Last week began the English-speaking portion of Just For Laughs in Montreal, the largest and longest running comedy festival in the world. The 26th year of the fest continues throughout this week with performances by the likes of Tom Papa, Patrice O’Neal Greg Giraldo, Nick DiPaolo, Joan Rivers, Robert Hawkins, Jimmy Fallon, JB Smoove, Dana Gould, Lynne Koplitz and many more. We recently chatted with Bruce Hills, COO of Just For Laughs about this year’s festival and the future of comedy.
What’s the biggest challenge in trying to outdo the festival programming every year?
To stay fresh and relevant. There is always the pressure to outdo ourselves. Even though we hold ourselves to the highest standards, we have to be constantly aware of new trends. This is something that is crucial in our industry and engrained in our company.
If there were a theme for what’s new or different about this year’s festival, what would it be?
There really isn’t one theme. We’re really just trying to continually renew this event that is now 26 years old.
What is it about Montreal that makes the city so obviously conducive to such a giant, successful comedy festival?
Montrealers are great comedy fans. They also respond equally well to the UK and international comics as they do to US comics. This spirit is probably helped by the bilingual fabric of the society. But, on a more general level, Montreal is a city that loves to party and loves to laugh.
What are you usually doing, let’s say, on a Friday night during the fest? Are you checking out three shows in a row or are you stuck in an office somewhere putting out fires?
I need to cover as much turf as possible on every night. So I’m running from show to show. The biggest challenge is the last Friday night of the Festival which can become overwhelming. Luckily, our event is more centrally located than ever before. So now I can get to eight venues in a three-block radius.
Do you ever get to the point where watching live comedy makes you physically ill? You’re programming all year. You’ve got to get burned out on comedy.
Not really, since I scout very little these days. The programming team does most of the heavy lifting. That being said, I still make my way down to Edinburgh where I see dozens of shows every August.
I know this is a totally unfair question, but if you had to pick three comics to listen to for the rest of your life (and no other comics) who would they be?
Mitch Hedberg, Bill Hicks, and George Carlin.
When booking up and coming stand-up comics for Montreal, what are you looking for?
This is handled by our programming team and not me. I’m not as involved in the day-to-day programming as I used to be. Robbie Praw, talent producer, and his gang have a better answer for you.
Robbie: Fresh and original voices. We’re looking for comedians that do not necessarily have to put on an act to be interesting and exciting–– but possess a strong dynamic natural energy.
Is there any form of comedy that JFL will not book or are funny magicians and the like all in the running?
Funny is funny. We’ve always had a soft spot for crazy variety acts so we will book funny magicians, as long as they are on fire. Festival goers should remember Chris Lynan, the guy who ran around the stage naked with a Roman Candle locked in his buttocks dancing to “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
We’re always looking to add new forms of comedy to our event. We’ve recently added specific platforms to showcase musical and sketch acts (rather than just booking musical and sketch acts throughout the standard Festival shows) because there are some forms of comedy that need their own spaces. This year we added the show Hoodwinked, which is a show comprised of ex-con men who perform their pick-pocketing and thievery interactively with audience members in a comedic way. Danny Hoch is performing his new one-man theatre show Taking Over which is going to blow people away.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the start of many new comedy festivals. Do more comedy festivals help or hinder what you guys do?
We launched a Just For Laughs Toronto Festival last year and are teaming up with TBS to produce A Very Funny Festival in Chicago in 2009. I think the more well-run comedy festivals in the world, the better, as long as they help to develop and maintain comedy fans.
Do you ever feel conflicted about any of the comics that perform at JFL? There’s got to be some acts that you know should be booked at JFL but that you personally don’t care for.
Yes, at times I am conflicted. We have to service a wide range of fans. There have been times when we’ve booked someone whom I’m not a particular fan of––but if there is an audience who wants to see that act, why should I get in the way?
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