québec. As the new host of a talk show, Caro makes an effort to adopt a French-from-France mode of speaking. But her efforts only display her profound ineptitude. One of the many signs of linguistic competence in French-from-France is the appropriate use of liaisons. But while proper liaisons are unmistakable signs of education, improper liaisons are the clearest indication of ignorance failing to masquerade as high class. Caro’s opening lines to her new audience on her first evening on TV are: “Bonsoir. Bienvenue à Bonsoir avec un gros B…. Ce soir notre émission porte sur le couple. Ce célèbre duo presqu’aussi vieux qu’Adam t’et t’Eve. Mais malheureusement pas toujours aussi drôle que Ti-Gus et Ti-Mousse.” (Good evening. Welcome to “Good evening with a big B.” Tonight we are looking at the Couple. The famous duo, almost as old as Adam fand t’Eve. But unfortunately not always as funny as Ti-Gus and Ti-Mousse.) Shortly after, she begins her questions, addressing her father as though she didn’t know him: “Alors, on va-t-y aller avec vous monsieur Paré. Vous-là. Comment ça marche votre couple?” (So we’ll begin t’with you, Mr. Paré. How is your couple?) And she announces a commercial thus: “La-dessus, nous allons tous-t-aller-t’à-t’une pause publicitaire.” (On this, we (‘will t’all go to t’a commercial.) Through Caro’s constant insertion of inappropriate “t” liaisons in her speech, Meunier does not merely ridicule improper French, he also criticizes the bourgeois ambitions that this colonized linguistic attitude betrays. While shunning the explicit political humour of earlier comics like Deschamps, Meunier still comments on the colonized condition of French Canadians, satirizing those who blindly seek to imitate the colonizer.
Of course, if French-from-France is one half of the French Canadian’s schizophrenic colonized mind, the other half is anglophone power. The episode of La petite vie that holds the record for being the single most watched television show in Québec history, “Réjean reçoit,”40 exemplifies Meunier’s playful reflections on the French Canadian’s ambivalent relationship to English. As the title indicates, the episode revolves around Réjean, the ever-unemployed son-in-law who, in a hilarious symptom of self-alienation, always refers to himself and Popa in the third-person when they first encounter one another (“He will never guess what just happened to him!” is a common opening line for Réjean, when he barges in on his father-in-law). Here, Réjean hopes to make a quick buck by sucking up to his rich friend Gérard-Marie (Martin Drainville). To impress Gérard-Marie and his upper-class, anglophone wife “Darling” (Pierrette Robitaille), Réjean enlists Moman and Popa to play the role of his maid and butler. Much of the humour comes from Thérèse desperately trying to speak English with “Darling.” The punch line at the end of the episode is that Gérard-Marie is not rich and his wife is not an Anglophone; they are just broke French Canadians who were trying to suck up to Réjean who, they thought, was well off. While the situation itself is hardly original, the playful clash of languages and the characters’ absurdist subservience to Anglophone power, in the absence of any actual English-speaking character, exposes deeply felt angst in Quebec. Just the idea of English supremacy is enough to turn Meunier’s stereotypical Canadiens-français into servile lackeys. Meunier himself has observed that the absurd fixations of his characters are the result of displaced anxieties where fundamental fears are veiled behind ridiculous trepidation.41
Michèle Nevert, in her book-length analysis of the series, argues that Meunier’s use of language is the secret of La petite vie’s cultural significance. She singles out a line from Moman as the expression of La petite vie’s central point: “La langue c’est les entrailles d’un peuple.” (Language is the bowels of a people.)42 For Nevert, the characters’ humours and the situations that their inflexibility provokes remain secondary to the sometimes very complex play-on-words that they speak and which give them their identity. Filled with extremely Quebec-specific cultural references, crammed with Anglicisms, peppered with evidence of Quebec’s inferiority complex towards France, Meunier’s language is as deeply rooted in the French Canadian ethos as it is impossible to translate.43 Along with pseudo-French-from-France and pseudo-English, Meunier also packs his texts with wordplay that derives its humorous effects from the rich tapestry of cultural connotations attached to certain words and sounds. Nevert gives an excellent example of Meunier’s intricate use of language as a playful tool. In the episode “Le Cadran” (1994), the