stand-up comedy Jerry Seinfeld Rowan Atkinson Mr. Bean Margaret Cho Just for Laughs Bruce Hills 40th anniversary interview

How Just for Laughs made Montreal the comedy capital of the world

JFL President Bruce Hills spoke to us about the festival’s mammoth impact on stand-up comedy and the careers of comedy stars, just ahead of its 40th anniversary edition.

In interviewing Bruce Hills, the president of Just for Laughs, on the subject of the festival’s 40th anniversary, it occurred to me that Montreal’s annual comedy festival is one I quite literally grew up with. I suspect many Montrealers my age (and, as Bruce would point out, many comedians the world over) would feel the same way. It’s not just that I was born the same year as the festival’s first English-language component, but that I was able to watch the cultural phenomenon of Just for Laughs evolve over the course of my life into what it is today.

It’s different from the Jazz Fest (for me at least), as my appreciation for jazz music (or even the enjoyment of the experience of the festival) came many years after the first few times I attended Jazz Fest concerts. With Just for Laughs, it was different: the comedy specials broadcast on the CBC were staples of holiday programming (mercifully providing my childhood self an alternative to listening to the mindless drone of adult chitchat at family gatherings), followed a few years later by Just for Laughs Gags plugged into the pre-prime time/after-school time slot, and then in more recent years, becoming part of the annual Montreal summer experience, something you can’t afford not to do.

Today, Just for Laughs is a behemoth of a cultural institution, a foundational component of the Montreal summer experience and perhaps most importantly (and peculiarly given that we’re an overwhelmingly French-speaking city), arguably the single most important talent showcase of comedians anywhere in the world. If you’re an on-the-rise comic looking for a development deal, a gala performance at Just for Laughs is an absolute must.

Bruce Hills, president of Just for Laughs

Bruce has an enviable vantage point on the better part of the last 40 years of Just for Laughs: his involvement with the festival began not only the year after the English component of the festival began, but he also started his career somewhere close to the bottom of the JFL hierarchy and has worked his way all the way to the top, something that was rare when he started and virtually unheard of today. He’s very nearly seen it all and has played an important role in making it all happen, and suffice it to say the historian in me wants him to write a history of the festival (and yes I’m available to co-author and do all the research).

Until that happens, this trip down memory lane will have to do…

Though it may be hard to imagine, Just for Laughs was once an experiment, something people weren’t sure would return the following year. Early coverage in The Gazette from the mid-1980s had a ‘wait and see’ approach to whether a festival of stand-up comedians could really catch on, particularly so after the inaugural English edition of the festival, which debuted in 1985 (the French-language festival, Juste pour rire, predates the English one by a couple of years) and lasted just two nights. Though the two nights of that first edition of Just for Laughs were headlined by Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno (both of whom were regulars on The Tonight Show at the time), The Gazette dedicated far more column inches to reviewing Yakov Smirnoff’s appearance than either of the arguably most promising talents of that decade. The following year, headlined by Jerry Lewis, made headlines not for the quality of the comedy, but rather Lewis’s misogynist statements in reply to a critical review of his performance (the author of which, Lucinda Chodan, would have the last laugh with a long and successful career at The Gazette, concluding her time there as its editor in chief). Back then, stand-up comedy was on the rise, but it was a very different business.

“It was predominantly a nightclub business”, says Hills. “There weren’t hundreds of acts who could fill a theatre or an arena as is the case today. Comedians who were popular in the U.K., unless they had a massive hit like Monty Python, were virtually unheard of over here. There was very little crossover business. Today you could be a major star based purely on your YouTube views. It was a very different business back then, and a much smaller business, too. Big stars did the comedy circuit at comedy clubs all over North America, very few could sell out a theatre, and there were just a small handful of gatekeepers. The people who could determine whether to let you into the business or not were limited to the Tonight Show booker, Letterman’s booker and some executives at Showtime and HBO. Beyond that, there wasn’t much going on.”

While stand-up comedy was on the ascent in the 1980s, Just for Laughs made a difference in one key area of the business that cemented the festival’s reputation both among comics and the heavy hitters of show business. “Sitcoms really took off in the 1980s, and it’s the sitcom that transformed these nightclub performers into megastars,” said Hills. “Sitcoms became big business, and they were driven by people who had just a few years earlier been working the comedy club circuit. Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen… it was just a year after Tim Allen performed at JFL that he had his own show, and within a few years of that performance he had the #1 book, the #1 TV show and the #1 movie in the United States. This was all breaking new ground, and we were feeding the business, stars every summer, and back in the early/mid 1990s, it felt like every summer some new star would break out at Just for Laughs, in addition to at least 10 new development deals, some of which were worth half a million dollars.”

Not only were comedians bringing their A-game to Montreal in the hopes they’d be noticed by network execs or talent scouts, the festival was also becoming a kind of comedy laboratory where comedians could develop and experiment with new ideas. 

Few Montrealers know this, but Rowan Atkinson developed Mr. Bean in front of a Just for Laughs audience. “Atkinson tested out the Mr. Bean character in front of a French audience because he wanted to see if people who didn’t know who he was thought it was funny” says Hills. “More precisely, he proved that people who didn’t know who he was would think Mr. Bean was funny, and it was that tape of his Just for Laughs performance that was brought back to the U.K. and led to the creation of the Mr. Bean TV show.”

