Montreal’s Just for Laughs at a crossroads

Canada's big event isn't going to change its act

What: Just for Laughs – The Montreal International Comedy Festival
Where: Montreal, Canada
When: July 12-22
Who: William Shatner, Lewis Black, Louis CK and Eddie Izzard are among those who will be appearing.

Rather than playing exclusively to either Hollywood agents eager to sign up-and-comers or to the average Joe looking for some yuks served up by a well-known headliner, Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy fest has always serviced both crowds.

Since it first came on the scene 25 years ago, Just for Laughs has existed squarely in the middle of the comedy festival spectrum, which veers from consumer-oriented (think HBO’s Comedy Festival in Las Vegas) to industry-focused (think HBO’s other laugh gala, the Aspen-based U.S. Comedy Arts Festival).

Celebrating its silver anniversary amid ongoing change to the comedy biz — and the comedy fest biz — don’t look for Montreal to significantly change a broad-skewing formula that attracted nearly 2 million patrons last year.

This year’s Just for Laughs — the English-language portion of which runs July 12 to 22 — does find itself at a crossroads. For starters, it’s expanding into Toronto, with a three-day sked of events set to unfold in that city July 26-28.

Perhaps of even greater consequence, Comedy Arts is in limbo, with a post-Chris Albrecht HBO announcing that the fest will no longer take place in Aspen. At least for now, that leaves Montreal as the only major comedy fest in North America with a substantial relationship to Hollywood.

(Of course, things could go the other way if HBO decides to relocate its confab to Santa Barbara — a far more accessible destination than Aspen.)

At least in tone, Montreal has grown more similar to Aspen of late. Montreal has always had a strong standup backbone, whereas Aspen has always boasted more sketch and one-person shows. Last year, Just for Laughs started its Flying Solo Series, which showcases one-person acts in a longer, looser form than traditional standup perfs.

Still, regardless of Aspen’s fate, Montreal — which caters to both French- and English-speaking auds — plans to sustain its industry-consumer balance, according to Bruce Hills, chief operating officer of Just for Laughs.

This year, the fest will step up with more acts than ever before (close to 200) and a wide array of not necessarily comic perfs, including one by Cirque du Soleil alum Franco Dragone and the Italian transformist Arturo Brachetti.

Other new areas are also being tapped, such as the Internet — MySpace Comedy will webcast live from the festival, and comics Bob Odenirk and David Cross are hosting a sketch show that will include viral videos.

Maureen Taran, a veteran talent manager who was recently hired as the fest’s VP of programming, has been spearheading the push.

“Maureen is here specifically to not only improve programming for the average comedy fan, but for people from the industry, to make sure it’s answering more to their needs,” Hills says.

Taran is also working to sustain Montreal’s international presence with performances by several British and Irish comedians, such as Eddie Izzard — back for a return engagement — and Billy Connolly.

“That’s always been our strength,” Hills says of Montreal’s global reach. “In 1989, Rowan Atkinson came here trying out a show called ‘Mr. Bean.’ He came here because it was the best place to test it out.”

But Montreal’s most legendary moments — for both American and British acts — seem to have taken place in the not-quite-so-recent past, in part because of the shift that the comedy industry has undergone in the last decade.

In the 1990s , when sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Raymond” had network execs drooling for the next big standup to write a TV series around, Montreal was abuzz with deal-signings.

Between 1995 and 1997, a whopping 36 studio and network deals for standups were signed at Montreal. Earlier in the ’90s, Montreal was where acts such as Dave Chappelle, Ray Romano, Jon Stewart and Drew Carrey were first showcased before they went on to become TV phenomenons.

Cut to 2007 and sitcoms based on standup acts are a thing of the past as the nets pack their schedules with reality and drama series instead.

Montreal’s programming seems to reflect, or at least accept, that reality, and its biggest names this year are geared to safe, consumer choices that will, hopefully, lure big crowds: William Shatner, Howie Mandel and George Lopez are hosting galas, and Sinbad will appear in one of the “club series.”

But wherever the dial points in terms of industry or consumer, the fact remains that, particularly with the future of Aspen up in the air, Montreal is poised to become even more of a Hollywood event.

“I think as far as meeting the needs of the industry, it’s a very important festival,” says Conan Smith, an agent at Endeavor. “You’re schmoozing other people in the industry — executives from networks and studios, agents, managers. Plus there’s now a whole Internet component, and we want those people to be aware of our clients. We’re also showcasing our people, making sure that we can expose our client and that everyone there knows what our client is doing and what we’re doing with them.”

And in the end, a stage is a stage.

As Rick Greenstein, a senior partner at the Gersh Agency, says: “In the standup world, being live in front of an audience is paramount to any other way of being exposed. For us to judge talent and get a sense of star power and someone’s ability to do what they do, we’ve got to see it live.”

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