Comedy lab hones Canuck yucks

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After a generation whose best talent went stateside to thrive in such film and TV comedy incubators as "Saturday Night Live," Second City and the Harvard Lampoon, Canada has joined the Ivy League of funny.

The Canadian Film Center's features comedy lab, launched in partnership with the Just For Laughs comedy festival and Telefilm Canada, is helping five writer-producer teams develop and package their scripts for possible production, starting in 2011.

The five filmmaking teams are receiving workshop lessons and script notes from the best in the business: Ivan Reitman, whose career was launched by the 1979 Canadian camp comedy "Meatballs"; veteran comedy rep and producer Jimmy Miller; Universal production president Debbie Liebling; "Tropic Thunder" co-writer Etan Cohen; and director-producers Kirsten Smith, Tai Duncan, Donald Petrie and Danny Leiner, among others.

"When Jimmy Miller reads your script and thinks you're funny, and you look at his client roster, that's a pretty good pat on the back," says Sacha Pavlovic, who is developing an edgy comedy about a narcissistic male stripper.

The launch of the CFC theatrical comedy lab, led by Eugene Levy, also follows a renaissance for Canadian comic writing. The success of the homegrown "Corner Gas" sitcom has developed a slew of writers for the small screen, and the popularity of the "Fubar" and "Trailer Park Boys" movie franchises has spawned opportunities for scripted comedies on the big screen.

Telefilm Canada's director of national and international business development, Sheila de La Varende -- the original driving force behind the CFC comedy incubator -- says it aims to use Hollywood's comedy brain trust to help Canadians on the cusp develop commercially viable theatrical comedies.

"We want to give Canadian producers, writers and directors access to world-class comedy mentors who will help them refine and polish their scripts, and move them to packaging," she says.

To move the first five Canadian projects into production, Just For Laughs COO Bruce Hills says the lab participants received a reality check about today's tough movie-making climate from local comic Don Miller.

"He (Miller) told them the bottom line of how movies are being made, to not kid yourself: This is what's in play (and) this is how difficult it is to get a film made," Hills says. "These are things you just have to avoid if you think you will have any chance of success."

Telefilm Canada aims to develop and polish an initial 15 Canadian theatrical comedy scripts at the CFC incubator for packaging and possible production during the next three years.

Telefilm's Varende says she's prepared to see some of the theatrical comedy scripts made in Hollywood, rather than Canada.

"That's the risk you take," she says. "(But) the best script will still be made in Canada. That's a success story."

Levy agrees that the stakes are high for the five Canadian screenwriters, but so too is the industry support behind them.

"There's really some heavyweight people there," he says. "Just to get their ear is difficult enough in this business for young upstarts. They've in a very privileged position," he said.
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