Every summer, Montreal becomes the epicenter of the comedy world as the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival takes over the Canadian city.
Now in its 37th year, the mindboggling scale of the festival is there in the numbers: more than 1,600 artists from across the globe (speaking English, French and other languages) performing 250 shows at more than 30 venues, a large-scale free outdoor festival with 500 free shows, all in front of audiences totaling at least 2 million people.
“Just for Laughs is the Coachella of comedy,” says Paul Ronca, senior director of creative development and brand partnerships. “If you’re a fan of comedy or work in comedy, the festival should be at the top of your list.”
Nick Brazao, director of American programming for the festival, agrees, calling it “a necessary pilgrimage for comedy fans, industry and comedians alike.”
JFL’s scope goes beyond its standup core, featuring podcasts, TV cast panels, free outdoor shows, buskers, food trucks and the year’s biggest comedy industry conference, ComedyPRO.
The four-day daytime conference, now in its 12th year, includes casts, creators and industry panels and discussions; pitch forums for web, streaming, TV and films; keynote speeches; and live podcast recordings.
This year’s ComedyPRO will take place from July 24-27 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Montreal.
Ronca and Brazao are both veterans of the festival (14 and 11 years, respectively) and describe its overall mission as both entertaining audiences with the most diverse lineup of comedians in the world and providing those voices the biggest possible platform.
Each year generates unforgettable moments. Ronca remembers that at last year’s Just for Laughs awards show, Tiffany Haddish repaid Kevin Hart the $100 that he had loaned her years before. “She handed it to him in a pair of baby sneakers,” he recalls. “It was both funny and tearful at the same time.”
For Brazao, the moments that have resonated over the years are the unexpected ones. Comedians often surprise audiences in small venues with impromptu sets. “Seeing Dave Chappelle perform an hour of comedy to an unsuspecting audience at 1 a.m.” he says. “My favorite part has to be watching them walk onstage and seeing the crowd go insane. That will never feel old.”
“We’re always paying close attention to the shifts in our industry.”
But humor, as with everything else, is constantly evolving. Social media and the internet have had a profound impact on comedy and the festival itself. “I think that the festival has shifted over the decade with the ability of artists to reach their fans and their fans’ ability to reach us,” adds Brazao. “The ability for comedians to find audiences worldwide through podcasts and global broadcasts on platforms like Netflix have changed the landscape entirely.”
“We’re always paying close attention to the shifts in our industry and especially to what our fans are consuming,” says Ronca. “It’s the reason why we book online creators at the festival now and we have over 25 podcasts booked at the festival in 2019 compared to about two or three [podcasts] eight years ago.”
Brazao notes that podcasting and YouTube have led to a culture in which fans not only consume content from their favorites, but also have a sense of conversational engagement with them, going beyond comedy. “Many comedians’ podcasts aren’t always dedicated to comedy per se, but another interest, or self-betterment,” he says. “Gone are the days where comedians seemed to be the afflicted people that ranted on stage strictly for the enjoyment of the audience. The global conversation and the connection to each other is helping many taboo subjects be broached and ultimately de-stigmatized, really building upon the timeless notion that laughter is indeed the best medicine.”
What: Just for Laughs Comedy Festival
When: July 10-28