Impressionist André-Philippe Gagnon keeps it current
When compiling a list of comedians whose careers were made from an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, you come across the same names from every source: David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Roseanne Barr, Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Maher, Steven Wright, Drew Carey, Freddie Prinze. The list goes on, but one name you never hear is Quebec impressionist André-Philippe Gagnon. You should, though.
In 1985, Gagnon did his famous “We Are the World” tribute, impersonating every singer, male and female, in that star-studded charity song, at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival. Jay Leno, a Carson favourite, happened to be there and suggested Gagnon send a tape to the Tonight Show. He did, and the rest is history, even if it’s not as well-known.
The audience was wowed by his performance. Impressionists weren’t new, but Gagnon’s quick-hitting musical voices were. He got the coveted call to the couch from Carson.
“There was a little pressure there,” he recalls from his home just outside Montreal. “To sit beside him was so intimidating I was very scared I would screw everything up. I was thinking, ‘Oh, no, now I’m going to spoil everything with my bad English, trying to ad lib with the king of comedy.’ But he took over and made me look good. He was such a class act. He really launched my career.”
After that one spot, offers started pouring in from all over the world. The only problem was that seven minutes was the extent of his act. But he and his writing partner put together a full show in four months and wound up selling 20,000 tickets for his first long-run theatre gig in Montreal. And that was in an era before the Internet, when you had to stand in line for tickets.
He’s been going strong ever since, making a conscious effort to keep his act current. Sure, you’re going to get the old standbys like Sinatra, Elvis, and Satchmo, but Gagnon has added groups like the Black Eyed Peas, Maroon 5, Gnarls Barkley, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Guns N’ Roses to his repertoire, along with such random voices as Tracy Chapman, Susan Boyle, and Gino Vannelli.
Not only that, but he also does an on-the-spot impression of an audience member. “We do a duet, so people can judge if I’m accurate or not,” he says. “I have 15 seconds from the time I hear him sing a little bit.”
Other impersonators will occasionally throw in a song, so why doesn’t Gagnon occasionally throw in a talking impression? The answer is simple. Gagnon still has a strong French accent that he can’t shake.
“I’m not sure about doing Al Pacino as a little Quebecker,” he laughs. “But maybe it would be fun to have Don Cherry with a Quebec accent. It would be surreal. Maybe one day. But when I sing, this accent disappears.”
It’s interesting that he and Rich Little, long considered the premier impressionist of all time, are both Canadian. Since we can’t chalk it up to a neutral accent, we’ll just have to leave it at coincidence. Gagnon, growing up in Quebec, didn’t even watch Little as a kid, but they have since met in Las Vegas, Little’s home base, and a mutual admiration society has been formed. Can you impersonate an impersonator? Gagnon hopes to try.
“Even though he’s in his 70s, he still feels like a teenager when he’s performing on-stage. And that’s pretty much how I feel myself,” he says. “I just hope I’ll imitate him for his longevity.”
André-Philippe Gagnon brings his One Man Hit Parade show to the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Thursday (November 8).