Paré family find themselves in court. The judge is addressed in a multitude of nicknames that display Meunier’s ability to shift meanings through an elaborate process of association. From “Votre Honneur” (Your honour), the nickname “Votre Odeur” (Your odour) seems rather facile. But the nickname is not only justified by the similarity in sound between “honneur” and “odeur.” It also emerges from the fact that there is indeed a bad odour in the court caused by the presence of Thérèse’s gold fish. This is all Meunier needs to start associating the judge with fish, calling her “Votre morue” (cod), “Votre petit poisson des chenaux” (tomcod), “Votre Ouananiche” (a type of salmon). Having effectively introduced an absurdist logic to nicknaming, Meunier moves further away from diegetic associations into a self-reflexive, inter-textual mode, capitalizing on the coincidence that the actress playing the judge, Jacqueline Barrette, had played the 1930s folk singer “La Bolduc” in a recent film44 to switch from fish names to terms that evoke the singer: “Votre Folklore,” “Votre damdililam”, “Votre turlute.”45 All of these are funny not only because of the ridiculous associations, but also because linking a judge to the stench of fish and the sexual connotations of such words as “turlute,” which is euphemism for oral sex,46 clearly leans towards a kind of carnivalesque subversion predicated on the polysémie potential of language.
Nevert is not the only critic to see Meunier’s use of language as the core of La petite vie’s phenomenal success on television. Hélène de Billy summarizes the position of most serious critics: “La magie et l’humour singulier de Claude Meunier-qui signe une comédie du verbe-se trouvent justement dans le texte.” (Meunier’s magic and peculiar humour, which is verbal comedy, is precisely located in the text.)47 Meunier used similar linguistic devices in Ding et Dong, le film. One of the most memorable scenes in the film shows Ding and Dong trying to break into the movie business by attempting to convince a Québec film producer that they are Hollywood moguls. As in “Réjean reçoit,” the use of pseudo English conveys the state of alienation of the two inept comics, whose absurd attempts at making it big are chronicled in the feature film. Obvious mistakes such as “Sorry, do you French,” “Shut up, you son of a switch,” and “I am the here,” pronounced with the thickest of accents, expose Ding and Dong’s exclusion from the discourse of power. Unable to speak the dominant language of the film industry, they can only land a job as Stuntmen for a car chase scene in a second-rate action movie. Of course, their ridiculous incompetence is not merely linguistic, as they also fail miserably at the strictly physical task of driving a car through the streets of Montréal. The scene with the producer followed by the catastrophic outcome of the duo’s brief career as Stuntmen, encapsulates the two types of humour of Ding et Dong, le film: broad slapstick performances and play on words, both staples of Ding and Dong’s nightclub act and later La petite vie.
The film functions as a genealogy, of sorts, of the “Lundis des Ha! Ha!” We see Ding and Dong’s humble beginnings: provoking a brawl in a seedy bar in the middle of nowhere because their jokes fail to amuse the crowd of bikers; stumbling over foreign names when they audition as anchormen; misguided improvisations when they appear as slaves in an Egyptian stage epic (in which the Pharaoh is played by Robert Lepage); their difficulties with the repo-man; we even see how their white jackets became their trademark cow-skin outfits with a few well-placed mud stains. Their fortune turns when a dying millionaire (Jean Lapointe) leaves them all of his money after their jokes provoke in him a few last chuckles. With their new wealth, they open a theatre, the Théâtre de la Nouvelle Tragédie, a temple of high culture, where there will be no room for jokes such as, “Why do Newfies go to the toilette with sand paper?” They hire a French director (Yves Jacques) to stage Corneille’s Le Cid, sycophants try to take advantage of them, and greedy agents attempt to turn the two friends against one another. The première of the French tragedy is a theatrical disaster because of growing rivalry between Ding and Dong and, of course, their general incompetence as actors. But while a few serious spectators (perhaps critics) walk out, the audience in general is delighted by the unintentional humour of their performance. This positive response encourages the duo to return to stand-up comedy. Their next show, coincidently, is a “La p’tite vie” skit, with Popa and Moman dressed as Egyptians standing up in their vertical bed.
