Just for Laughs Montreal

The cancellation of Just for Laughs doesn’t make sense and Montrealers deserve answers

“If the difference between hosting and not hosting a festival this year is a fraction of the cost of the new Olympic Stadium roof, can’t Groupe Juste pour rire Inc. pull enough strings to continue producing the festival?”

I was probably as surprised as anyone to hear the news about the cancellation of the Just for Laughs this year, but the more I think about it, the more peculiar it all seems to me. It is really quite difficult to believe that the festival and the company that runs it are in as dire a financial situation as they apparently are. 

I find the festival’s stated explanation for seeking creditor protection — two years of pandemic-related lost revenues and reduced budgets at networks and streaming services — a little suspicious. I don’t doubt that the pandemic was extremely difficult, but the festival received nearly $4-million from both the Quebec and federal governments to help get it back on its feet as early as 2021. The festival also received over $1.4-million from the federal government to assist with the 2023 edition.  

I don’t say this to be critical. While I don’t support government using public money to build sports stadiums or finance major sporting events (because they almost always wind up costing more money than they provide in economic stimulus), spending on arts and culture can actually provide a solid return on investment. If the government contributed between $1- to $2-million the last few years to support JFL, I suspect the festival provided quite a bit more in direct economic stimulus to Montreal’s hotel and hospitality sector.

So if JFL has been having a hard time because of the long-term negative economic impacts of the pandemic, and still need government financial support, this needs to be made clear to the public. If the difference between hosting and not hosting a festival this year is $2-million (or, if you prefer, 0.23% of a new Olympic Stadium roof), then let the people know so we can literally make a federal case out of this.

I was discouraged to see Mayor Plante’s underwhelming response to the news. Telling her people how important comedy is, how it’s a part of our cultural DNA, and what an important cultural beacon the festival is comes across a bit trite in my opinion. Of course it is — we live here, too! The mayor has asked city employees to contact the festival to “assess its plans for a flagship event of Montreal’s cultural scene” but I’m not entirely sure what that means. 

What I do know is that there are at least 75 people with comedy festival management experience who are now looking for work, and the city has assets it can use to host performances. I know it’s already March and doesn’t allow much time to put on a JFL-level international comedy festival, but I can’t imagine it’s beyond the city’s capabilities to put on some kind of scaled down comedy festival in its place. 

Where does Andy Nulman live? Maybe the mayor could bring over a fruit basket.

JFL debt and ownership

The latest news is that Groupe Juste pour rire Inc., the festival’s parent company, owes about $22.5-million, but the breakdown of who money is owed to is a bit of a head-scratcher. To begin with, there’s an archivist with an encyclopedic knowledge of comedy who was apparently promised a “job for life” by Gilbert Rozon in exchange for a collection of comedy tapes. The employee was laid off in 2019 and JFL failed to make a court-ordered payment, resulting in bailiffs seizing more than $800,000 in assets.

Among the list of debtors is Equipe Spectra, owed more than $611,000; and Bell Canada, which is owed more than $237,000. Another $2-million is owed to Business Development Bank of Canada and more than $2.5 million is owed to the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles. And then there’s over $16.6-million owed to the National Bank.

As reported by the Canadian Press, Bell Canada owns a 51% stake in JFL’s parent company, along with event promoter Evenko. In turn, Evenko and Equipe Spectra are both part of Groupe CH, a diversified entertainment company headed by Geoff Molson, who sits on the board of Groupe Juste pour rire Inc.

I have no idea how this apparently successful comedy festival managed to accrue such debt, but the details concerning the smaller amounts puzzle me. Can’t Geoff Molson skate on what his companies are owed for a little bit? Can’t Bell Canada, which owns CTV Comedy Channel — a channel whose programming was entirely dependent on videotapes of JFL sets for its first decade — call off the hounds over less than a quarter of a million dollars?

Similarly, while I’m not advocating the debts owed to the BDBC or the Quebec government be forgiven, I’m surprised Groupe Juste pour rire Inc. can’t pull any strings to at least get enough of a reprieve on their loans to continue producing the festival. Four years ago, the fed gave Canada’s oil and gas sector $18-billion in financial support and another $6-billion to bail out Air Canada

If Groupe Juste pour rire Inc. promised to look for oil deposits under the Quartier des Spectacles, or rebranded themselves as an airline, I wonder if they’d qualify for some generous government assistance?

Help wanted

That matter aside, I’m surprised the festival isn’t going to the comedians who quite literally made their careers off JFL sets and galas for a kind of star-studded fundraiser. An appearance at Just for Laughs has been a career must for nearly every major comedian of the last 40 years. There are people in Hollywood sitting on extraordinarily large piles of money who’d be washing dishes at a turnpike Bojangles were it not for the standing ovations that followed their tight fives here in Montreal. 

The people of this city helped launch the careers of hundreds of successful comics. Before giving up and calling it quits, someone should give those people a call to see if they might be able to help us out. We were there for them when they needed us.

In the meantime, though we’re not necessarily owed a festival, someone certainly owes us some answers. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.