The Just For Laughs Experience
This last weekend the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montréal concluded. To fill its three week calendar of events, the festival recruits comedians, performers, and filmmakers from around the world in an invite-only format. While I'm sure there is a lot of lobbying done by publicists and managers for their clients, the independent spirit of the festival holds true as there are plenty of stages and showcases for homegrown talent as well as unsigned acts.Several blocks of downtown Montréal are shut down for pedestrian-only access to food and drink vendors, games for kids, and several open air stages for music, comedy, and DJ performances. These outdoor attractions start up around lunchtime and continue until after midnight. In addition to a full calendar of comedy film screenings, daytime hours also include comedy-industry seminars and panels for everyone from comedy club owners to broadcast TV showrunners (I attended a panel where Emmy winner Steve Levitan was a panelist discussing what it's like to run "Modern Family" on ABC).
The late afternoons are when the stand-up shows start running, mostly around 4 or 4:30pm, and they continue non-stop at almost 20 venues until 2am. Yes, there's a lot of comedy to go see in Los Angeles, and for the average comedy fan, LA is a great place to see comedy. But being able to walk to a venue of your choice to see anyone from classic stand-up man Bobby Slayton, to TV's Craig Ferguson, to Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Maria Bamford, and Reggie Watts can only happen at Just For Laughs.
Speaking of Marc Maron: the longtime comedian and favorite subject of ours was picked to deliver a keynote address that was funny, touching, and told the story of art, comedy, friendship, and the very process of life itself - truly standing-ovation material. Listen to the speech in its entirety on the WTFpod here or read the transcript, a truly moving speech that brought many people to tears, including Maron himself.
It amazes me that a city like Los Angeles hasn't come up with a similar kind of celebration. With the kind of industry concentration available it would seem like a no-brainer, but perhaps it's this distance from the industry that makes Just For Laughs so enjoyable. Who hasn't been at a Melrose Improv show and noticed a wall of industry-type folks impassively watching a performance? Yours truly has been mistaken for an agent, producer, manager, and "CSI" regular at just one show at the Melrose Improv a few months back, just because I was wearing a sports coat.
To be sure, the audiences at Just For Laughs probably include a few industry and media people, but there was just a handful of us at any show - the vast majority are Montréal residents [Hint: score major points by pronouncing it "Munt-ree-all"] who were there to see performers from the US, England, France, Australia, and New Zealand, just to name a few countries, as well as from all across Canada, of course. The performers appreciated the local audience, and many told me that they didn't feel any of the pressure that a New York or Los Angeles show puts on them - they felt more relaxed and felt their acts were better for it.
So what's it like to be at a comedy festival for 3 weeks? Since I was only there for 3 days I can't tell you, but next year I'll be there for more than a week. The people working the show had settled into a happy rhythm, but 3 weeks of something as intense as this festival was definitely being felt by the organizers who still managed to soldier on with smiles on their faces.
At the taping of Showtime's "The Green Room With Paul Provenza" at Just For Laughs, Montréal
Highlights of my 3 days were: Bill Burr, Robert Kelly, and Joe DeRosa performing "CHEAT Live" at a bondage/fetish club; Reggie Watts destroying a room with and hour and a half of his music and humor; 2 alternative comedy shows hosted by Andy Kindler featuring lineups that included Brian Posehn, Marc Maron, Maria Bamford, Brody Stevens, Paul F. Tompkins, and John Mulaney; and a taping of "The Green Room With Paul Provenza" whose panel included Bill Burr, Colin Quinn, Lizz Winstead, and the enigmatic/legendary Tony Clifton in the audience, who was so disruptive that he physically had to be removed by security, almost shutting the taping down . Go see any of those people any time they perform; they were unbelievable.I will have supplementary interviews with Robert Kelly, Joe DeRosa, a write up of "The Green Room" taping, and more coming from the festival. Next year is the 30th anniversary of Just For Laughs, and the organizers told me that next year they are pulling out all the stops. If you are a fan of comedy and can figure out how to swing the trip, you will not be disappointed.