The mirth of the diegetic audience amused by the closing “P’tite vie” sketch mirrored the laughter in the movie theatres, where Ding et Dong, le film enjoyed tremendous popular success. It was such a commercial hit, in fact, that it became the top grossing Canadian film of 1990-199148 without even having to make any money outside Québec. But while the public enjoyed the film as much as the ear lier nightclub acts and subsequent television series, the critics detested the big screen version. While Meunier’s writing for the “Lundis des Ha! Ha!” earned him the rare privilege of having an entire symposium devoted to his dramaturgy in 1990, at McGiIl University no less,49 and his work on La petite vie made him the main topic of a scholarly book,50 his efforts on film were almost universally disparaged, Ding et Dong finding its way at the top of more than one most-disappointing-movies-of-the-year lists.51 Maurice Elia, in his review for the film magazine Séquences, identifies several problems ranging from bad acting and flat lighting to incompetent directing and editing.52 But the main issue seems to be with the narrative construction of the feature, or lack thereof. The screenplay, which according to Elia should be taught to film students as an example of what not do to, doesn’t even have a plotline: “Ding et Dong passent d’une scène à l’autre sans même l’enchaînement propre aux films à sketches.” (Ding and Dong go from scene to scene without even the loose links common to sketch movies.)53 What works on stage does not necessarily work on film, argues Elia. In this case, the skit structure of “Lundis des Ha! Ha!” and the fragmented succession of humorous situations of La petite vie, which suit stand-up comedy and television, fail miserably within the ninety-minute composition of a narrative film.
While structural differences between nightclub acts and television, on the one hand, and feature film narratives on the other, might explain in part the critical failure of Ding et Dong, le film, one notices among critics a curious aversion towards the movie even prior to its release. Even before shooting began, Francine Grimaldi of La Presse complained about the title of the project.54 Serge Dussault expressed a certain irritation with the secrecy surrounding the production,55 and a couple of weeks before the première, on 7 December 1990, Huguette Roberge forewarned critics not to be too hard on Meunier and Thériault, who are thinskinned-“Avis aux critiques en passant, nos larrons ont la couenne mince!”thus condescendingly prejudging the film.56 In his negative critique of the movie, the day after the first screening, Dussault betrays what might have caused such negative anticipation:
Ding! ding! Qu’est-ce qu’ils n’ont pas dit, qu’est-ce qu’on n’a pas écrit depuis un mois sur Df ng et Dong, le film] Ils se passaient l’encensoir, faisaient sonner les cloches… Les cloches de Noël (Ding et Dong) feront peutêtre le tour du monde, par la magie du rire et du cinéma, Et ding! Et je te compare à Chaplin, ding! ding! Et aux Marx Brothers! Ding! Dong! … Ding, Dong, leur producteur, leur distributeur, [ont] orchestré la plus formidable campagne de publicité que nous ayons vue au cinéma québécois. Une publicité intelligente, habile. Qui culpabilise à l’avance ceux qui s’aviseraient de pas aimer Ding et Dong, le film… Alors, alors, Ding et Dong, le film?. … Rire aux larmes! Non. Pleuré, plutôt, devant l’indigence du scénario. Devant la banalité des farces. (Ding! Ding! They have said so much, written so much about Ding et Dong over the last month. Buttering up people, ringing bells… The Christmas bells (Ding and Dong) will conquer the world with their humour. They can be compared to Chaplin, Ding! Ding! And to the Marx Brothers! Ding! Dong! … Ding, Dong, their producer, their distributor orchestrated the most amazing marketing campaign in the history of Québec cinema. A skillful and intelligent campaign that is sure to make any detractor feel guilty… So what about Ding et Dong, le film! … Did it make me laugh? No. Rather it made me cry, because of its screenplay devoid of ideas and its banal jokes.)57
The annoyance with the hype around Ding and Dong’s appearance on the big screen, which expressed itself implicitly before the premiere, comes to the forefront once Ding et Dong proved to be less than what had been promised. In effect, it was almost impossible for Dussault to appreciate Ding et Dong precisely because the marketing campaign tried to force him to love it.
