Just for Laughs

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So much has changed at the Just for Laughs comedy festival. Gone are the years when stand-up comics were sent to Montreal with their best seven minutes to snag lucrative signings and sitcoms with their names in the titles.

Today, comedy's premiere venue is as much about alternative entertainment as one-liners, with specialty performers in left-field genres -- from improv and music comedy to live theater, dance and circus arts -- looking to wow Los Angeles talent scouts and take their careers to the next level.

"Two guys playing the guitar from New Zealand could be the next 'Flight of the Conchords,' " says Just for Laughs programming director Robbie Praw. Comedy agents, casting directors and show bookers in Montreal increasingly are putting their funny money on groundbreaking performers that might star in an online comedy, host a reality TV series or hit the road with a one-person show.

To feed that demand, Montreal festival scouts have gone to the four corners of online video, music and sketch comedy clubs to shorten the distance between smoky clubs and comic fame and fortune. We've done our part, too. Here are 10 tips on how to navigate Just for Laughs for the best business possible.

1. Come prepared
Half the battle is knowing what shows to shoot for. "You have to be judicious in how you schedule your time," says Gersh senior partner Rick Greenstein. "Come as a company, have multiple agents, and divide and conquer, putting people at all the shows that are important to you and your clients."

2. See this show first

With a seven-minute set no longer the basis for a studio development deal, much less a sitcom, New Faces of Comedy -- a trial of fire for 22 young, mostly American comics -- is more a relic of the former, more moneyed Just for Laughs. Still, staged two times tonight at the Cabaret Juste pour rire (it started on the 13th), New Faces remains a must-attend, especially to book stand-ups for clubs or college tours. Before moving on to other shows, "You have to get (New Faces) out of the way, to see if there's any new people," advises WME's Stacy Mark.

3. Remember: Talent can come from anywhere
Just for Laughs created the fringe Zoofest to run alongside its mainstay comedy festival, with variety as the key. A case is point is the Amp'd: The Music Comedy Show. Singer-songwriter Bo Burnham performed at the inaugural 2008 Amp'd series. "Knocked Up" helmer Judd Apatow was in the audience, liked Burnham's act and soon had him signed to a Universal deal to create music for one of his feature comedies. Burnham's back this year with his one-man show, "Words, Words, Words."

4. Be open to pitches from all sectors
Key industry events will be thrown open to the public. This year, the $99 Just for Laughs ComicPro Fan Pass will get comedy enthusiasts into Zoofest shows, the Comedy Conference -- which has separate pitch sessions for movie, TV and online projects -- and the Insider series. So that killer idea for an online comedy might come from the freckle-faced teen headed your way at an industry luncheon.

5. Don't sleep around
Book yourself into the Hyatt Regency Montreal, the festival headquarters, to stay near the industrial-strength networking late night at the hotel bar. "It's kind of Grand Central Station. If you saw someone at the clubs, it's, 'See you back at the Hyatt,' " Brillstein-Grey's Tim Sarkes says. After the Hyatt bar, Hollywood's finest shift to different artists' hotel rooms for action into the wee hours. Come morning, the festival's schmooze-a-thon moves to Beauty's for breakfast and Schwartz's Deli, a city landmark, for lunch.

6. Find your anchor

Need a TV host? Just for Laughs COO Bruce Hills suggests seeing who's emceeing festival shows to see if they have the chops. Beardyman, aka Darren Forman, will host the Amp'd show this year, and Chris Hardwick and Jon Dore each will emcee a couple New Faces showcases. Andy Kindler returns to host the Alternative Comedy Show, and Nick Cannon will direct traffic at the Best of the Uptown Comics show. Finally, "Roast Queen" Whitney Cummings is emceeing the Nasty Girls showcase at the Metropolis.

7. Have fun
"Going into Montreal, you really just want to make sure you have great sets," says comic Natasha Leggero, whose festival showcase will include an HBO Canada special taped at Just for Laughs, a slot on the Alternative Show and two half-hour performances for the United Citizens Brigade series at Zoofest. Then it's over to Gersh agent Bernie Spektor to ensure studio development execs see Leggero onstage and off in Montreal for future gigs. "We canvass what the industry is attending in Montreal, and we work our relationships to get them in front of clients as they perform and follow up with meetings, either at the festival or afterwards," Spektor says.

8. Forget about Edinburgh
You didn't get to the Edinburgh Festival fringe. No worries. Tim Key's "Slutcracker" show, which earned top honors at Edinburgh, is coming to Montreal as part of Zoofest Comedy: U.K. Edition at the Le Savoy, as is runner-up Tom Wrigglesworth and his "Open Return Letter to Richard Branson" show. Australian comics will cross the equator for the Double Threat: Down Under show, featuring Tim Minchin and Australian talk show host Rove McManus each doing extended half-hour sets. And the Double Threat: O'Comics show will feature extended sets from Irish comics Des Bishop and Andrew Maxwell. Finally, don't forget to take in Jimmy Carr toplining the Britcom Show at Club Soda, alongside Beardyman, Paul Zerdin and Jack Whitehall.

9. Go solo

Just for Laughs is full of one-person shows that showcase a comic's range. That said, talent scouts warn that not every artist should lend themselves to a solo outing. "If a show has a beginning, middle and end, or a thematic feel, it could be a viable product in the martketplace," Gersh's Greenstein says. Michelle Daly, director of content for Canadian cable channel the Comedy Network, agrees that solo shows need pacing and passion to hold audiences to curtains-down. "Some one-man shows are hard to take because they don't have that energy to sustain you. You're in a soft-seat theater, and you get really comfortable."

10. Cross over to the dark side
Don't be too quick to plant yourself at the Hyatt Regency bar on the final weekend. You want dark and edgy comedy? Friday night is the Nasty Show at the Metropolis and the Sketch Show at Theatre Saint Catherine, both at midnight. The Best of the Uptown Comics is late Friday and Saturday night at Club Soda, so is the Alternative Show at Cabaret Just pour rire. Zoofest will have a slew of comedy shows starting at 11:30 p.m.
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