Hills has had a front row seat to just about all the breakout performance that have occurred at Just for Laughs, and there have been many: “Tim Allen absolutely destroyed, and he was on the Showtime broadcast, which introduced him to audiences all across America. I saw the Rowan Atkinson set, which was magical. Margaret Cho and Ray Romano both had sets that destroyed and very quickly got development deals for their TV shows. Dave Chappelle’s set… you knew something special was going on.”

The Big Lebowski live read

While Just for Laughs has producers and talent scouts and reviews hundreds of acts every year, giving them an idea of what to expect at the performances, some shows catch everyone, even people like Hills (who has almost certainly seen it all) completely by surprise: “The live reads of The Simpsons, Family Guy and then The Big Lebowski live read a few years ago, those were far more successful, and much funnier, than I think anyone really anticipated.” Hills believes that the success of Family Guy Live at the 2004 edition of Just for Laughs may have helped convince Fox to bring the show back from the dead the following year. 

The question I most wanted a complicated, highly nuanced answer to was one that’s been eating away at my brain for as long as I can remember: how is it that a predominantly, aggressively French-speaking metropolis like Montreal became home to the world’s biggest English-language comedy festival, especially given that there aren’t many comedy clubs regularly hosting comedians in either language. Hills’ answer wasn’t what I expected: “For one, comedians love Montreal comedy fans. We’re a good audience.” It also helps that for much of the last 40 years, Montreal had two English-language comedy clubs, which is two more than most other cities, including those larger than ours and with larger local English populations. 

Having an appreciative audience and some local clubs to support the scene in the off-season are certainly helpful, but comedians the world over know of Montreal and aspire to be part of Just for Laughs, something that still struck me as odd — we’re a far more French city than an English one. Is our festival really that well known internationally, or is more like our weird little secret? When I interviewed Ronny Chieng, who grew up in Malaysia and Singapore and attended university in Australia, he was well-acquainted with Just for Laughs.

As Hills explained, if you wanted to watch comedy in the era before YouTube (and even still today), you were likely watching Just for Laughs in prime time. “Young British comics grew up watching their heroes on Just for Laughs. That’s how Ronny saw us, on Network 10 in Australia. (Television) became a huge part of our play to be the biggest player internationally. We got to people very early on in their lives who were aspiring to be comics, and it was all coming from this French city in Canada.”

Having such a large English language comedy festival in any other predominantly French speaking city likely wouldn’t work, and Hills has noticed an encouraging trend among those filling the seats: “There are more and more francophone comedy fans (attending the English-language shows) because they’re perfectly bilingual. They grew up watching comedy on YouTube and Netflix and they’re interested in watching comedy in whatever language the comedian performs in. There’s a fantastic comedy scene in this province, in French, and a lot of those fans now are gravitating to our festival as well. It’s been a nice bit of new business in the last 5 to 10 years.”

Bill Hicks

Hills was stumped when asked about his all-time favourite JFL show. He’s seen a lot of exceptional performances over the course of his career with Just for Laughs, but after considering the question for a little bit, and then being asked which dead comedian he’d like to bring back to life to comment on our current condition, Bruce Hills fell on the subject of Bill Hicks, a comedian whose career was unfortunately cut short right as he was becoming popular. The acerbic Texan, well-known and respected for his no-holds-barred takedowns of American society, popular culture and, most incisively, politics, was a comedians’ comedian — adored by his peers but largely unappreciated on the comedy club circuit.

“Bill did his one-person show in Montreal in the early 1990s and it was a smash hit. Montrealers loved Bill Hicks. That show was in a small room at the Centaur Theatre and was shot for Channel 4 in the U.K. And that led to him blowing up in the U.K. and Australia, leading him to become a bit of a concert act in the U.S. and Canada. What was astounding about that is that Hicks had a hard time finding an audience — his point of view wasn’t appreciated at the ‘Chuckle Hut in Alabama’ (a reference to Hicks’s material) and he wouldn’t compromise. When he got to Montreal, he walked into a room where everyone related, and everyone agreed, and everyone wanted to hear what he had to say. He killed. Rolling Stone voted it one of the Top 10 specials of all time. He became an overnight rock star in the U.K.; it was exactly what the Brits wanted to hear from an American comedian.” 

On the subject of show ideas that surprise JFL’s top brass with their unexpected success, Hills picks The Nasty Show. “It was something we thought we’d do for just a couple of years and it’s still one of the biggest sellers at the festival. It just took off and it kept on rolling.”

On the other side of the coin, there was an idea that everyone thought would do well but failed miserably, an unexpected answer from Hills that makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

“Yeah, it was Lost in Translation,” says Hills, explaining “comedians would do both languages (English and French), and it was lost… no one wanted to see the artist perform in another language and the audience just kept barking at them to stay in their original language. It was not a success and we never did it again and yet, people continue to pitch it saying, ‘We’ll do what Sugar Sammy does’ and the answer is no, Sugar Sammy owns that space, we do not, we will not go there again.”

Concerning Hills’ own career highlights, though there are far too many to choose from, meeting Chuck Jones (one of the creators and original animators of Bugs Bunny) at a special event in 1990 counts among his best memories. Hills also had a chance to spend some time with legendary Canadian comedic actor John Candy in the context of a special live broadcast on HBO that helped bring Just for Laughs to a wider American audience in its early formative years. 

Finally, on the subject of comedic fads that Hills is happy have fallen out of fashion, he states emphatically: “Trump jokes and impressions. Enough already.” ■

For more on Just for Laughs in Montreal, which runs from July 13 to 31, please visit the festival’s website.

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.