But beyond the structural flaws of a screenplay overly reliant on stage and television gimmicks that do not translate well into feature-length narratives, and the exasperating hype around the movie, what seems to be at the core of Ding et Dong’s failure is that cinema was interpreted as marking the limit of what the king of one-liners, Meunier, could do. And as such, the Le Cid sequence of Ding et Dong proved prophetic, showing how spectators would love the humour but how critics would resent the comedians’ attempt to climb the ladder of high culture. One does not need to analyze Pierre Bourdieu’s work58 in detail to understand that for certain critics the cultural status of film, still below legitimate theatre but certainly above television and comedy clubs, erects a boundary that Dong’s absurdist humour cannot trespass. According to Mario Roy, “Dans Le Film, et même si celui-ci n’était pas aussi mauvais qu’on l’a dit, Claude Meunier se cognait le nez sur les limites de sa brillante invention, sur les limites de l’Absurdede-Chez-Nous.” (In Le film, which was not as bad as people said, Meunier hit the limits of his brilliant creativity, he hit the limits of our homemade absurdism.)59 It is no coincidence that Roy refers to Meunier’s feature as “Le Film.” It stresses how absurd jokes in nightclubs might entertain drinking patrons, but within the realm of the cinema, one needs more. Of course, the public couldn’t care less about this distinction, but critics do. Regis Tremblay, commenting on the video release of Ding and Dong nightclub skits in 1992, matter-of-factly observes that after the critical failure of the feature, Meunier and Thériault retreated to the good old days of their stand-up success, “un repli stratégique vers la belle époque des Lundis des Ha ! Ha ! “60 as though this is where they really belong rather than on the big screen. Hélène de Billy also perceives Meunier’s post-Ding et Dong career as marking a return to what he does best:
La crise des 40 ans a pris toute sa signification pour lui lorsqu’il s’est retrouvé un beau matin, les bras ballants, “pas mal tanné”. Ding et Dong, le film venait de sortir. Et malgré son énorme succès, il n’était pas complètement satisfait des résultats (la critique non plus, d’ailleurs, qui s’était montrée féroce). Une petite voix également l’avertissait d’un danger, celui de se répéter. Un moment creux. […Il va] s’installer à la campagne dans la propriété qu’il a acquise il y a quelques années à Saint-Adolphe-d’Howard dans les Laurentides. Il s’y fait construire une dépendance (“On dirait une cabane à sucre.”), y met un bureau, une chaise, un ordinateur et entreprend ce dont il rêve depuis longtemps: bâtir un monde par l’écriture. C’est ainsi qu’allait véritablement naître La petite vie. (His mid-life crisis struck him when he found himself “pretty tired” after Ding et Dong’s release. In spite of the film’s commercial success, he was not fully satisfied with it [and neither were the critics, who were scathing]. A little voice also warned him against the dangers of repeating himself. It was a low time. He moved to his country house, had a small room built [“it looks like a sugar shack”], where he set up his office to create a space for writing. This is where La petite vie really came to life.)61
Not surprisingly, critics praised this return to Meunier’s origins after the fuss over Ding et Dong (Jocelyn Lapage refers to the film as a “nuisance” in Meunier and Thériault’s career). For instance, in a 1993 article, Daniel Lemay is quick to link La petite vie to the “grande époque de Ding et Dong aux Lundis des Ha! Ha!” but passes over in silence the unpleasantness of Le film.”2
The criticism that Meunier should stick to absurdist low-culture rather than try his hand at serious projects resurfaced in 2005, when his primetime series Detect Inc., produced for over one million dollars per episode, the most expensive show on Québec TV,63 and broadcast in letterbox like respectable American series such as Law and Order and ER, attracted biting criticism and failed to maintain high ratings. While a comedy, the series following the adventures of detectives Bob Marlow (Meunier) and James Bonin (Gilbert Sicotte) clearly had higher ambitions than the purposefully cheap looking Petite vie, but, again, critics refused to let Meunier cross this cultural boundary. In a scathing review, Sabin Desmeules explicitly states that while La petite vie succeeded because it followed the format of Ding and Dong’s nightclub act, the detective formula is simply beyond Meunier’s abilities:
