The organizers of the Just for Laughs Festival call their fest the top comedy event on the block, and the mammoth comedy bash has the stats to back up the boast.

The Montreal event has grown rapidly since its inception in 1983, with its attendance topping 600,000 during last year’s 10th anniversary edition, and organizers expect to match that figure this month.

The festival, which began July 22 and runs to Aug. 1 at various venues around Montreal, has booked more than 200 comics from 16 countries for the 11th edition , and the eclectic lineup features everyone from John Candy to very-hot British stand-up star Eddie Izzard.

Just for Laughs has TV deals for broadcast of festival fare in 30 countries, including on English and French CBC in Canada, Showtime in the U.S., France 2 and Channel 4 in England.

But it isn’t only the Just for Laughs organizers who call the fest one of the world’s premiere comedy happenings. There are industryites everywhere from Los Angeles to London who would agree with the assessment that this annual bilingual laugh fest is the “Cannes of Comedy.”

“It’s the best organized venture of that sort anywhere in the world,” says veteran L.A.-based manager Char-les Joffe, who will be making his annual trek to Montreal for the festival.

Joffe, who will be giving a talk during the festival on the manager-client relationship, uses Just for Laughs to renew contact with colleagues and to check out up-and-coming comedy acts. “To managers, it’s a chance to meet a lot of talent.” says Joffe. “For talent, it’s a chance to meet managers and other performers.”

Just for Laughs has launched its share of new comedy stars in recent years, most notably “Home Improvement’s” Tim Allen, who made a major splash at the fest in 1990.

“There’s a sense of discovery that you get here that you don’t get anywhere else,” says festival topper Andy Nulman.

Talent scouts from the American networks and most of the Hollywood studios will be attending the fest. David Letterman executive producer Robert Morton has been coming to the festival for years and he says it has now become the key annual meeting place for comedy professionals from across North America.

The programming is built around a series of star-studded galas at the St. Denis Theatre. Gala hosts this year include John Candy, who returns to the fest to host the Showtime galas July 31 and Aug. 1. These will be taped for broadcast on the cable web.

“Seinfeld” star Michael Richards, who portrays “Kramer” on the popular NBC sitcom, and comic Louie Anderson will also be hosting galas, today and July 30, respectively.

There will be a “New British Invasion” gala July 29 with host Paul Merton.

Comic legend George Burns, 97, will perform at Place des Arts Aug. 1, and will also be inducted into the brand-new Humor Hall of Fame, part of the just-opened International Museum of Humor.

As always, there will be plenty of cutting-edge fare in smaller theaters and clubs around town. Britain’s Eddie Izzard, who has been described as that country’s answer to Robin Williams, will be performing a one-man show at the Gesu Theatre July 26-31.

Attendance is boosted by the large number of free, outdoor shows held in the area around St. Denis Street in downtown Montreal, and these shows tend to showcase up-and-coming comic talent, often from far-flung markets. With streets closed for the outdoor comedy performances, the festival establishes a real presence in the downtown core.

French-lingo comedy is in the focus of Juste Pour Rire, the French side of the fest, and one of the franco highlights this year was the Forum concert featuring French comic-singer Charles Trenet.

The French line-up relies heavily on local comedy stars like Daniel Lemire and Marie-Lise Pilote, who both host franco galas this year.

Festival founder Gilbert Rozon — who heads the Groupe Rozon, the multimedia firm that runs the festival and a host of related comedy ventures — argues that the bilingual mix at the festival is what gives the event a truly international flavor.

There will be three guest speakers this year at the fest: CBC-TV programming topper Ivan Fecan will talk about the Canadian-American comedy connection July 30, “Late Show with David Letterman” producer Robert Morton will discuss that show July 31 and Charles Joffe will talk about the client-manager relationship Aug. 1.

The festival will also be paying tribute to renowned animator Tex Avery, one of the creators of Bugs Bunny, with a retrospective at the Cinema de Paris titled “Tex Avery’s Ten Funniest.”

There also will be a film series at the Cinematheque Quebecoise devoted to Laurel & Hardy films.

This year’s fest is budgeted at $ C5.9 million, with 40% of the revenue coming from private sponsors, 22% from ticket and merchandise sales, 21% from TV sales and 17% from government grants.

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