Just For Laughs, the comedy festival that takes place every July in Montreal, is awesome. Here’s why:
Montreal. There’s hockey. There’s poutine. There’s comedy. Nestled in between Mont-Royal the “mountain” for which the city was named, and the Saint Lawrence River, the MTL is the prefect size and charming mix of Canadian exoticism to host the biggest comedy festival of the year. They also speak French, which is made fun of repeatedly as is the fact that Montreal is located in Canada. It’s a gorgeous city, and unless you actually follow through with that idea you had to one day hop boxcars across Canada, you’re probably never going to have a better reason to stop by the jewel of Quebec.
Because Just For Laughs takes place in a relatively concentrated area of Montreal, and because there are SO MANY comedians there, the entire festival feels like a week-long comedy fantasy camp. They’re everywhere. Andy Kindler is in the elevator. Paul Provenza is in the food court. Marc Maron is sorting out something on his phone on the sidewalk. It’s feels like another world.
Most music festivals are simply branded with their names. Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza. The power of those recognizable monikers is all they need. At Just For Laughs there’s a certain aesthetic present, red and green and led by Victor, the horned, smiling JFL mascot who is present in a variety of incarnations, from a building-sized inflatable presence lording over the proceedings, to a life-size statue fans can pose with, to plush toys for sale in the gift shop. It’s very international and Olympic-y.
Only in a French-speaking city could a standard, relatively small comedy club be given a name as haughty as the Theatré Sainte-Catherine. The venue was only one of many of varying shapes and sizes hosting comedy events during Just For Laughs. There were dingy spaces, there were small theaters, there were large theaters, there were old school night clubs with tables and chairs, there was a huge, nearly arena-sized theater in the Place Des Arts where the JFL TV specials were taped. Just as with the comedians, the venues encompassed the full spectrum of how to experience comedy, and they were all within walking distance of one another.
As far as artistic disciplines go, comedy has always kind of been an underdog, and it’s rare for even the most respected stand-ups to truly break into the mainstream. There’s a solidarity amongst those who have been grinding it out comedy clubs for years, and now that the Twitter, podcasts, YouTube and the Internet in general have propelled comedy to new heights, the veterans are those that the comedy world turns to for guidance in how to navigate the modern era of making people laugh. Every year at Just For Laughs, a comedian gives a keynote address and Andy Kindler (above) gives his own annual speech on the state of comedy. This year’s keynote was given by Jim Norton. It was incredible.
Over 230 comedians performed at this year’s Just For Laughs and you probably haven’t heard of most of them. The festival offers several showcases of up-and-coming talent looking for representation, to make connections, or just catch the ear of as many people as possible. Part of how many of the most well-respected comedians in the game today got their start was by auditioning to be a newcomer at Just For Laughs, and for someone just starting out, unsure of if they’ve got what it takes, getting the nod from the JFL committee is an important seal of approval.
Montreal is a really weird food city, but a good weird. Poutine—the base elements of which are french fries, cheese curds and gravy—is the hallmark, but the city is also known for its paté, bagels and smoked meats. Several locals even started talking shit to me about “that stuff you call pastrami” in New York. I went to the iconic Schwartz’s deli (above) to try it out and it was god damn delicious. Don’t know if I can hand it the title belt just yet, but it’s close.
Just as JFL is a showcase for up-and-coming comedians, it’s also a celebration of the well-established. Bill Burr, Andy Samberg, Jim Gaffigan and plenty of others all hosted galas, while you could catch the likes of Mike Birbiglia, Jim Norton, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Pete Holmes and more giving extended performances. There were also a few comedy legends like Don Rickles in Montreal for the fest, who at 88 is just as hilarious and quick-witted as ever.
A dishonorable mention as far as legends go must be awarded to Chevy Chase, however, who was not funny, couldn’t improvise and looked like he’d rather be stuck in traffic the entire time. I stopped in to see him because I was curious and ended up leaving after 10 minutes. To give you an idea of just how flat his performance was, below is a conversation I had with a customs agent on my way back into the States. (In case you haven’t flown internationally before, customs agents might be the most stoic, least chatty people on the planet.)
Customs guys: Were you in Canada for business or leisure?
Customs guy: What do you do?
Me: I’m a journalist.
Customs guy: Were you here for Just For Laughs?
Customs guy: Did you see Chevy Chase?
Me: Yes, for a little bit.
Customs guy: Wasn’t he just awful?
There you have it.
The JFL awards are unconventional in that there are no nominees. The winners just sit on stage throughout the show waiting to be introduced by someone they have chosen before giving a short speech. This year Bill Burr won Stand-Up Comedian of the Year, Nathan Fielder won Comedy Breakout of the Year, Michael Schurr won Best Comedy Writer for his work on Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg won Comedy Directors of the Year and Andy Samberg won Comedy Person of the Year. The no nominees aspect just feeds into the community of the festival. It’s not a competition, it’s a celebration.
Unlike the watered-down music and film festival schedules, fests that are strictly comedy-based are few and far between, which makes something like Just For Laughs all the more significant. It is comprehensive in its coverage of the comedy world, from the up-and-comers to octogenarian legends, from thoughtful keynote speeches to dick humor, from improv to stand-up to short film to TV, it really and truly has everything. The sense of community amongst the attending comedians is palpable. They all come out to see their friends perform, they support one another and that spirit rubs off on every one in attendance. It’s a consummate celebration of comedy, and as JFL proved, comedians sure do know how to celebrate.