Just for Laughs Montréal is the world’s largest international comedy festival and this year it’s taking that notion to a new level. With COVID travel restrictions making it impossible to import all the top talent and industry executives to Canada, JFL organizers have created its first hybrid event (July 26-31). While Montréal remains the soul of JFL, there will be numerous performances in New York and Los Angeles and the shows will stream online all over the world for free, including the prestigious industry event, the Just for Laughs Awards Show.
A pre-pandemic normal would have been ideal, says Paul Ronca, JFL’s senior director of creative development, but “we’re so grateful everything is moving in the right direction and we’re optimistic about the future.”
JFL president Bruce Hills adds that it was worth re-thinking their approach. “We know comedians have missed connections to their audiences,” he says. “We’re thrilled to be doing this level of events.”
Comedian Michael Kosta (“The Daily Show”) says streaming performances will be a boon for comedians, getting them worldwide exposure. Last year, the festival did panels and conversations digitally but no stand-up, notes Robyn Kaszor, VP of festivals.
“But it was really important for us to get the stand-up element back.”
Comedian Pete Holmes, who will host the annual New Faces comedy show, says the live events will be cathartic for comics and audiences alike.
“Everyone is so excited just to have their elbow touching someone else’s elbow at a live event that everyone will be 30% funnier. Including me.”
The talent involved in this year’s festival includes Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Maria Bamford, Todd Barry, Marina Franklin, Rachel Feinstein and Patton Oswalt.
“Performing at JFL is the first stamp on your passport, it shows you’re on the right path in comedy,” Holmes says.
While the internet and social media have changed the game, making it possible for comedians to break out without a JFL star turn, Kosta says, “Without a doubt JFL is still the pinnacle of comedy festivals.”
Ronca says the biggest challenge was that when they started planning last winter, no one could predict what summer would bring: “We had to have a Plan B and Plans C, D, E and F.”
Kaszor says they had to continually adapt all spring. “Each city is a different situation and the rules are changing every week. We’re just happy it all came together.”
As vaccination rates went up and infections went down there was a sense of gradual progress and then real momentum, adds Nick Brazao, director of American programming.
Now, Ronca says both talent and executives have been eager to be at the festival, wherever it might be held. New Faces is a centerpiece of the festival and a crucial showcase for young talent; Brazao says because of international travel restrictions for comics and executives alike, holding it in L.A. made the most sense.
“It’s a great opportunity and in a year where comics haven’t been able to get stage time, it was so important to offer that ability to be discovered, and JFL is leading that charge,” Brazao says.
Still, Holmes says something will be lost without the trip to Montréal. “This year’s New Faces group is getting robbed of the strangest hurdle in show business — flying to a country that’s .25% different. It’s just enough to make you terrified and wonder, ‘Will they find me funny here?’”
Even the veterans will miss gathering in Montréal. “It’s like comedy summer camp, where you get to be around 200 other funny people and hear new ideas,” says Kosta, who met his wife at JFL. Still, he says all the comedians in New York and Los Angeles are eager to perform at the festival. “They are so supportive of comedians so this year everyone is excited to contribute for JFL.”
Besides New Faces, the other main attraction for the industry is the awards show. Hills recently traveled to Ohio to film Chappelle getting this year’s Comedy Person of the Year award at a live show at stand-up’s Yellow Springs space.
“He figured out a way to get in front of fans safely before everyone else and he did it in a corn field in Ohio,” Hills says.
Other honorees include Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for the Comedy Writers of the Year Award, the writers and cast of “Ted Lasso” for the Comedy Series of the Year Award and Bowen Yang as Breakout Comedy Star of the Year.
Both of those events will be online: New Faces with the purchase of a ComedyPro Pass, and the awards show for free.
“The biggest hurdle in comedy is feeling comfortable,” Holmes says, so for the New Faces comics to perform in an intimate setting yet still reach a worldwide audience is ideal.
“The awards show is usually an industry secret, but we’re excited that it and shows like New Faces will reach more people so audiences can share the joy and experience,” Kaszor says.
JFL will present a panel with Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch, which launched in 2000 and has included such names over the years as Tiffany Haddish and Zack Galifianakis.
Hills says this year of “experimentation” is a learning experience and that some adaptations may become permanent additions.
“We always want Montréal to be the heart of the festival but it seems likely some of it will have a home online in the future,” Kaszor says. “Now we can start focusing on our 40th anniversary festival in 2022.”