Just For Laughs at 35: Kevin Hart Recalls "Very Nervous" 2001 Debut

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As the Canadian festival turns 35, Ari Shaffir, Jimmy Carr, Gad Elmaleh and Alonzo Bodden look back at their most memorable moments.

Since movie fans first embraced Kevin Hart with his roles in Ride Along, The Wedding Ringer and Think Like a Man Too, the prolific comedian has gone on to Hollywood stardom.

But back in 2001, Hart was just an up-and-coming comedian who made a daunting, life-changing debut at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal as part of its New Faces showcase.

"Of course, I was very nervous, because all you're hearing is the industry will be there. Don't mess this moment up. This is your moment to be seen and shine and come out of it with everything you could possibly want. And when that pressure is put on you, it's a natural reaction to get very nervous," Hart tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Hart warns new Just For Laughs comics not to get too worried ahead of their sets because they can always reinvent and revitalize their careers down the road. "The beauty of comedy is you can always get back up again, you can always create and come back stronger. And that's something I learnt from coming back to this festival time after time," he says.

Midnight in Paris star Gad Elmaleh remembers his own Just For Laughs debut in 1995 on an outdoor stage. "Nobody knew me. There's no staff around to help," he says. "I’m about to go onstage with five people in the crowd. I kick off the show and after 10 to 15 minutes, the place is packed. I thought to myself: 'Did I make it?'"

But 10 minutes later, his Montreal audience dashed for the exits. "There's nobody, we’re back to five people. It turns out, Quebec’s most famous comic Jean-Marc Parent, was having technical difficulties on the main stage, so his crowd showed up to my show to kill some time," he recalls.

A favorite Just For Laughs moment for British comedy star Jimmy Carr came ten years ago when he opened in a small nightclub for a comic he'd heard of, but didn't know well: Louis C.K. "I did maybe 20 minutes, he did 40, and he killed. Then I was in Montreal the next year, and this time it was a 500-person room. The next year it was [a] 1,000[-person room], and 2,000 after that. It was Louis C.K.," Carr remembers.

Just For Laughs, Carr added, is about seeing the stars of tomorrow grow as artists: "If you catch them early on, then they’re your guy."

Ari Shaffir, star of Comedy Central's This Is Not Happening, says his creative high at Just For Laughs came performing at Cleopatra.

"The show was sold out, so I had to sit on the floor in front of the sound booth. And Russell Peters was telling a sex story. He goes, 'I pulled my dick out of her ass and it looked like there were Oreo cookie crumbles all over it,'" Shaffir recounts. "Right then the waitress passed in front of me with a tray of drinks. And I watched her physically cringe. It made me so happy," he added.

Alonzo Bodden, winner of NBC's Last Comic Standing, remembers as a badge of honor the scathing insult he received in 2014 from the legendary Don Rickles, who died earlier this year. "We were backstage. I sat next to him and asked for a few words. And my manager began recording on her iPhone. She screwed up because she's over 40, so she asked to start again," he says.

At that, an abrasive Rickles loosened his sharp tongue: "Ah, jeez again, I get paid a lot of money to do these things. I'm sitting here with... What's your name? Alonzo? That's good. He took a white man's name so the cops won't think he did it. He's a great performer and you can catch him this weekend. Probably at the jailhouse where he’ll say he didn't do it," Bodden recounts Rickles telling him.

"It's truly a great moment in my comedy career being insulted by a small old white man in a bathrobe. I now have a moment I can share with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Denzel Washington, even Barack Obama," he adds.

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