We Get the Joke: Sebastien Theroux attends "Just For Laughs"
Founded three decades ago as an annual, two-day Francophone event, Just for Laughs has expanded over the years into a bilingual month of mirth. Juste Pour Rire is the Cannes of comedy festivals. Every summer downtown Montreal teems with satirists, stand-ups and dick-joke tellers of every make and model, from Michael Cera to Joan Rivers. Headquartered at the Hyatt Hotel on Rue Jeanne-Mance, the festival takes place in over 15 separate venues. Its heart, however, is the massive Hyatt bar, which rumbles with activity from sunup to sundown. The hotel pool, on the other hand, remains glacially placid. Nobody wants to see, or even contemplate, a topless Judah Friedlander. “As cliché as it sounds,” an audibly perspiring Brian Posehn tells me, “Laughter is a drug. We’re all here to get our next fix.”
Just For Laughs is the perfect place to cop. The funniest minds and sharpest tongues in the comedy universe gather here to hawk their wares. Many of the most beloved and established comics perform here annually; but ultimately JFL is a platform for finding new talent. A tradeshow of funny. Lanyard-wearing talent-poachers relentlessly stalk their willing prey: undiscovered comedians. Managers, producers and agents prowl around like butchers at a meat-market. Hype matters. They say the best booking agents can smell a drop of humor from three conference rooms away. Un-chaperoned photographers and bloggers meander from venue to venue with peeled eyes and perked ears. Greed is in the air. Gaggles of glee-ridden McGill students scout around for autographs. “I’m not here just for laughs,” a booking agent explains to me, insisting he remain unnamed. “I care about who sells. I want to make money.” Most of these industry members are just that – dicks.
Ideally the bullshit redeems itself. Performers and comedy lovers alike also have much to gain. JFL finds the utterly talented and brings them to the public. It’s where open-mikers sometimes leave as headliners. “I did one solid show here as an unknown,” Greg Fitzsimmons explains, “and I went home with an agent, a manager and a series of booked shows.” The festival offers aspiring comics exposure to the people who matter. “In all honesty, the festival’s been pivotal for me,” Marc Maron claims. “I was able to get an agent out of the momentum from my first appearance in the nineties.” Anecdotes like these are not uncommon. It’s here where the myth of overnight success comes closest to being a reality.
“Until a fat American gets scolded in French by a Montreal cab driver,” Brian Posehn chuckles, “the Festival can’t really begin.” Begin it did, thanks to Posehn and his shoddy French. Colin Quinn delivered this year’s Keynote Address, an annual staple of the festival, and somehow his speech managed both optimism and defeatism. Quinn tried to lighten the burden of expectation that paralyzes many young comics, reminding them that, “Even Woody Allen comes up with shit forty percent of the time.” He denounced industry practices while offering words of advice to aspiring young comics. “If you get more applause breaks than laughs,” Quinn argues, “You’re a pandering fucking populist.” To which the audience wildly applauded.
JFL is rife with superlatives. This is, after all, the largest comedy festival in the world. There are only two types of comedians here: the funniest person since Mel Brooks or the worst comic since Andy Kindler. Sarah Silverman, Dane Cook and Whitney Cummings hosted the most anticipated galas. These ostentatious pageants were held at the Place Des Arts, an enormous, six-theater complex in the Quartier des Spectacles. Dave Chappelle performed here as well; selling out 10 shows in two thousand seat spaces. The hoopla of the bigger shows demonstrates wiseacre John Mulaney’s point, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish with ruthless ambition.” On the other end of the spectrum, the low-key solo shows of Todd Glass, Brian Posehn, Tom Popa, Moshe Kasher and Todd Barry highlighted the “Off JFL” program. Smaller venues like L’Astral and the Katacombes offered these comedians intimate spaces to exhibit their material. “I must be bombing,” Andy Kindler joked in one of the smaller rooms, “I just heard someone upstairs move a napkin.”
“Did you know Comedy Central picked up the bill last night?” I overheard someone say in the elevator on day three. “It must’ve been quite a tab!” Her companion quipped, “I think they were relying on the slowness of the bartenders.” And herein lies another trend. Laughter is contagious, yes, but so is joke-making itself. Everybody suddenly becomes Louis CK. Each morning the hotel’s continental breakfast throngs with guests who’ve redefined themselves overnight. “Pass the pepper Gertrude…or I’m gonna be salted!” Ice-fishers from Saskatchewan begin to kvetch like Brooklyn-bred Jewish mothers. Even the cadence of non-comedians’ conversation takes a turn for the bada-bing, bada-boom. It’d be funny if it wasn’t. These people can also be found bringing sand to the beach.
The actual comedians, however, didn’t disappoint. Andy Kindler’s annual State of the Industry speech was, as it has been for two hundred years, a distillation of existential panic and professional angst. Funny too. Adam Carolla took the brunt of Kindler’s rage, followed by Louis CK, whose style Kindler described as “American Gervais.”
