Montreal's fest moving away from p'gramming built around short standup sets

A year short of its 25th birthday, Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival is getting some real competition. The Aspen fest is growing, and new comedy festivals in Miami and Las Vegas are elbowing their way into the limelight.

But for many in the comedy biz, Montreal is still the most important festival of the year.

“It’s just the greatest cross section of comics ever put together” says Bob Huber, VP of casting for the Fox network. “From a casting point of view, Montreal is the most important comedy festival I cover.”

As the longest-running of the major comedy fests, Montreal strikes a unique balance between consumers and the industry.

The Las Vegas Comedy Festival, an offshoot of Aspen, is aimed at the general public and spotlights established headliners. It’s not a place to discover talent. Likewise the upstart Miami fest, with its backing from Comedy Central, is very consumer oriented, though some reps confess that they’re happy for a reason to visit Miami in January.

Aspen’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, on the other hand, is smaller and more industry-oriented than Montreal, with a larger showbiz contingent. Bizzers make for notoriously dead auds for comics, so for those scouting talent, it comes down to taste: Do you prefer hearing the reaction of “real people,” or do you trust yourself to know what’s funny, even if the aud is too busy talking on their cell phones to actually laugh?

Bruce Hills, chief operating officer of Just for Laughs, points to such talents as Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy as examples of comics who had big followings long before they came to Hollywood’s attention. “I think it’s important to see talent in front of regular people,” he says.

Montreal, on the other hand, has a busier party scene than Aspen, and for many bizzers, Just for Laughs can turn into a long, well-lubricated shmoozefest. For others, that’s a reason to skip it.

“If you’re jumping from cab to cab to cab to see show after show after show instead of going to the parties, you’ve given yourself a great learning experience about who’s out there at all different levels,” Huber notes.

That’s a big attraction for reps. CAA’s Nick Nuciforo, for example, is one of many agents who wouldn’t miss Just for Laughs. He says that because of Montreal’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, “comedians from other countries such as Europe, Australia and New Zealand can connect to the international audience better than in the U.S., where their act may not translate 100%.”

Be it due to competish or just the need to accommodate a changing comic marketplace, however, Just for Laughs is moving away from programming built exclusively around short standup sets.

Hills says that fest founder Gilbert Rozon has long pushed for a series to showcase longform comic material.

“For a long time we didn’t have a showcase for the solo shows, because we were all about the smorgasbord. But that shortchanged people who didn’t belong in seven (to) 10 minutes.” The new “Flying Solo” series kicks off this year with seven shows, including “The Daily Show’s” Demetri Martin, Edinburgh fest Perrier Award winner Tim Minchin and Stewart Lee, creator of “Jerry Springer — The Opera.”

New Faces is where most of the biz goes to find the next breakout comedy star, though some reps complain that nowadays most of the comics in the New Faces series have already been signed before they take the stage.

On the other hand, the Masters program, which showcases comics who are too well established for New Faces, is a boon to Huber and other casting directors, who can see how comics have honed their material or sharpened their voices.

The galas are also important for his work in Montreal, says Huber, because “that’s where you see people who have been tried and true. It’s materials from the galas that helps me sell them to the higher-ups here.”

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