Just for Laughs buzz, breakthroughs

Notable moments, mayhem in fest's 25 years

Canadian producer Gilbert Rozon launches the four-day “Juste pour rire,” which features 16 French-speaking comics performing 35 shows in front of 5,000 spectators in four venues scattered across Montreal. Performers include French comic/singer Charles Trenet, who is guest of honor.

The English-language “Just for Laughs” is spun off and makes its debut in Montreal’s St. Denis Theater on July 15 with a lineup featuring Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld. But making the biggest splash at both the English and French galas is young impressionist Andre-Philippe Gagnon and his vocal sendup of “We Are the World.”

Having hitched its wagon to APA topper Marty Klein, Just for Laughs signs a deal with HBO to produce a special for American television. Canadian comic John Candy hosts that show, appearing onstage in rapper attire. Brett Butler is among the breakout performers.

Brit comic Rowan Atkinson introduces his silent simpleton Mr. Bean, performing the character in a French gala sketch. It is later added to HBO’s Just for Laughs special, where BBC brass discover it.

Burnished with a new three-year deal with Showtime and MTV, the fest features a standout perf by then-unknown comic Tim Allen, who delivers a signature routine built around gender differences and power tools. The appearance yields Allen a standing ovation and a CableACE Award.

Marking one of the St. Denis Theater’s most notorious occurrences, English comedian Jerry Sadowitz is assaulted onstage by an irate spectator who takes offense at material aimed at Montreal’s French-speaking population. Also making an appearance that year is a young, chain-smoking, venom-spewing Boston comic named Denis Leary.

In its 10th campaign, Just for Laughs enjoys a banner year for young talent, featuring appearances by such future notables as Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, Ray Romano, Adam Sandler, Drew Carey and Eddie Griffin. Also, percussionist group Stomp makes its North American debut.

Just for Laughs establishes New Faces, a showcase for unsigned talent. Then-unknown comic Kevin James has his breakout and is soon working on the writing staff of CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Other fresh faces appearing at the show include Will Ferrell and Christopher Titus.

The wildly successful Blue Collar Comedy Tour makes its way to Montreal, while Second City alum Nia Vardalos performs her one-woman show “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Meanwhile, Jay Leno remotely introduces comic Michael Junior to the St. Denis stage via a live hookup with “The Tonight Show.”

Budgeted at just over $29 million, the fest draws nearly 2 million patrons to 400 indoor and 1,200 outdoor shows at more than 24 different venues around Montreal. Just for Laughs makes plans to expand into Toronto in 2007.