la caricature qu’offraient pôpa, môman et la famille Paré aux téléspectateurs était un univers particulier que l’on connaissait depuis Les lundis des Haha! et, qu’en nostalgique, on acceptait, trouvant cela d’un absurde marrant. Du moins au début. Nous resservir un peu le même plat en faisant passer pôpa pour un détective, en changeant les décors par des lieux réels et en troquant les personnages qui nous étaient familiers par des équivalents est quelque peu ridicule…. Meunier n’a qu’un seul et même registre, que ce soit dans La petite vie, dans les publicités de Pepsi ou dans Detect. Inc. (As caricatures, Popa, Moman and the Paré family offered spectators a unique world that was known from “Les Lundis des Ha! Ha!” and which we found amusing, out of nostalgia, at least at the beginning. But turning Popa into a detective, putting him into realistic sets and trying to find equivalents for old familiar characters is ridiculous…. Meunier can do only one thing, either in La petite vie, his Pepsi commercials or Detect Inc.)64
Other critics similarly condemned the series for its pretentious aspirations and its failure to reconcile a serious subject matter-crime and corruption-with its juvenile humour.65 Quickly, the series was re-titled “Détest Inc.” and “Reject Inc.” by disappointed viewers.66 At the end of the first season, Meunier decided to give up on Detect Inc.67 As though Meunier was born for a “small life,” any attempt to make it big could only lead to critical failure.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Meunier named his most celebrated character Ti-Me Paré, “petite mais paré” (small but ready, small but dressed up). There is a long tradition of small but outgoing and flamboyant characters in Québec culture, starting with Gratien Gélinas’s famous cocky orphaned soldier, Tit-Coq (play 1948, film 1952). hot-tempered, loud and overconfident, both TitCoq and Ti-Mé are characters who won’t let anything drag them lower than they already are, but are also incapable of becoming anything more than little men. Just like his character, who fails to improve his circumstances, Gélinas failed to hit the big time with Tit-Coq on Broadway in 1951, where the play was swiftly dismissed.68 And like Ti-Mé, who must remain Popa and can’t become a detective, Meunier should be satisfied with writing about the small life and not take chances with million-dollar-per-episode, letter-boxed primetime epics. It is as little men that Gélinas and Meunier have appealed to the people of Québec; similarly Ti-Poil, René Lévesque, the diminutive father of the sovereigntist movement, remains the most revered public figure in modern Québec history in great part because he was a small man. As a small nation, Québec seems to like small heroes and is suspicious of big success. Separatist actor Luc Picard once wrote: “Ce n’est pas pour rien qu’on se sent petits chez nous, qu’on se méfie du succès comme d’un crime. Ce n’est pas pour rien…qu’on place des Ti devant le nom de nos héros (Ti-Guy, Ti-Poil, Ti-Zoune). Ce n’est pas pour rien qu’on parle avec des moitiés de phrase, qu’on est gênés d’exister.” (There is a reason why we feel small in our own land, why we are suspicious of success like it were a crime. There is a reason why we put “small” in front of our heroes’ names [TiGuy (Lafleur), Ti-Poil (Lévesque), Ti-Zoune (Olivier Guimond, a 1930s comedian)]. There is a reason why we speak in half sentences, why we are afraid to exist.)69 For Picard, Québec’s “Ti” complex would disappear with national independence. This remains to be seen. But it is doubtful that Meunier’s success could ever get any bigger than Ti-Me’s small life on the small screen.
1. Louise Cousineau, “La Petite Vie: congé d’un an,” La Presse, 8 April, 1995, A1.
2. There were two “reunion” specials after the series ended in 1998. An end-of-millennium special presented on 31 December, 1999, “Le bogue de l’an 2000,” and a Christmas special, “Le Noël des Paré,” in 2002.