Insult comic Jeffrey Ross hosted the Awards Show. The ceremony rewarded Amy Poehler (Best Comedy Person), Michael Cera (Best Short Comedy), Mitch Hurwitz (Comedy Writer of the Year), Edgar Wright (Best Comedy Director) and Nick Kroll (Best Breakout Comic), and a joint award was given to Mark Lonow and Budd Friedman. These legendary founders of the NY Improv joked, “In forty years this is the first standing ovation we’ve ever got!” Mitch Hurwitz ultimately stole the show with his genial charm and quick wit. “Making three minutes of improv takes three minutes,” he says while eyeballing Amy Poehler, “Three minutes of scripted comedy can take weeks…especially if you don’t feel like doing it.” The day prior Hurwitz and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos discussed their production deal that revived “Arrested Development.” When asked if fans could expect more AD, Hurwitz replied, “Definitely.”
Fans with manic attendance policies noticed the festival’s self-reflective inner dialogue. A joke from one podcast would snowball and be retold in another. On Maron’s WTF podcast, comedian Eddie Izzard explained his preoccupation with writing “universal jokes” that don’t rely on “specific cultural allusions.” He’s currently studying German for this very reason. Germany, after all, is known for its love of comedy. “He’s going to do his show in German,” Andy Kindler croaked, “I don’t like it in English. Maybe I’ll like it in German? Pree…Tentious!”
By the last day everyone’s bleary-eyed and ornery. The sheer quantity of shows made seeing everything an impossibility. Chappelle conflicted with Silverman. The Alternative Comedy Show coincided with Midnight Surprise. It was either Bo Burnham at L’Astral or Moshe Kasher at Theater Saint Catherine. CollegeHumor’s premiere of “Coffee Town” was scheduled on top of Tig Notaro’s Professor Blastoff. Frustrated attendees who once dashed from show to show began to slow, daunted by the density of the programming. Enjoyment depended on one’s ability to ignore the constant nagging thought that I’m-missing-five-other-shows-right-now. The days blurred. Afternoons spent indoors at panel discussions merged seamlessly into nights of stand-up and revelry. “I haven’t seen Instagram today,” Kurt Braunohler worried on day five, “Does anyone know if the sun set?”
“The mix of culture,” Marc Maron notes, “is so exotic.” Besides the beautiful Québécoise women Maron is likely thinking of, the city itself seduces. The Old Port neighborhood is a collage of cobblestones and cathedrals. Litter is virtually extinct. It’s no wonder that the new X-Men movie, “Days of Future Past,” chose to shoot in downtown Montreal. Likewise the new Luc Besson film: “Brick Mansions.” The streets are full of harmless drama. Having learned that most tourists don’t realize Canada has a two-dollar coin, the bilingual beggars make off like bandits. The ticket scalpers, few and far between, wear Hermes blazers. Jaywalking laws are actually enforced (comedian Hannibal Burress was nearly arrested for it) but you can smoke a jay wherever you like. “Montreal is cool,” comic Sean O’Connor tells me over an iced macchiato, “It’s just stuck in 2002, you know?” Hard pressed to find local things to complain about, most comics rag on poutine, a traditional dish of french fries, gravy and cheese curds. Maron calls it the “National Dish of Self Hatred.”
On the last day of the festival, I witness a group of McGill students approach Todd Glass in the giant underground mall beneath the Hyatt. He indulges their overly exuberant compliments. They chat. “I’ve gotta…” he pauses, “…get to this thing.” They saunter off twitching with excitement. Glass awkwardly hangs back and pretends to check his phone. After they disappear around a corner, Glass approaches a security guard and strikes up a conversation. Glass goes unrecognized by the guard and is visibly pleased about it. He savors this rare moment of normalcy. Sycophancy and loneliness, unfortunately, are the occupational hazards of show business in general and stand-up in particular. Most people would rather be seen with you than know you. At the end of a Bo Burnham show a fan screams, “I love you!” To which he sadly retorts, “You only love the idea of me.” The audience only laughs.
Yes, comic’s tears are harvested, bought, sold and, hopefully, syndicated. It’s unfortunately fortunate. Yes, JFL is chock full of people only out to make a buck. But they’re ignorable baggage. Laughter drowns out their prattle. “The only people telling the truth,” Colin Quinn tells a packed auditorium of colleagues, “are right here.” Part of comedy’s magic — and this is no new idea — is its ability to breach serious topics un-seriously. JFL has fart jokes aplenty but also much more. Beneath the beards and beer bellies lies truth in its rawest, purest form. A good standup set articulates the confusion of being human. It can stave off unhappiness. Whether performed or consumed, comedy offers respite from the nightmare of the everyday. As Posehn suggested, laughter’s the drug we should all be abusing.
Photos By: Eric Myre