Interview: André-Philippe Gagnon

andre gagnon

Like so many successful performers, Andre-Phillipe Gagnon started entertaining early. His first imitations entertained family and friends and helped keep the bullies at bay and by highschool he had a routine and an idea of what to do with his life. In the mid and late ‘80’s he struck a chord with audiences with his performance of all the voices in “We Are the World.” It catapulted him onto the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and of course, the rest is history. Over the decades, he’s performed in Europe and throughout North America, and most notably it was his appearances in Las Vegas that established him as major star. He’s currently touring “the History of Rock, to sold out rooms and critical accolades, and it’s no wonder. He exudes funny. One of the most entertaining interviews of my career, Monsieur Gagnon treated me to a few impersonations while we spoke….

Mb: Hello Andre!
Andre: Hello Michael! Sorry I’m late. Is it still possible to do this today?
Mb: Absolutely. So how’s your day going so far?
Andre: Good, good! Excellent! I’m getting ready for this weekend’s performance in a comedy festival. I went to the festival in Quebec City also, to see some friends perform, because I was in France in January and February to perform in Paris, Brussels and a little tour there, and those friends and comedians are now in Quebec to perform. So, I just drop by to say “Hi” and watch them entertaining the people in Quebec City. Also, I’m getting ready for this fall with a nice project in the West part of Canada and also going back to Belgium and preparing a new production here for the Quebec market, which will also become at the same time, the new production we’ll present in Toronto and then across Canada. That will be fun, because right now it’s the show I’m presenting that I really like. It’s the History of Rock Music with lots of pop songs too. Chronologically we go from Bill Haley and the Comets, to Black Eyed Peas and Ed Sheeran. Actually we do The Shape of You with the audience. I ask them to participate because that’s what he does when he does his songs. We do all those great vocalists from the past. We start from the 60’s with the Platters, Elvis, The Beatles, Ray Charles… to the Woodstock era and then the folk singers with Elton John, Cat Stevens, James Taylor and then we go into the disco era with Barry White, the Bee Gees and the 80’s when there was so many different kinds of vocalists. Guns and Roses, Boy George, Men at Work and then more recent stuff with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, REM… it’s a fast passed show but it’s all those singers who have produced those musical memories… Other than that, how are you doing Michael? (laughs)
Mb: Well, I have questions! For example, did you want to be a singer before you became an impersonator?
Andre: No, because I was a very shy kid and I never thought to sing in front of people, singing songs like “I Love You” and stuff like that. (laughs) That’s why I borrowed other singer’s voices. It was fun. I enjoyed singing when I was a kid… but I discovered at some point that, singing with someone else’s voice was a form of humour. I thought “Woe that’s neat!” Mostly when my older brother… when I started doing my impression of Tweety Bird in English, without really knowing what I was saying then because I was 7 or 8, and he was like “Mom, Andre does Tweety Bird.” I thought “Woe, if he really acts like that, instead of punching me really hard, I must really be on to something!” (laughs) So I tried it in front of my close friends and then they react really well. After hockey games or in school the clown of the class would commit himself and then my friends would go “Hey Andre can do this and that…” and I would become purple and red and then I would do my stuff and the guys would laugh. “Oh, they’re not laughing at me they are laughing at my stuff” you know? So that was a way to make friends and avoid bullies… the girls were not too hot on comedians though. (laughs) The first real girl said “I need a guy who can make me laugh” but when you’re a teenager the girls don’t want a funny guy. They want the somber idiot who doesn’t say a word! (laughs) They don’t go for the impressionist, trust me! So, that really helped me to overcome my shyness and look at me now!
Mb: Tell me about doing the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?
Andre: Oh my God. I have something funny to tell you. First I did the Just For Laughs festival, in French, in Montreal. That’s 1985. I did my impression of We Are the World. They decided that I do the English segment as well. Good exposure. To make sure I’d be in the newspapers the next day, the journalists had to do their articles by 10 o’clock, so they made me close the first part of the show, and I happened to go right after Jay Leno. I was like “Arg. Thank you very much” for my first shows in English, I go after Mr Jay Leno, who’s guest hosting the Tonight Show, who’s so popular. But, it went really well. Standing ovation, blah blah blah… Then Jay Leno said “Send in your VHS cassette. The people in Burbank at NBC, I’m sure that they’ll do something about it.” He was really enthusiastic. So I asked my manager back then, “Could you do that, and we’ll see?” We had an invitation a couple of weeks later for the Tonight Show, but the thing I’ve learned recently, that the guy called first time, “Is he available on the 11th?” We had something on the 11th and they wouldn’t agree to postpone… and so my agent refused the first invitation, and you just don’t do that! If I can speak to you on the phone today, it’s because, I learned that, not too long ago, because otherwise I’d be in jail right now because I would have committed something serious with that agent. (laughs) But they called back “Is he available on the 15th?” “Yes he’s available.” I was so… but I ended up on the Tonight Show. I do my rehearsal and everything, and I’m so nervous. I go back to my dressing room and Johnny Carson comes and he said “How do you feel now? Just go out there and have fun.” I was petrified. Just before I started my number, the stage manager told me “When you’re finished we’ll wave you like this. It means you disappear behind the curtain and then you’re not on camera any more.” Trust me I will disappear I was so nervous. So I do my number and people are reacting really well and they waved me aside. “That’s not suppose to ..” and then I looked and Johnny Carson was inviting me and I’m thinking “I’m going to ruin everything I just did!” You can hear me. I have this little French accent and my vocabulary, back in ’85, was just to have a conversation with someone, but not the king of comedy Johnny Carson! But he took over “Dynamite piece of material. How do you do it?” “I just look less nervous!” (laughs) Then Ed McMahon and Carl Reiner are like “They’re going to eat you alive in Vegas!” I was like “OK, is that good thing? Maybe we won’t tour there first!” (laughs) But it was like the lottery, the blessing of Johnny Carson. I was able to do the Olympics in Calgary in ’88, then the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto and then that gave me the pass to do shows across Canada. The following summer we had a big tour in Quebec and then we said, “Let’s take a vacation.” We went to Los Angeles, to the Comedy Store and we saw there were Friday nights, open nights, so I asked my son to send some cassettes and we decided to do a little number. So right there, after that, they said “Do you want to do 3 weeks in Vegas? I have a Comedy Store in Vegas…” So we ended up working our vacation with 3 weeks in Vegas, and that’s how I started doing shows in Las Vegas… at The Dunes. Back then Jay Leno was opening for Diana Ross, Frank was still at Caesars and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis were in front of the Dunes at The Bally. You could cross the strip back then without looking left and right. It was a different era, trust me… (laughs) But, that’s what I’m going to do. Bring back some great memories in the show in Peterborough. Like you did this morning, bringing back Johnny Carson. Great memories. It feels like it’s just a couple of years ago and my God it’s over 30 years ago. But, I’ve had a great time and the ride is still on!

Andre-Philippe Gagnon performs at Showplace Thursday September 12.