3. Paule Des Rivières, “La vie en direct,” Le Devoir, 16 Feb. 1994, A1.
4. Chantal Hébert, “Claude Meunier: un nouveau burlesque,” in Claude Meunier, dramaturge, André Smith, ed. (Montréal: vlb éditeur, 1992), 29-46.
5. Roger Frappier, “Claude Meunier, le cinéma et moi,” in Claude Meunier, dramaturge, 110.
6. Bill Marshall, Québec National Cinema (Montréal and Kingston: McCill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 194.
7. Not surprisingly, the cover page of the special issue of the theatre magazine Jeu (no. 55, June 1990) devoted to humour on the Québec stage shows Ding and Dong grimacing stupidly at the camera. By 1990 Meunier and Thériault had come to symbolize Québec humour more vividly than any other artists.
8. Claude Meunier and Louis Saia, Les Voisins (Montréal: Leméac, 1982), 8.
9. André Smith, “Présentation,” in Claude Meunier, dramaturge, 9.
10. Louis Saia, “Écrire avec Claude Meunier,” in Claude Meunier, dramaturge, 15.
11. Gabrielle Pascal, “Serge Thériault: ma collaboration avec Claude Meunier,” in Claude Meunier, dramaturge, 21.
12. These are the titles of LP recordings of Ti-Gus and Ti-Mousse shows.
13. The term “Québécois” has generally been used in contrast to “French Canadian” since the 1960s to signify the emergence of a “modern” subject, politically aware of, and reacting against, the colonization and alienation of pre-Quiet Revolution French Canadians. While the “Québécois” is self-aware, the “French Canadian” is blissfully ignorant. In the rest of this paper, I will use “French Canadian” to evoke the lack of such awareness in Meunier’s characters. For a discussion of the distinction between “French Canadian” and “Québécois,” see, for instance, my commentaries on this issue in Le Cinéma de Michel Brault, à l’image d’une nation (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005), 111-115.
14. It is only relatively recently that political humour is said to have returned to the Quebec scene. See for instance, Jean Beaunoyer, “Enfin de l’humour cinglant!” La Presse, 12 Jan. 2002, D6.
15. Solange Lévesque, “Humour et rire: dis-moi de qui tu ris,” tes cahiers de theatre Jeu 55 (June 1990): 67.
16. “Lundis des Ha! Ha!” is a pun referring to A. A. meetings.
17. Pascal, 22.
18. des Rivières, A1.
19. Diane Lamonde, “Pour en finir avec le français sacrifié,” te Devoir, 12 June, 1997, A7.
20. Saia, 17.
21. While the television series is spelt “La petite vie,” the skit elides the “e” in “petite.” See Nevert, 37.
22. Claude Meunier and Pierre Filion, te monde de la petite vie (Montréal: Leméac, 1998), 13.
23. Michèle Nevert, La petite vie ou les entrailles d’un peuple (Montréal: XYZ éditeur, 2000), 37.
24. Pascal, 26.
25. Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 23.
26. J.L. Styan, The Dark Comedy: The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 232-33.
27. Ram Sewak Singh, Absurd Drama: 1945-1965 (Delhi: Hariyana Prakashan, 1973), 134.
28. Ionesco quoted in Marvin Carleson, Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present, Expanded Edition (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), 412.
29. Ionesco quoted in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969), 158.
30. Ionesco quoted in James Knowlson, “Tradition and Innovation in lonesco’s to Cantatrice chauve,” in Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 63-64.
31. Smith, 10.
32. Meunier, Pillion, 188.
33. Hébert, 31.
34. Here, I use the term “Humour” as Ben Jonson understood it in plays like Every Man in His Humour (1598). see Peter Thomson, “Comedy of Humours,” in The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 222. Thomson makes the point that television situation comedies continue to employ the basic principles of “humours”.
