This year, Just for Laughs has plenty to celebrate. After the COVID pandemic forced the legendary Montréal comedy fest to go completely virtual in 2020 and a hybrid of virtual and live — but with some shows shipped out to New York and Los Angeles — in 2021, Just for Laughs is back in full force in its hometown this July. 

And it’s a milestone: this is the 40th anniversary of the iconic festival, with a star-studded gala show planned for July 30 as a capstone on the event. 

JFL continues adapting to the streaming world in the pandemic’s aftermath and will celebrate its role as a developer of new talent with Kevin Hart, Pete Holmes and Taylor Tomlinson, who got early breaks there, returning in very different roles. Tomlinson is receiving the Breakout Comedy Star of the Year award.

Yet, even though the past will be present throughout this year’s event, president Bruce Hills says this is not the time for looking backward. “This is largely about our next 40 years and putting ourselves in a great place for years to come.”

The festival, while keeping its focus on finding and promoting stand-up comics, also strives to anticipate and influence where things are headed. 

“Comedy is always changing and we want to help set the trends — from the talent we chose and their style of comedy to our ComedyPro conference panels — and we also are investing in trends that we see,” says Robyn Kaszor, vice president of festivals.

JFL, along with its Off-JFL and ComedyPro panels and other events, takes over 25 venues all within walking distance of each other for two weeks, creating a sense of community and a “summer camp” atmosphere, Hills says. There’ll be 250-300 comedians performing and, if the weather holds up for the free outdoor shows, attendance could grow well into seven figures.

Headliners with solo shows include Hart, Bill Burr, John Mulaney and James Acaster, as well as this year’s award winners Amy Schumer (Comedy Person of the Year), Hasan Minhaj (Stand-up Comedian of the Year) and Jerrod Carmichael (Comedy Special of the Year). Other shows include Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch, featuring Moses Storm, Rosebud Baker and Jay Jurden and a series of galas and multi-comic shows hosted and curated by big names like Patton Oswalt, Chelsea Handler and Ronny Chieng. The annual keynote addresses will be delivered by Neal Brennan, Amanda Seales and Sophie Buddle.

The festival’s signature New Faces series that showcases talent for the industry and the public is ever evolving, adds Kaszor. This year, JFL adds another variation to its New Faces lineup with a show featuring international talent. There’s also “New Faces of Comedy,” a show devoted completely to unrepresented talent (hosted by Holmes, who will also host a show called “Pete Holmes and Friends.”) 

“We want to knock down that wall for people who need representation,” says Hills. “More than ever, it’s the discoverability that makes us stand out from all other festivals. The people who have launched their careers here — that’s really what we do
for a living.”

To advance that cause, Kaszor says, they’re going to keep New Faces online the way they did during the pandemic. “We want to expose those comics to audiences and industry around the world with as big a platform as possible,” she says. 

Hills says they are adding more ComedyPro events available online. “We learned during the pandemic that putting things online does not cannibalize but rather enhances the comics and the festival,” he says. “We’re continuing to evaluate what more we can do to reach more comedy fans worldwide.”