35. This situation is reminiscent of La petite semaine, a 1970s sitcom that revolved in great part around the tensions between a middle-aged couple and their son-in-law living upstairs with their daughter. A sort of French Canadian All in the Family, La petite semaine clearly belongs in the genealogy of La petite vie. Another well-known 1960s70s “téléroman” that belongs in the genealogy of La petite vie is Rue des pignons, although in this case the connection is not made obvious through similar titles and situations but through similar opening scores: a lively and nostalgically kitschy piano tune.
36. Nevert, 20.
37. Michel Tremblay, Hosanna-La Duchesse de Langeais (Montréal: Leméac, 1984), 9-11.
38. David Bradby, Modern French Drama, 1940-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 74.
39. Esslin, 160.
40. Cousineau, La petite vie, A1.
41. Jocelyne Lepage, “Ding et Dong: après le film, la télé et l’angoisse existentielle,” La Presse, 29 Feb. 1992, E14.
42. Nevert, 194.
43. Nevert, 197.
44. Madame La Bolduc. Dir. Isabelle-Monique Turcotte, 1992.
45. Nevert, 185-186.
46. See for instance, Harrap’s Shorter Dictionary-English-French/French-English (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishing, 2000), 955.
47. Hélène De Billy, “Petite vie grand Meunier,” LActualité 20.5 (1 Apr. 1995): 70.
48. The film won the 1991 Golden Reel Award. See the Genie’s website: http://www.genieawards.ca/genie25/pressgoldenreel.cfm
51. Serge Dussault, Huguette Roberge and Luc Perreault. “Les dix meilleurs films qu’ils ont vus cette année,” La Presse, 28 Dec 1991, D10.
52. Maurice Elia, “Ding et Dong, le film,” Séquences 151 (March 1991): 57-58.
53. Elia, 57.
54. Francine Grimaldi, “Ding et Dong: le Film,” La Presse, 18 Apr. 1990, E1.
55. Serge Dussault, “Alain Chartrand, un cinéaste occupé: Ding et Dong, Michel Chartrand, Le Survenant,” La Presse, 21 July 1990, D13.
56. Huguette Roberge, “Ding et Dong, le film : un ‘Rocky culturel’ qui s’adresse aux 12-112 ans,” La Presse, 24 Nov. 1990, C1.
57. Dussault, Serge. “Ding et Dong, le film : un autre son de cloche,” La Presse 8 Dec. 1990, p. C8.
58. Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction, critique sociale du jugement. (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979), 14-17, 34-35, 130-131.
59. Mario Roy, “Les nerfs, les nerfs,” La Presse, 26 July 1992, Cl.
60. Régis Tremblay, “Regard sur l’adoption internationale,” Le Soleil, 16 Oct. 1992, C2.
61. de Billy, 70.
62. Daniel Lemay, “Quelle famille!” La Presse 9 Oct. 1993, E1.
63. Hugo Dumas, “Pas un énorme succès pour l’émission d’Isabelle Boulay,” La Presse, 5 Jan. 2005, Actualité-4.
64. Sabin Desmeules, “Des nouveautés pour passer à travers l’hiver,” LAcadie Nouvelle, 8 Jan. 2005, 5.
65. Louise Cousineau, “Détect Inc.” La Presse, 2 Feb. 2005, Arts/Spectacles 2.
66. See Pierre Foglia, “Les artistes,” La Presse, 1 Feb. 2005, A5, and Philippe Letendre, “Carrefour des lecteurs: Reject Inc.” te Soleil, 10 Jan. 2005, A13.
67. Richard Therrien, “Claude Meunier met un terme au projet de Detect Inc.” te Soleil, 11 Mar. 2005, B4.
68. André Loiselle, Stage-Bound: Feature Film Adaptations of Canadian and Québécois Drama (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2003), 66.
69. Pascale Navarro, “Je me souverain,” Voir 9.44 (28 Sept. 1995): 32.
ANDRÉ LOISELLE teaches film studies at Carleton University. He is the author of Le Cinema de Michel Brault : À l’image d’une nation (2005) and Stage-Bound: Feature Film Adaptations of Canadian and Québécois Drama (2003). His next book project looks at film adaptations of horror plays.
Copyright Film Studies Association of Canada Spring 2006
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